Botched Aftermarket Wiring Is Making My Honda CR-Z Project a Nightmare
Electrical gremlins have left me and my mechanic baffled.
I have never given up on a flip car. I’ve been in this game since 2012, and after more than 35 cars, I can confidently say that every vehicle I’ve let go was running way better than when it came home to me. Unfortunately, my latest acquisition, a 2011 Honda CR-Z, is deeply testing that resolve. This should have been a somewhat easy flip, but it is wearing me and a seasoned Honda mechanic thin. For the uninitiated, my journey started in January of this year. I spent $2,000 and threw my back out shoveling an elderly woman’s driveway in return for this CR-Z that was listed with a “bad (gas) engine.” I quickly learned it didn’t have a bad engine, but Lord, I wish it did.
When I initially saw the CR-Z listing, I had a hunch that something was off. I don’t believe any Honda of this era is liable to lock up an engine, especially at a mere 141,000 miles. Unless the oil was never changed, the scenario just didn’t seem very plausible in my mind that an engine known for exceptional reliability and dependability would seize, unless it was subjected to severe abuse. That hunch only grew stronger when the seller’s mom let me know that the specialized hybrid shop they claimed to have taken the vehicle to merely said the car needed an engine but didn’t seem to do any sort of real testing.
Still, maybe out of respect or maybe because I don’t want to ever embarrass myself or the seller, I generally take what the seller says at face value and assume the worst. Thus, when I went to view the CR-Z, I assumed in good faith that it needed an engine, with plans to check out what the car was actually doing once I got the keys and towed it back home.
The situation became far more complicated when I learned the seller lost the keys after I had already shoveled the driveway, paid for the car, and registered it in my name. Do I deserve some of the blame for not doing due diligence here? Yeah, but I really wanted this CR-Z, and I had already made up my mind that this car probably didn’t need an engine. Luckily, I was right.
After I bought a spare key from a Cleveland-area Honda Dealer, I was able to start the real investigation by listening to what the car was doing. To me, the way a starter sounds can give some big clues to the health of an engine. For example, if a starter sounds as if it’s turning twice as fast as normal, that usually means there’s a broken timing belt or chain, as the starter is only spinning the crankshaft and not the cam and valvetrain. With locked engines, the starter will generally only give a clunk sound, as it can’t turn a completely stuck engine.
When I turned the key on the CR-Z, it did something different. The starter clunked, sort of like a completely stuck engine, but not really. It felt as if the starter had a bit of give, like there was a big stick mashed up in the gears ready to split. “Hmm, I’ll be that’s a stuck accessory,” I thought to myself as I wrangled a non-running CR-Z onto a U-Haul trailer in the Cleveland snow and cold.
I towed the CR-Z to my mechanic, Tu Nguyen of Nguyen Automotive, and he thought the same. He reached into his toolbox and pulled out a 10-mm wrench and a crowbar. Within 45 seconds, the accessory belt had been removed.
“Let's fire it up,” he said. With a flick of the wrist, the CR-Z fired to life, only to shut off a mere two seconds later. The key icon was flashing and indicating the immobilizer had been activated.
In theory, this was a success. I had confirmation the car was running. Like many rustbelt Hondas, the air conditioning (AC) compressor had seized. To an untrained eye, that issue could give the impression of a locked engine.
Roughly four months later, the CR-Z still sits at Nguyen’s shop, partially because it still doesn’t run, partially because I forgot I owned it.
The real reason it’s sitting is because neither of us can get a key to pair to the vehicle. When I had a key made at the Honda dealer near the CR-Z’s old home, the dealership said it failed to program a key and cited an issue with the computer. I waved it away, figuring it was probably something minor I could solve with the help of my scan tool. Nguyen and I quickly learned that the CR-Z is hiding some deep electrical gremlins that neither of us can make sense of.
He and I have access to Honda-compatible scan tools that are capable of interfacing with more complicated vehicle systems than simple emissions codes or check engine lights. Our scanners can read body codes, airbag modules, and reprogram keys, all without the need for a pesky dealer tool.
The programming process is simple: Place the pre-cut key blank into the ignition and turn. Then, access the programming menu in the scanner and wait for the scanner to work its computerized magic. Yet, no matter how many times we try, the key programming procedure continues to fail.
Luckily, the scanner has a diagnostic tool that explains where and how the CR-Z’s key programming tool would fail. “No communication with key - check immobilizer signal.”
The immobilizer is a somewhat simple device. It accesses the key’s radio frequency identification (RFID, basically the chip in the key, and it broadcasts that code to the vehicle’s body control module (BCM) and engine control unit (ECU). If the numbers are correct, the vehicle starts up, and you’re on your merry way. If the numbers are incorrect, the vehicle cuts fuel and spark and shuts off.
Yet, after a replacement of the immobilizer antenna, the anti-theft chip, and fuse box, we’re only slightly closer to getting a functioning CR-Z than we were back in January. Nguyen was able to get the immobilizer antenna to function, but now the car insists the blank key cut at the Honda dealership is the wrong key model entirely.
“I think whoever had this car last wired in a remote start or something,” Nguyen said. He asserted the wiring on the car is screwy with weird and clearly aftermarket wire butt ends in weird places under the dashboard.
In a way, I wish the CR-Z had needed an engine. An engine replacement would have been easy, and a gently used 1.5-liter gas engine for this car is a mere $300 to $500. Even accounting for labor, the car would have been repaired and back on the road by now. Instead, we’re both failing to wade through a series of electrical issues caused by a previous owner hacking into the wiring harness for God knows kind of aftermarket accessory.
I know I’m not going to make much money on this car either. I still haven’t addressed the filthy interior, balding tires, and hole in the exhaust. I’ve never been the type to cut and run, and dammit if this car is going to be the first car to make me do that. I still have faith that we can make the CR-Z run because I refuse to give up on a car that probably should be thrown away. I don’t like throwing things away. Stay tuned.