For a generation of enthusiasts who know Honda four-cylinders like our parents knew American V8s, the unveiling of the CR-Z was a gut shot, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Ford unveiled the Mustang II.
The original CRX was impossibly light, nimble and had a zippy four-cylinder engine. As soon as I heard about the CRX I wanted to go to Wichita Honda Car Dealers and buy one! In its home market, it came with the venerated B16 twin-cam VTEC engine, making 160 horsepower, and by the time these cars hit the second-hand market in North America, quite a few of them had undergone this engine swap. In the same way that the 240Z, Miata and GTR were the “cars of the decade” for many enthusiasts, the CRX was it for the 1980’s.
On paper, the CRZ is not so impressive. A 1.5L four-cylinder making 122 horsepower (when combined with the hybrid motor system! ), weighing in at around 2700 pounds with a torsion beam rear suspension and “meagre” EPA fuel economy rating of 36 city/ 38 highway have all failed to impress the Honda faithful.
Talking with a number of auto writers, reading some of the major blogs or scanning the web’s message boards would have you think that the CR-Z is a Japanese Edsel. Having literally grown up with Honda products, I’ve seen the company make some painful moves: abandoning the double-wishbone suspension, letting Acura’s stylists drop acid while designing the current lineup, killing off the S2000.
Honda’s move away from sports cars is harder to deal with, but at the same time, an inevitability that was done for the right reasons, like parents getting a divorce after a nasty marriage. Consumer trends largely indicated that people care more about connectivity with consumer electronics and gas mileage than they do about sports cars, and the people who want sports cars aren’t actually driving them – they’re too busy bemoaning the lack of “soul” in new cars.
Usually, there’s a silver-lining that prevents these moves from becoming “mistakes”. The Civic isn’t what it once was, but isn’t terrible either. The RSX, which utilized the McPherson strut suspension, was a pretty good car in Type-S form, and the K20 four-cylinder was better than anything that came in the double-wishbone cars. The TL might look like Joan Rivers, but with the 6-speed manual and SH-AWD drivetrain, it’s a fantastic drive. There’s one for the CR-Z too, but if you’re reading this, it’s probably not for you.
For the average driver, the car is fantastic. What it lacks in horsepower it makes up for in torque; 128 lb-ft at 1000-1500 rpm. You know, the kind of power that you can actually use on a regular basis, unlike the sublime but impractical torque curve on the S2000. The 38 mpg highway figure has been singled out for criticism, but the typical consumer for this car lives in a major urban center, with lots of stop and go traffic. In this sort of driving, a CR-Z can return 36 mpg . A Golf TDI is rated at 30 mpg, and good luck finding diesel at a large number of American gas pumps. Meanwhile, a Fiesta hatch will do 29 mpg and a Mini will get 25 mpg. 6-16 mpg is a pretty big difference, and the “Hybrid” badge will go along way with status-insecure urban lefties – don’t think Honda doesn’t know this. These same buyers ascribe no meaning to a 2700 lb curb weight or McPherson strut suspension. I doubt they’ve ever looked under the hood, let alone changed their own oil.
What will get their attention is the neat, soft-touch cabin with blue-illuminated gauges (“just like my old Jetta!” they’ll squeal), a big LCD head unit/nav screen, fat-rimmed leather steering wheel and the aluminum gear knob. These sorts of tactile niceties are what people will really notice, because they spend most of their time inside the car. For some, the two-seat layout may be an inconvenience, but for childless yuppies and recent female college graduates, it just means more room for shopping bags, Whole Foods reusable hemp totes, and snowboards. Crash safety is one area where the CR-Z will be unequivocally superior to the CRX. It’s hard to imagine the CR-Z getting anything less than a five-star rating, while a collision in a CRX would have you guest-starring in a Driver’s Ed gross out video.
For all the sales-related doom and gloom being bandied about, I feel it’s pertinent to remind readers that this isn’t the first time that an unconventional gambit by Honda has paid off huge dividends. In 1958, Honda released the Cub, a 50cc four-stroke motorcycle that changed bikes forever. At a time when motorcyclists were outlaws and scoundrels, the Cub came along, with its simple, diminutive packaging, low performance limits and legendary “You Meet The Nicest People On A Honda” campaign. The Cub went on to sell 40 million units. It was a bike that had absolutely zero appeal to a full-patch Hell’s Angels member, but without it, the Honda empire would never have existed, opening up a whole new customer base to the previously unknown Japanese company. In 1973, owners of big-block domestic muscle laughed at my Grandfather when he brought home one of the first CVCC Civics. Front-drive, four-cylinder, Japanese, anathema to the middle class dream of “having arrived”. They weren’t laughing when the snow had fallen and gas prices had gone through the roof. In 1989, people thought that a 6-cylinder Japanese supercar was destined to fail. It never sold well, but it damn near brought Ferrari and Porsche to their knees. Want to know why the 355 and 993 were exponentially superior to the 348 and 964? Because the NSX forced them to be.
Sam Smith, in an article penned for Jalopnik shortly after the CR-Z’s unveiling, expressed his dismay over what he felt was an unworthy successor to his beloved CRX.
This from the company that gave us the Civic CVCC, the Isle of Man TT wins, the first CB750, the Acura NSX, and the most slideable underpowered car of the last ten years, the S2000 CR? Where’s the joy? Where’s the fanaticism-for-the-people engineering? Where’s the love?
What Sam fails to grasp is that when those products were released, Honda’s sole aim was to beat everyone else, to show them that the little engineering firm, the perpetual runt of the Japanese auto industry, could beat the giants of the world, The Big Three, Toyota, Ferrari, Ducati. And they did. Now Honda’s mission is to survive the next decade. The recession of 2009 was not kind to any automaker, but for a small one like Honda, it means they have their back to the wall. Honda faces a waning base of customers at home, as a negative birth rate in Japan gives rise to a large population of elderly people with scant few to replace them. The youth of Japan care more for cell phones and gadgets than cars, and small hybrids are being adapted en masse in a country where owning any kind of vehicle is a significant expense, with fuel, vehicle taxes and parking spots coming at a financial premium.
The “fanaticism for the people engineering” isn’t dead. Far from it. Honda is giving the people what they want, a simple, practical, fun-to-drive vehicle that meets the needs of a large number of buyers who like to drive, but don’t quite fancy themselves as behind-the-wheel heroes. Smith, however, makes the common mistake of assuming that the tastes of the gearhead and the general public are always aligned.