Skunkworks special: Honda Mugen CR-Z
Hybrid might not be a word synonymous with honed, high-performance, stripped-out sports cars but Honda seems intent on proving that this needn't necessarily be the case. As fun as its half-petrol, half-electric CR-Z might be to drive, the fuel-sipping coupe has always been a little more Al Gore than Alain Prost.
Enter Mugen: Honda's crazed performance arm with a penchant for big wings and loopy performance upgrades. Based in Japan, the firm has been tuning Hondas for more than 40 years, and is well known to the PlayStation generation, who are used to tacking Mugen-performance upgrades on to their virtual cars in the likes of Gran Turismo and Forza.
When Honda handed a CR-Z over to the tuner's European arm, based in Northampton, the real question was just what to do with the sporty but lukewarm coupe. The easiest option would have been to do away with the standard car's internals completely – removing the fuel-economy-biased 1.5-litre petrol motor, and shoehorning in one of Honda's beefier powerplants instead.
Ever up for a challenge, Mugen decided against that approach. Rather than binning the hybrid system altogether, its boffins worked around it: by upping the power from the car's existing drivetrain to keep the CR-Z's unique nature intact.
"When we first approached this programme, we considered what to do with the Honda IMA system, and the answer was immediate and obvious – utilise it and build on it," explains Colin Whittamore, Mugen Euro's managing director.
Mugen started by stripping and almost completely rebuilding the car's standard engine – prepping it for extra power with upgraded and strengthened internal parts, bespoke to the show car. It wasn't then simply a case of bolting on a supercharger and calling it a day – instead, the boffins set about creating a system for integrating this addition seamlessly, with both the petrol and the electric motors.
"The idea was to use the significant advantage of the early torque provided by the electric motor, then increase the torque available from the engine progressively," says Whittamore.
Effectively then, the CR-Z's battery and electric motor take care of power low down the rev range – giving a nice initial bite when accelerating of the line – while the supercharged petrol engine kicks in to provide the big boost later on.
Combined, the Mugen's power has been boosted a whopping 50 per cent over the standard car, with Honda estimating that its power output is a more meaty 197bhp. What's more, thanks to this clever engineering, the CR-Z Mugen was able to retain the clever computer game-like power boost button – something which should be welcomed by the ex-video gamers.
"We wanted a car that has genuine performance available at the touch of a button, but can perform just like a standard CR-Z and offer good fuel economy when the driver wishes," says Whittamore.
"For that reason we've kept the three driving modes, so the driver can select 'eco' or 'normal' to switch to economy and low emissions for the daily drive, but press the Mugen button for the full-blown 'weekend warrior' settings."
Mugen didn't stop at making drivetrain changes, though. In order to cut the CR-Z's already low kerb weight, the team set about removing anything deemed unnecessary. The back seats were thrown out, the front seats were replaced with feather-light race-spec buckets and more than a sprinkling of carbon fibre was introduced.
Both the bonnet and doors were swapped for composite equivalents, helping to bring the total weight down a handy 50kg – despite the useful but weight intensive addition of uprated brakes.
The standard 16-inch wheels have been swapped for gnarly-looking 17-inch Mugen versions, too, giving scope for extra rubber without adding extra ounces. That doesn't mean it's a complete track monster, though.
For starters, while the larger wheels might look mean, they're wrapped in tyres exactly the same size as those fitted to the Toyota Prius.
Similarly, Mugen says that the adjustable suspension that it's fitted is set up by default to suit 'fast road' driving – providing "better handling on the road without being excessively hard for passengers".
"I have to say that when any of us have jumped into the CR-Z Mugen it has delighted us all," says Whittamore. "It's exactly what we were looking for. And the real beauty is that it can still be driven in the way customers of the standard CR-Z would recognise."
Model: Honda CR-Z Mugen
Engine: 1.5-litre, 4-cylinder, supercharged hybrid
Power: 197bhp, 215Nm (est)
Max speed: 135mph (est)
0-60mph: 6.5s (est)