I rarely form a connection to any test car as a true owner would, but tend to view each with a rather detached eye as something to be constantly evaluated and judged. Suppose the Honda CR-Z was a little different. I really gelled with this car during the few hundred kilometres we covered together. Its ethos, its intelligence, its looks and its dynamics – I loved pretty much everything about this darty little coupe.
The very first time I experienced Honda’s ‘hybrid sports car’ was when the previous, and debut model, hit our shores end of 2011. As usual, I had the car for a couple of days and since it was in the middle of a working week, a Klang Valley-wide test circuit was all I could manage. This time around though, Honda wanted us to see if its new CR-Z CVT is a good road-tripper… thus a longer loan period was arranged for.
My photographer colleague Sherman and I had planned a 700-km return trip through the states of Negeri Sembilan, Melaka and Johor. Setting off from KL on a Monday morning, which was also very beneficial to us as highway traffic to our first stop of Port Dickson, about 90 km away, would be at an absolute minimum… I mean who the heck goes to the beach in the a.m., at the start of a work week anyway?
With output boosted by a significant margin compared to the ‘old’ CR-Z, the current incarnation of the coupe is definitely no pushover on the fast lane. Output is up, the 1.5 litre i-VTEC engine now offering 118 hp at 6,600 rpm and 144 Nm at 4,800 rpm. The Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system on the new car now offers 20 hp at 2,000 rpm (up from 14 hp) and 78 Nm at 1,000 rpm. Other revisions include a new 144 volt, 18.8 kW lithium-ion battery, which replaces the nickel metal-hydride one found in the older car.
As before, the CR-Z’s powertrain can be adjusted by a three-mode drive system that allows the user to choose between Econ, Normal, and Sport modes, each with their unique throttle and transmission mapping patterns.
Additional boost from the electric motor can be summoned ‘nitro-style’ via an S+ button mounted on the steering wheel. With the battery registered ‘full’ and S+ activated at a constant speed of about 100 km/h, you feel the sudden urgency of a 3.0 litre V6 for a good 10 seconds, and the speed counter quickly displayed numbers that put me at risk of a speeding ticket! But if I timed its use properly, I now had a valuable weapon against road hoggers along the North-South route since this is essentially a push-to-pass button!
A nice, low seating position is easy to find in the CR-Z – the steering adjusts for rake and reach, and the good-looking seats work quite well, although more thigh support wouldn’t have gone amiss. You might have guessed already, but the rear seats are useless for adults. Only small children will fit, but even then, they won’t be having much of a view out.
Think of it as extra storage space to supplement the 225-litre boot. But I’m not a great fan of the bar over the rear window because it hinders rearward vision, although a necessary part of the design. A rear wiper would be beneficial as well since the heating element takes a while to warm up and clear a dew-covered screen.
Seriously, aside from the beach (and it was low tide anyway) there’s really not much to experience in this oil refinery town. So after a quick stop for some shots of the car at the ‘Blue Lagoon’ (isn’t it odd that almost every coastal town has a beach called Blue Lagoon?) and at the lighthouse in Tanjung Tuan, it was time to move on to Melaka.
By now it was midday, thus heavier traffic greeted us on the highway. Thankfully, we made a rather quick 98-km jump to the historic seaside city and got there in slightly under an hour and a half… just in time for the lunchtime rush hour! Here, I alternated between a start-stop crawl at the heritage area around the famous Stadthuys in Jalan Gereja, to point-and-shoots commuting at the fast-moving coastal expressway off Pulau Jawa.
This was when I felt the influence of the CR-Z’s quick steering the most. Its liveliness jived best with the car’s darty character – turn in is sharp, body roll is negligible and body control is tight. Now if only Honda had dialled in just a bit more feel into the steering… then, I would rate this car as one of the most fun cars ever to drive in or out of a city!
The cabin design is equally effective. For all its graphs, displays and read-outs, the CR-Z’s intelligently-configured dashboard was a pleasure to look at and operate, even over extended periods. All the data available was salient and worth monitoring. The layout’s eye-catching as well as ergonomically sound. Build quality is superb and perhaps the only black spot would be the lack of a sat-nav system. I mean, if it weren’t for Sherman working out the navigation using his smartphone’s GPS, we would have gotten hopelessly lost in an unfamiliar city!
Now we come to the longest highway stretch of the entire trip – the 214-km drive from Melaka to Johor Bahru. This is where we encounter the bulk of fast movers – a large number of these being Singapore-plated cars eager to get back home.
This is where the CR-Z displays that it has the speed for the driven to have some fun, if not keep up with turbo hot hatches with ‘S’ plates, especially when the electric motor provides a noticeable shove from low down. The engine’s so eager to rev and emit a buzzy mechanical tune that’s so very Honda. In contrast, pressing Econ mode dampens response by a few notches, but it’s probably a prudent thing to do in view of the increased number of AES-policed sectors as we approach Johor’s capital city.
In some ways, the traffic situation in JB is about the same level as KL’s circa mid-1990s. I like driving in this ever-expanding metropolis. It has a bit of everything, like that rustic State Secretariat Building, sitting on top of a hill where the ‘old’ part of JB is.
The view from this place is magnificent and the state building is often seen on postcards that depicts Johor. Nearby is the Lido Beach and from there, we get a great view of Singapore Island.
Then from here, it is just a short commute to a sector of the city once infamously known as JB’s ‘transvestite central’, Jalan Dhoby. Gentrified several years ago, the roads around this city square have been bricked over and seedy recreation spots have been banished, leaving behind the perennial Indian garment stores and barbers that make it JB’s unofficial Little India and an exceedingly popular haunt for photography enthusiasts. Among the attractive kaleidoscope of pre-war shophouses is a smattering of hip restaurants and bars that have opened post-revamp.
Parked along the roadside at JB’s ‘hipster central’, the CR-Z is without a doubt a head turner. The shape and proportions are unlike any other car in production today, and recall the curvy delights of the original, iconic CR-X pocket sports car.
The next day, instead of just making a direct run for the capital city, we decided to visit one last place before facing the dreary reality that is a normal working day. Lying just off the highway just about an hour and 100 km away from JB is the sleepy town of Kluang.
Now this place compares quite closely to Port Dickson in its slow pace but instead of it being full of oil industry professionals, this is a bit of a market town. It is the venue of choice for the many smallholders whose lifestock and vegetable farms dot both sides of the trunk road leading to the town from the highway.
First things first when we drove into though… breakfast! This was readily available at the Kluang railway station coffee house, the precursor to the Kluang Rail Coffee restaurant chain that has been operating since 1938!
As Sherman and I enjoyed our cups of hot coffee alongside servings of toast and half-boiled eggs, the CR-Z stuck a contrasting pose at the station parking lot – its sleek, 21st-century form going against a backdrop of pre-WWII buildings in the station compound.
And as we left nostalgia behind and proceeded out of Kluang town to rejoin the highway to KL, a very prominent signboard caught our attention by the roadside… ‘U.K. Farm’, it read.
After a fairly bumpy 6-km drive, we reached the farm’s ‘guest centre’. Really now, the people operating farm should really consider tarring the access road properly since I found out later that this wasn’t just a farm, but also a homestay resort that take in paying guests. Fortunately, in spite of its sleek and curvy persona, the CR-Z is blessed with firm but also a fairly long travel suspension setup. Otherwise, Sherman and I would never have dared to risk the car on an unpaved road!
We found our way to the guest cafeteria nearby and this was where we discovered a delightful menu of lamb or chicken chops, local coffee, tea and, get this, scones (it is after all a U.K. Farm, yes?) along with various other quaint cakes and pastries. Unfortunately, the two of us were still a bit stuffed from breakfast that happened not too long ago. So after a quick cup of tea, we bade adieu to this rather strange but delightful find for the long drive back to KL.
Looking at it with a cold and calculating eye, a RM119k two-seater hybrid coupe with a decent performance and economy is hardly something to get all steamy about. But drive the CR-Z along some nice scenic routes, let it get under your skin and fill you with its feel-good factor, and the picture changes dramatically.
At the end of the trip, I felt that this Honda was special, and it made me feel so every time I dropped down behind its steering wheel driving to JB and back (as such, Sherman hardly had plenty of time behind the wheel!).
Now that the government has discontinued hybrid incentives for CBU imports, this little hot hybrid will be greatly missed! After all, a much higher price tag is guaranteed, and we’re not very convinced Honda will decide to continue to sell the CR-Z with the new pricing. There are still limited stocks for the automatic version as of now, but the manual version is totally gone.