Autoblog UK: First drive: Honda CR-Z MUGEN

Not the most flattering write up but they do it with flare.....

by Mark Nichol
Anyone that's ever played Gran Turismo will be well aware of MUGEN; the PlayStation racing game's bias towards all things Japanese is well known, and what with MUGEN being to Honda in Japan what AMG is to Mercedes, it has a special place in the game.

In the virtual world, MUGEN's in-game tuning upgrades could transform the most innocuous Japanese turdbox into a Ferrari-chasing hypercar. The natural assumption to a British gamer was that it was doing the same thing in real life, too.

When MUGEN Euro set up in Northampton in 2007, therefore, it did so with a level of credibility and mystique that extended beyond a handful of Japanese modding scene enthusiasts.

Its first fully-fledged model, 2010's £40,000 Civic Type-R MUGEN, furthered its cause. We loved it. It was (and is) the ultimate iteration of the car on which it's based, improving it in every way to create a Honda that's part family hatchback, part road-legal touring car.

This, the CR-Z MUGEN, is the difficult follow up.

The regular CR-Z is a fine car. The hybrid coupé isn't very quick, but it houses an economical petrol-electric hybrid system in an accomplished chassis, so it's fun to drive and returns 56.5mpg and 117g/km.

The CR-Z is all about balance. It's front-wheel drive, so it falls at the first hurdle in terms of being a 'pure' (rear-wheel drive) sports car, but it has lovely steering and pedal feel, enough low down punch from the electric motor to be lively, yet nowhere near enough to mess up the driven wheels in a haze of torque steer. In short, anyone can enjoy the CR-Z, and feel like a better driver for it.

Unfortunately, MUGEN - in stark contrast to its efforts with the Civic Type-R - has come along and spoiled it.

It's not a car entirely without merit - in fact, parts of it are awesome - but at times it feels like an unfinished low-budget DIY modding project. The carbon fibre lined doors of our test car, for example, had to be virtually kicked to close properly. That wouldn't happen in an AMG.

To turn the 122bhp CR-Z into the manic machine you see above, MUGEN has stripped the 1.5-litre petrol engine and rebuilt it using better parts. The torque-enhancing 14bhp electric motor stays strapped on - but a supercharger is added to the mix, endowing the car with a hot hatch-matching 197bhp.

In addition, the chassis and bodywork are lightened, partly by using carbon fibre; the dampers are replaced with five-way adjustable items; the wheels are exchanged for forged lightweight ones with sticky tyres; the brakes are upgraded; and the track is widened.

And as you can see, it also has a body kit looks like it's been designed by someone with an extensive collection of tracksuit bottoms.

The result is an altogether more serious CR-Z with a 0-62mph sprint time down from ten seconds to around six and a half.

On the road it all starts off in exciting fashion. The Recaro bucket seats strap you in tightly, and the trio of bolt-on dashboard gauges suggest this is one mean machine.

Put your foot down and the supercharger inhales audibly, which is good. Problem is, there's very little associated acceleration; the MUGEN just doesn't feel that quick.

It becomes quickly apparent that there's been an epic and over-complicated technological struggle in order to eke out too much power from an ordinarily modest petrol engine. It's sort of like entering the Grand National with a donkey wearing a small jet pack.

Driving the MUGEN slowly isn't that much fun either - it's positively uncomfortable, in fact. A stiff clutch and over-sensitive throttle combination that makes smooth take-offs difficult, and after a while the combination of a small, noisy cabin and very tight seats make the whole thing feel fairly claustrophobic.

But there is credibility in MUGEN's work. It's capable of astonishing cornering speed, especially for a front-wheel drive car, and its steering rack is sublime, with more than a hint of Porsche in terms of its directness and unencumbered feedback. And the short shift gear lever is, as usual for a Honda-derived 'box, a delight to move through the gate.

But ultimately, laying down the £23,000 or so it will take to put one of these on your drive is like paying a dentist to make your teeth more yellow. It costs £19,000 for a CR-Z Sport, and £25,000 for a Toyota GT 86. Case closed.

If only MUGEN had been given carte blanche to rip out the CR-Z's hybrid drivetrain and put in a nice, simple, high-revving petrol engine...