The Honda That Honda Should Build

A breakneck lap in Japan—not to mention four electric motors—redeems the woeful CR-Z.

byJeffrey Jablansky| PUBLISHED Dec 4, 2015 4:00 PM
The Honda That Honda Should Build

Honda’s product lineup will soon include a reborn hydrogen vehicle, the Clarity, in addition to a second generation of plug-in technology to rival the efficiency of the bar-setting Chevrolet Volt. The company’s Powerpoints are awash with images of rising sea levels and a wan, forsaken polar bear alone on an ice floe.

Honda’s current strategy of hybrids and plug-in hybrids in the United States is led by the mainstream Accord sedan and unloved Insight hatchback, and supplemented by the anodyne rapscallion that is the CR-Z. As a performance car, the CR-Z revives little about the heritage and prowess of the CR-X of the Eighties and early Nineties, and as a hybrid, the CR-Z can’t touch a Prius.

All of this is to say that an opportunity to drive a new CR-Z around Honda’s Tochigi test track would be as attractive as riding New York’s G train on a weekend. At 3 AM. But, on this day, Honda was handing over the keys to its CR-Z 4-Motor EV, a rather unexpected mule that replaced the CR-Z’s drivetrain hardware with an electric motor at each wheel and added rear-wheel steering. The CR-Z 4-Motor EV project is rooted in Honda’s 2015 Pikes Peak Hill Climb car: a lowered, widened, track-biased racer, which surprised the establishment by simply keeping up on the course, despite a comparative power deficit with the monster EVs piloted by the likes of Rhys Millen and Nobuhiro Tajima. Emblazoned on its side was the promise of “Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive,” a Honda/Acura innovation that had heretofore manifested in luxury products like the RLX, but not in a dedicated sports car.

The car offered for a drive at Honda’s Tochigi proving grounds was a detuned (approximately 250 hp) development model that featured similar advancements in electric motor tech. Could a brief lap help rehabilitate the CR-Z?

The tale of the tape...

Starting line

As I opened the right-hand-side driver’s door and wedged myself into the test mule’s sculpted sport bucket seats—think McLaren 675LT more than Civic Si—I prayed that there was no GoPro camera recording my fidgety discomfort. A development engineer sat shotgun with a clipboard, taking notes. A second engineer made sure that the seat, unadjustable for pitch or height, was in a reasonably comfortable position. A third engineer closed the door.

I entered the course by angling the steering wheel to the right and gently tapping the accelerator. Instantly, it was clear that any and all impressions of the production CR-Z would be useless for comparison. Honda engineers channeled the steering-feel spirits of the Scion FR-S and Alfa Romeo 4C, amplifying the whole experience by fitting a narrow-rimmed steering wheel covered in velveteen. The net effect, even at low speed, is tantamount to maneuvering a go-kart.

My understanding of Japanese is rudimentary, being generous about it, and I admit some initial hesitation as my co-pilot gestured me on to the track and then told me to come to a full stop. I stopped. He then moved his hand in a quick, forward motion, several times. He wanted me to stomp on it. I obliged. The CR-Z exploded forward, with a loud whir and the breakneck force akin to that in a Tesla Model S P85D. Within seconds—about three, to be precise—I had already hit 62 mph. What kind of Honda was this, exactly?

Into the first set of corners

Letting off the throttle for the corners, the regenerative brakes provided reverse thrust and a whir. Gone was the standard CR-Z’s apathetic sense of whether to employ its gas engine or electric bits.

Down the back straight

I went flat out. Granted, I could have basically kept the throttle wide open throughout the entire track, given the CR-Z 4EV’s excellent performance up to that point. I kept checking the battery charge level, convinced that my flat-footedness would somehow deplete the battery in one lap’s time, but it hovered around the full-charge mark. At this point, I wasn’t focused on the outright speed of the CR-Z 4EV, but how the four electric motors transformed that woebegone CR-Z of memory.

The back straight dumped into pit lane, and I let off the throttle to allow the regenerative brakes to slow us to a manageable cool-down speed. When I did depress the brake, the response was natural, free of the light-light-light-SEVERE response of many an EV’s stopping gear.

The clipboard-toting engineers re-emerged to gauge my impressions. There was but one thing to ask: “Why can’t you build a production car that drives this well?” Later in the day, a conversation with newly installed Honda chairman Takahiro Hachigo revealed that the company has no plans to build the CR-Z 4EV, but to have its mojo trickle down throughout the Honda EV, PHEV and gas-hybrid lineup. Hachigo divulged no specifics, other than that he’s working to restore the “fun” of Honda’s portfolio.

We say: Build it now. A fun-to-drive, reasonably priced, CR-Z-based car would be as killer—and alone—as that woeful polar bear.