Test Drive: 2016 Honda CR-Z

In the end, it was a Cinderella story too good to be true. Oakville's own James Hinchcliffe battled back from a life-threatening injury to take the pole position at the 100th running of the Indy 500. Last year, a piece of his car's suspension jammed into his upper thigh, puncturing his femoral artery; this year, he was leading the pack at one of the longest-running speed contests in history. We all wanted him to win, and the contest looked close.

What an odd little car. Was anyone asking this question?

But sadly, Hinchcliffe and his Honda finished seventh, knocked off the podium by pit strategy. Hinch's driving was podium quality, but luck wasn't with him. Sometimes racing's like that. He's still our favourite.

I listened to the ebb and flow of Hinchcliffe's while driving around in another Honda fairy-tale that hasn't quite worked out the way it could have: the slow-selling CR-Z. What an odd little car. Was anyone asking this question?

Judging from the to-date sales results, they weren't. The CR-Z's sales results in Canada are so bad as to be hilarious: just 14 cars have been sold and delivered since the beginning of the year. Oddly, sales are much stronger south of the border, even considering the bigger population. There, several hundred CR-Zs have found new homes, although it's still outsold by rare beasts like the Hyundai Equus.

Manual transmission sales are in decline – the CR-Z is available with a stick. Hybrid sales are wilting as gasoline gets cheaper – the CR-Z is a hybrid, and a mild hybrid to boot. People like crossovers for practicality – the CR-Z is a two-seater only.

As such, I approached this little car with a certain amount of ennui. Or, as the kids say, Meh. Who cares? Who's even gonna read about a car that no-one wants to buy? Maybe I should just quit after six paragraphs and the editors won't even notice. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, velit urna arcu lacinia integer, at posuere, sed mauris. Eu id magna, netus dolor. Mattis dis aliquam sodales nullam suspendisse semper, donec nulla ut quis. Blah blah blah. Three stars.

[Nice try, McAleer – Ed.]

Drat.

“Gentlemen, start your engines.” Well, all right then. With a prod of the standard push-button starter, the CR-Z's little 1.5L four-pot bursts to fizzy life. With an easy off thanks to the added torque of the electric engine, off we roll in search of ducks.

You want weird? Okay then: I'm doing to drive this thing to a bird sanctuary while listening to lunatics go three wide into corners at 200 mph at the world's oldest circuit race. Conservation, and high speed battle; the environment, and knife-edge handling on the limit; chalk, as the British say, and cheese.

It's been a while since I've even seen a CR-Z, with so few of them on the roads, and a brief glance reveals some forgotten likeability. It looks a bit like a toddler's shoe, if the toddler in question was also a giant Japanese space robot. New front bumpers and 17-inch alloys complete the look for a bit of stylish futurism. You can also only get it in this colour combo.

Inside, the CR-Z instrument cluster puts me in mind of that of an Aston-Martin Lagonda. It's the same ahead-of-its-time-at-the-time mix of plastic-screened displays and buttons and knobs everywhere. What's this “S+” button do? And where's the temperature readout for the climate control? One update for 2016 is a seven-inch touchscreen system. It works fairly well but is a little slower and lower-tech than that present in the current Civic.

While the Japanese market versions of this car get a proper 2+2 seating arrangement (for really small children in the back), the North American CR-Z gets storage bins instead. These can fit a laptop bag fairly easily, and I seem to remember that they're the perfect size for a [sealed] growler of beer. Er, allegedly. The trunk space is just excellent – you could carry home a clawfoot bathtub if you felt like it. Honda lists the total space at 711L.

With a few miles under the CR-Z's wheels, the cockpit begins to make a lot more sense, or at least to have some familiarity. Throttle response is controlled by selecting Sport or Eco modes over on the left-hand side of the instrument panel, the latter of which pours molasses over the entire driving experience. Have you got a glovebox full of speeding tickets? Let Honda's Eco mode become your green chastity belt.

Given that this is supposed to be a Sport Hybrid, I leave the mild chafing of Eco mode alone and putter around in Normal for a while. It's easy to see why this car disappointed so many when it first came out. People who remembered the CRX were used to an even sportier version of the Civic, where the CR-Z was more a sportier version of the Prius-fighting Insight hatchback. And because there are fans of the original two-door, ultra-aerodynamic Insight, it's worth noting that the CR-Z's fuel economy didn't please them either. Notably, the Honda Accord Hybrid did better – and it was a V6.

On paper, then, the CR-Z isn't interesting enough to get people into the dealership to take a look at it. And considering buying one would likely be a special order, you might not even be able to see one in person. But don't give up so easily, because the CR-Z ended up surprising the heck out of me.

First, the manual shifter is typically excellent. Honda nearly always makes good manual transmissions, and this is one of them. To me, a decent gearshift is like shaking hands with the car: a good grip on first meeting is a good first impression.

Second surprise: the powerband. While the CR-Z's meagre 130 hp combined rating has to contend with a not-inconsiderable 1,232 kg, it's actually sprightlier than you might think. The electric assist engine provides 140 lb-ft of torque from 1,000-2,000 rpm, and with peak power happening at 6,000 rpm, winding the 1.5L out is decent fun too. And, because it's a stick-shift, you can heel-toe a downshift into a corner. It's a bit fun to thrash around.

Surprise number three – the handling. All Canadian-spec CR-Zs come with the aforementioned 17-inch alloys and 205 mm-series rubber. Further improvements this year include bigger sway bar up front, a slightly wider rear track, and bigger brakes front and rear. Oh yeah, and four aces up its sleeve.

Setting up for a spaghetti-like twist of tarmac forming a highway interchange, some jerkwad in a new Golf R came from three lanes over and cut right in front of the CR-Z. Imagine his surprise when instead of fading into the rearview, the little white dot just hung there through the corner.

To be clear: this isn't a question of road-ragin' tailgatin', just that corners are where the CR-Z weirdly comes alive. Credit the four Michelin Pilot Sport 3s it now wears, the same tires you get on an Mercedes-AMG E63. Suddenly, the little hybrid Eco-pod is enough of a momentum carrier to be quite good fun.

Imagine showing up to a lapping session in your brand-new Scion FR-S and having to give the point-to-pass to a guy in a frickin' hybrid. I'm not sure the CR-Z is quite that quick yet, but the grip is there for a good driver to exploit.

And then also it felt perfectly natural to have goose poop squishing between the treads as I pulled in to the parking lot of the Reifel bird sanctuary in the marshlands of the Fraser River Delta. I parked the car beside a Prius c, and went to watch the young ducklings have a paddle; a thousand miles away, the racers had just crossed the hundred lap mark, halfway to go.

While interesting to drive, I can't really recommend the CR-Z to anyone. Buy a Civic Coupe instead, one with the new turbocharged engine. Put a decent set of tires on it. Better yet, find some old autocrosser's caged CRX, slap on a set of slicks, swap in a K20 out of a RSX Type-S and go really annoy the track rats.

Having said that, you never make the podium unless you take a few risks, and I see what Honda was trying to do here. After all, the winner of this year's Indy 500 used a fuel-saving strategy so extreme he ended up coasting over the finish line on fumes. Sometimes you gamble and win. Sometimes you lose. Roll the dice again, Honda, this thing's a turbocharger, some weight-loss, and a couple of rudimentary seats away from greatness.

Warranty:
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 3 years/unlimited distance roadside assistance; 8 years/160,000 km hybrid components

Competitors:
Hyundai Veloster
Toyota Prius c
Some old autocrosser’s caged CRX

2016 Honda CR-Z
2016 Honda CR-Z
Base Price $26,290
Optional Equipment None
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,720
Price as Tested $28,110
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 6.8
8 Exterior Styling
6 Performance
6 Interior
6 Comfort
8 Fuel Economy