“We believe the time is over to think about ‘hot hatchbacks’.” Those are the sentiments of project leading engineer Norio Tomobe, one of the key men responsible for the development of the Honda CRZ. “The world is changing, and we should take care to make cars that are both fun to drive and low on emissions.”
That’s the philosophy behind this compact, enthusiast-targeted hybrid: it’s an eco-car, but not such a worthy one.
Using the same IMA hybrid system as the current Insight hybrid, Honda mated it to a larger four-cylinder petrol engine than the Insight uses: the 112bhp 1.5-litre engine fitted to the Japanese market Jazz, to be precise. Together with the electric assist system, this tandem powertrain develops 120bhp and 128lb ft of torque. But it’s the ‘ready-at-any-revs’ nature of that torque, which comes mostly from the electric motor, that makes the CRZ feel so responsive – or so Tomobe claims.
And that’s not all Honda has done to make its new hybrid more of a driver’s car. Firstly, it’s a manual, not a CVT. “The driver gets a much more direct feeling of boost from the electric motor,” Tomobe says, “and at certain points in the operating range, the manual gearbox even makes the car more efficient.”
Second, Honda moved the car’s 38kg Nickel Metal Hydride battery back, which is mounted in its boot, further forwards within its wheelbase, for a better weight distribution.
Third, they designed in wide tracks and a low centre of gravity: the CRZ’s centre of roll is 15mm lower even than that of a Civic Type R.
And fourth, they overhauled the chassis. The CRZ has forged aluminium wishbones front and rear, which save it 16kg of unsprung mass relative to an Insight, as well as 16in alloy wheels that are 5kg lighter per corner.
Could they have done more? “We wanted to be careful to make the car both efficient and fun,” says Tomobe, “and I think we have arrived at the right compromise. For a long time, we planned to use the same 1.3-litre powertrain as the Insight, but I succeeded in convincing the management eventually that we could use something more sporty.”
“It’s true that we could work the hybrid assist system harder,” he goes on. “At the moment it’s supplying 13bhp and 60lb ft, but only using about 50 per cent of the capacity of our batteries. We could increase that assistance, but we would need to provide more cooling for the batteries, and we would also shorten the battery pack’s operational life. In our view, that’s too big a price to pay.”
And we’ll have found out by this time next week exactly how much fun it’s possible to have at the wheel of a hybrid; our man in Japan, Peter Lyon, is driving the car on Wednesday. Having had a closer look at the car, I’m actually quite excited to find out.