We unravel the mystery of how the classic CR-X “turned into” the hybrid CR-Z

Back in the late 1980s, life as an Ah Beng was simple. Colour of hair – neon. Length of comb in back pocket – long. Preferred language – Hokkien, “corourful” like his clothes. His ideal girlfriend was a pretty, skinny Ah Lian who tries to look Japanese, but with a touch of Tampines. And his most desired ride was a low-slung, two-door Honda – the EF “Chee-veek” or “See-ar-re-jet”. Ideally with a pretty, skinny Ah Lian attached (in more ways than one) to the bucket seat beside him.

One of the young men aspiring to an EF7 CR-X in those days was Cedric Tan, owner of the elusive black example you see here. “It was my dream car when I was in my early 20s, and by the time I could afford one, it was already 20 years old!” laments the affable Cedric. His 1992 CR-X, bought in October 2010, is on its third COE, which was renewed three years “early” in 2009 for a few thousand dollars. 

The brand-new CR-Z costs a lot more than that. Its COE alone could have bought the CR-X, with at least $15k to spare. In technological terms, the new-age Honda is the automotive equivalent of a smartphone, whereas the old hero is a Motorola pager (with optional gold chain). The newcomer looks sophisticated, the old-timer appears comparatively uncultured. So, are these two Hondas as different as night and day? Yes, if we think in black and white, as reflected in their paintwork. No, if we explore the grey areas where the CR-X and CR-Z converge.

Giving this overlap a special green tinge is the CR-Z’s hybrid drivetrain, codenamed LEA. It couples a 1.5-litre i-VTEC petrol engine with Honda’s proven IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) hybrid-electric system, which boosts acceleration and acts as a generator during braking or coasting to recharge the 100-volt nickel-metal hybride battery pack under the boot floor. The combined output is 124bhp and 174Nm, put through a 6-speed manual gearbox. An auto stop-start function, with surprisingly smooth restarts, is part of the package.  

The CR-X’s fuel-injected 16-valves 1.6-litre, codenamed ZC, has none of that techno-wizardry. But it does have DOHC VTEC (Variable valve Timing & lift Electronic Control), Honda’s killer app that powered the Power of Dreams for the longest time. On paper, the CR-X produces 130bhp and 144Nm, which need to move just 880kg (280kg less than the CR-Z). A 1991 issue of Torque Class (precursor to this magazine) lists the 0-100km/h timing as 7.7 seconds, a whole two seconds quicker than the CR-Z.

But with over 270,000km under its (timing) belt, this CR-X seems to have “lost” one second or so along the way. Still, it is delightfully livelier than the CR-Z, with an engine that revs happily (and noisily) towards the redline, which lies 1000rpm higher than in
its far newer (and quieter) counterpart. If their performances were music tracks, the CR-X would be an analogue cassette tape (with no mould yet) and the CR-Z, a digital MP3. 

But “lossy data compression” in this case doesn’t mean a lousy drive experience.

The CR-Z is quite fun, in fact. It’s a decently brisk hatch that happens to be a hybrid, and it grows on me – an unlikely patch of grass in a pool of petrol. The soundtrack may be flat and the electric power steering less honest than the unassisted arm-power steering of the CR-X, but the CR-Z is energetic enough to make me forget that it’s meant to be a gentle green machine.

The car even offers a Sport mode to sharpen the throttle response and make the electric motor help the engine more aggressively, like a virtual supercharger. At the same time, the instrument cluster’s “ring of light” is changed from ocean blue to action red.

Sport’s extra oomph and extra-sensitive accelerator should please the boy racer, but racing around like some insane Ah Beng will throw most of the CR-Z’s eco credentials out the window. If the bad boy feels bad about not having enough greens in his motoring diet, he can always press the Econ button (with a plant icon), which orders the CR-Z to conserve as much fuel as possible while on the move, by “restricting” both the drivetrain and the air-con.

The CR-X has none of these fancy driving modes, relying instead on your driving moods. If you need to go slow, just press the throttle pedal slowly. If you want to go fast, depress the same pedal hard and fast. Even in a 20-year-old CR-X, the gearshift remains signature Honda – slick, short of throw and positive. The CR-Z’s 6-speed knob is more heavily decorated, but its gearchanges are as light as the clutch operation and they slot neatly into the gates. However, the transmission sounds “notchier” than the CR-X’s 5-speeder.

Inside both cockpits, the differences in equipment and aesthetics are obvious, but there is also some similarity that transcends the two-decade development gap between CR-X and CR-X.

The low dashboard line and equally low driving position, for instance, and the perfectly user-friendly layout of controls. Of course, the CR-Z has far more features and a greater variety of switches to work them, and its front seats are much more comfortable than those in the CR-X. Even so, the old pair of chairs do not lack support, thanks to their shapely side bolstering.

Apart from the inevitable fade, wear and tear, the interior plastics have stood the test of time – proof of Honda’s build integrity back in the early 1990s. The materials, glovebox, doors and tailgate of the CR-Z cabin are of high quality, but we won’t know for sure how durable they are until we can check out a used CR-Z with over 100,000km – sometime in 2017.

The CR-Z is significantly larger than the CR-X, with 325mm more body length and a 135mm longer wheelbase, but the back seat is as cramped as ever. If Ah Beng and Ah Lian were to squeeze their buddies Ah Seng and Ah Huay into the rear in either car, there would be a war of words – some of them vulgar enough to scare a rude Sim Lim Square salesman. It’s better, therefore, to use the bench as an extension of the boot, which has a capacity of 214 litres in the CR-Z and less than 200 litres in the CR-X. Fold down the one-piece seat-back to create space for a few cartons of cheap handphone covers and even cheaper software titles.

If Ah Seng and Ah Huay can somehow fit into the back, they will find the CR-X less claustrophobic than the CR-Z due to its larger rear windows. The newer Honda gives them three-point seat belts rather than mere lap belts, however, but this is a moot point since Ah Beng and friends generally don’t like to belt up.

The hatchback area is where the two Hondas share their closest connection. That distinctive split-level windscreen with an almost horizontal wiper has characterised the CR-X since its second generation (1987) and, a quarter-century later, has helped define the striking exterior of today’s CR-Z.

With the car industry playing its part to save the planet, petrolheads have to get used to fuel-efficient coupes like the CR-Z. The era of Ballade Sports (what the first CR-X was called) is over, replaced by eco-conscious sportiness and a silly love song for Mother Nature. Life as an Ah Beng Honda driver was simpler in the past.


This article first appeared in Torque.

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