Japanese engineer Nobuhiko Kawamoto can take a large slice of the credit for putting the mojo into Honda’s car business back in the 1980s and ’90s.
Once a mechanic for Sir Jack Brabham when “Black Jack” ran Honda engines in his F2 cars in the mid-1960s as Honda made tentative steps into car racing, the young Kawamoto learnt some valuable life lessons from the driven and resourceful formula-one world champion.
Kawamoto-san carried that can-do spirit – and his lifelong friendship with Sir Jack – from the lowly ranks of the pit garage to the top of the corporate tree, becoming president of Honda Motor Company.
On the way, he helped to propel Honda to the top step of the formula-one podium by championing the development of the company’s all-conquering race engines for the likes of McLaren and Williams in the 1980s.
He was also a big supporter of fast-paced Honda sports cars such as the all-aluminium NSX supercar, and the pioneering VTEC engine technology that put cars such as the Integra Type R at the top of the heap in the 1990s.
Those were Honda’s glory days, but Kawamoto retired, seemingly taking some of Honda’s vigour with him.
The good news is that Honda appears to be finding ways to impress again. The new CR-Z hybrid sports hatch is a case in point.
Taking the spirit of the Honda CRX sports coupe of almost three decades ago and mixing it with the green-tinged technology of today’s Honda Insight, the three-door CR-Z is very much today’s compact 2+2 sports coupe. Yes, it has the traditional shortcomings of such coupes – lousy rear-seat space, equally lousy rear visibility through a split rear window and miserable luggage room – but at least it doesn’t slay you at the petrol pump.
In a way, the CR-Z is an illusion. It is not fast at all – the aforementioned Integra Type R would thump it in every performance test – but it is rewarding to drive.
Along with the new Civic that arrived this year, the CR-Z shares Honda’s rediscovered joy of driving, especially cornering. Steering has been sharpened, while the handling is flat and controlled, even though the rear suspension is a budget torsion beam set-up. Body rigidity is also on the pace, helping to bring the whole package together.
Like other Honda hybrids, the Insight-based CR-Z uses Honda’s self-developed Integrated Motor Assist – nicknamed a “mild hybrid” because the electric motor sandwiched between the 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and the gearbox provides only a little extra oomph under acceleration.
By using less of the right foot when taking off from the traffic lights, the CR-Z sucks less petrol, although the savings are minimal. Honda claims a combined fuel consumption reading of 4.7 litres per 100km for the CR-Z – 2.0L/100km better than the Civic in its standard 1.8-litre petrol engine guise. In reality, our tests showed the advantage was less than that, with the CR-Z using about 6.4L/100km and the Civic about 7.3L/100km, although we probably covered more freeway kilometres in the Civic.
Toyota’s equivalent new Prius C small hybrid sports hatch, with its more serious parallel hybrid drivetrain, runs fuel-economy rings around the CR-Z.
Our CR-Z test car was the CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) model, which is less involving to drive than the six-speed manual version.
Still, the CVT is designed for maximum fuel savings, so you can’t expect too much. The same can be said for the CR-Z’s low-rolling-resistance tyres, which are engineered for frugality, and give up some of the ride and handling charms of soft-cased, grippy rubber on, say, the Civic.
Inside, the CR-Z puts the Civic to shame. Whereas the Civic sedan range is swathed in acres of ugly, flat, hard plastic and has a geeky digital dash that resembles New York by night, the CR-Z is more sophisticated and focused.
The driver’s sports seat is parked in front of a meaningful sports steering wheel and a single big dial – a tacho with a digital speedo in the middle, all in an alluring 3D effect.
Turning green, blue or red depending on the electronically set driving mode – Eco, Normal or Sport – the instruments have form as well as function. The mode buttons set the driving mood, with Eco mode calming everything down – from the air-con to engine mapping – to save juice, while Sport lets the collective hair down. Normal mode splits the difference. A fuel-economy monitor helps the driver play the “see how low we can go” game.
The upper of the two models, the CR-Z Luxury, has a dash-mounted sat-nav/DVD/reversing-camera system that not only has fiddly buttons but also a cheap aftermarket look about it, but the leather seats look the part.
Also standard on the Luxury flagship are a panoramic sunroof, Bluetooth audio streaming and front-seat heaters.
CR-Z Sport buyers get climate control air, rain-sensing wipers, rear-parking sensors, Bluetooth phone connectivity, iPod connection, cruise control and cloth seats.
The lever-operated fold-down rear seat will get a workout as many drivers will find the tiny boot restrictive. The rear seat is a better place for luggage than people, so much so that American Honda ordered its CR-Zs without rear seats.
In summary, the CR-Z is a bit of a let-down in a fuel-economy sense, but it is fun all the same.
Wonder if the retired Nobuhiko Kawamoto is burning around Tokyo in one? firstname.lastname@example.org