Honda’s alternative hybrid

Posted on June 29th, 2011 by Rob Marshall

Why does Honda, the innovative British and Japanese manufacturer, suffer from such a geriatric ‘blue rinse’ image in the UK?  I appreciate that there are numerous drivers on our roads (usually positioned in the middle lane of your nearest motorway) that enjoy the utmost dependability from their Accords, Jazzes and Legends. However, a strong, younger fan base is often overlooked, which extols the virtues of high-performance Hondas, including Civics, NSXs and S2000s. Whenever various British automotive reliability surveys are published, it is invariably Honda models that percolate to the top. Plus, in my four years of acting as GEM’s technical consultant, I cannot recall a single mechanical fault that involved a Honda.

It seems that its innovative streak is underplayed too. The original Honda Insight, of the late 1990s, was one of the first hybrid models sold in the UK and, possibly due to Toyota’s commercial success with its equally expensive Prius, many people tended to associate the technology with being the antithesis of enjoyable motoring. Yet, Honda is striving to change this otherwise inaccurate perception, by proving that a hybrid car can be fun to drive. Therefore, the company invited members of the media to Northampton’s Rockingham Motor Speedway, to preview its latest effort.

Honda’s alternative hybridThe European arm of Mugen, the Japanese tuning company that was established, in 1973, by the son of Honda Motor Company’s founder, has concentrated its developments on the CR-Z sports coupé to create the CR-Z Mugen, which the company says is ‘The Hottest Hybrid Yet’. By taking the standard 1.5-litre CR-Z engine, strengthening it internally and bolting a single supercharger in place, the original car’s power output has been hiked by over 60% to almost 200bhp. This level of power is augmented by Honda’s electric Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) engine, enhanced and renamed iCF for the Mugen application.

Honda’s alternative hybrid                               

Unsurprisingly, the prototype model differs markedly to the standard offering. The addition of a Mugen body kit and the company’s 17.0-inch forged alloy rims that allow wider tyres to be fitted, without increasing weight, lowered suspension that controls body roll and aids the car’s chassis dynamics overall, and an extremely vocal sports exhaust create a major impression. Inside, the driver sinks low into the figure-hugging Recaro race-type seats, in a largely ‘stock‘ interior, from which the missing rear seats are part of the car’s weight-shedding programme.

On the straights at Rockingham, the CR-Z Mugen behaves much as a Civic Type R would, the tachometer needle wrapping around its dial with surprising ease, in any gear ratio. The power is delivered seamlessly across a wide rev-range. The key advantage of combining a supercharger, with the instant torque of an electric motor is the linearity of the power graph, which belies the petrol engine‘s relatively small capacity.

On tighter corners, it was expected that the front-wheel-drive car’s stance would be biased towards understeer but the Mugen-tuned dampers and springs maintained a neutral balance, even when the Bridgestone tyres were approaching their grip limits. The standard 6-speed manual transmission was a real delight to use, its lever working speedily across the gate, without protest.

The Verdict?

Honda wants to know if people would buy it? Personally, I would love a CR-Z Mugen. This ‘one-off’ has cost Honda and Mugen Euro around £150,000 to make (the carbon-fibre doors alone are worth £10,000 for the pair) and the showroom alternative, should it arrive, would be somewhat simpler and less costly (probably a target price of £30,000 each). The car is on display at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in July and Honda anticipates making a launch announcement for a limited production version soon afterwards. If the car appeals to you, then register your interest at your local Honda dealership and you too might be able to join the Honda-Mugen club.