The Honda CRX from the 80s and early 90s was undeniably rad. It was a sporty little compact, two-seat hatchback that deservedly earned a cult following among enthusiasts drawn to its cute looks and perky disposition. Nostalgia for the CRX (which also went by CR-X) remained high as examples in good shape were still available in the late aughts, just when people were fearing that cars like the Toyota Prius were going to suck the fun out of driving for good. Then Honda reached back into its history and pulled out its design notes from the CRX, threw in its learnings from the first-generation Insight, and stirred them together to get the 2011 Honda CR-Z — a two-seat hybrid hatchback that was offered with a manual transmission.
Why the CR-Z?
It’s efficient(-ish), weird and, most of all, fun to drive. We’ve already highlighted that it came with an available manual transmission, but we haven’t said just how good that stick is to use. The CR-Z launched in the era when Honda (and, by extension, Acura) had absolutely nailed that part of the driving experience. The stick itself feels wonderful as it moves from one position to the next with a short, light but tactile toss. Combined with a smooth, easy-to-operate clutch, this setup is incredibly engaging, encouraging you to forget about fuel economy (31 city / 37 highway for the MT) and make the most out of the CR-Z’s 122-130 horsepower and 127-140 pound-feet of torque (depending on model year and transmission).
If those output figures look laughably small, don’t worry too much about it. No, it’s not a particularly quick car, doing 0-60 somewhere between 8 and 9 seconds, depending on who is doing the testing. But it doesn’t have to be fast to be fun, and what it lacks in accelerative ability it makes up for with excellent handling. This little hybrid was great to toss through corners, but had a little more suspension compliance on rough roads than its contemporary Mini Cooper counterpart.
It is also a car that lends itself to customization, whether that’s something like Recaro seats, aftermarket wheels or suspension, or even a supercharger from the Honda Performance Development catalog. Yes, the manual-equipped hybrid could (and still can) be supercharged, giving it a total of 197 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque if you go the Honda-sourced route.
Finally, we like the CR-Z because it’s weird and relatively scarce. It came along at a time when two-seaters and three-door hatchbacks were declining in popularity, and they’ve only continued to do so. Honda only sold about 35,000 units over the course of the model’s production run. We highly doubt its nostalgic furor will ever reach the status of the CRX, but it will always certainly elicit a smile and fond memories on the rare occasions we spot one in the wild.
Which CR-Z to choose?
Obviously, get one with a manual transmission. That’s one of this car’s biggest draws. The stick shift is just that good, and 122 hp feels like just that or worse when you’re stuck with a continuously variable transmission. If you’re concerned about power, get a 2013 model or later, as that’s when the manual-equipped CR-Z’s output jumped from 122 hp/128 lb-ft up to 130 hp/140 lb-ft thanks to an updated hybrid system, complete with a new lithium-ion battery. 2013 also saw the addition of Bluetooth, backup camera, an S+ push-to-pass button and some exterior design tweaks.
That’s really the only choice (besides color and mileage) to make, as it came in two trims: EX or EX w/Navi, with the 2016 model being the exception. The last year of the CR-Z saw an even rarer EX-L trim (which added heated leather seating) as well as a stripped-down LX trim.
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What else to consider?
The Honda CR-Z came along in an interesting time in the automotive industry. Tiny hatchbacks and wagons were still a thing — declining in popularity as crossover mania took hold, but still arguably viable. Hybrids were starting to make some headway, thanks to cars like the Toyota Prius and Honda’s own Insight. As such, the Lexus CT 200h seems like a fine contender to the CR-Z. It doesn’t have that same nostalgic charm as the CRX-infused Honda, but it was charismatic, and is still a treat to see when spotted in the wild. It sold concurrently with the CR-Z here in the United States, but appealed more to luxury buyers who couldn’t abide the dullness of the Prius than it did to enthusiasts looking for cheap thrills. Lexus sold considerably more CTs here than Honda did CR-Zs, but, as far as pricing reflects, its luxury positioning more than cancels out the fact that it’s less rare than the Honda. Also, with the Lexus, you’re stuck with a CVT no matter what, but you get a better mpg rating (43 city / 40 highway) as well as a second row of seating and two more doors.
If you like a plucky little hatchback that plays well on the autocross course, you could also consider the Mini Cooper. Used Mini prices are comparable to the CR-Z, and manual transmissions are abundant. It’s not as rare, but a Cooper still feels novel every time you get in one. You don’t even lose much in the way of fuel economy compared to the CR-Z — just a couple city mpg, really.
Finally, there’s the first-generation Hyundai Veloster. It’s not a hybrid, but, like the Mini, is almost as efficient on paper (though the Honda was generally able to beat its EPA ratings in real-world driving). While the CR-Z has the better manual transmission, the Veloster’s longer wheelbase makes it a better companion once you get off the surface streets and onto the highway. It has a second row, and an extra half-door on the passenger side to help access it without making a driver or front passenger get out. At the time, the Veloster seemed like an almost equally odd duck compared to the Honda, but it became much more successful, making it feel closer to mainstream by the time production ended. And, thankfully, Hyundai saw enough popularity to revive the nameplate for 2020.