Honda has always had environmental considerations at the forefront of its development process. The slogan "Blue Skies For Our Children" and programs and projects focused on a clean and healthy environment were in use 40 years ago. Company founder Soichiro Honda was an engineer and industrialist who believed in maximizing efficiency - squeezing the last bit of energy from every drop of fuel.
While the 1997 Toyota Prius was the first volume-production hybrid vehicle, Honda was the first manufacturer to bring a hybrid to North America - the first-generation two-seat Insight - in 1999. It hopes to add to its reputation for environmental concern and generate the same buzz with the world's first two-seat sports hybrid - the 2011 CR-Z.
Basically a sporty Insight, the CR-Z has plenty of styling cues that remind us of the second-generation CR-X sold here in the 1988-1991 period. Like that Honda, it is a two-seat, front-drive hatchback that combines commendable fuel economy with the on-road alacrity of a sports car. The CR-X achieved that primarily because of its light weight, the CR-Z through technology.
The difference between the two can be attributed as much to regulations as to modern technology. The CR-Z weighs almost 25 per cent more than the CR-X - almost all of that added weight is necessary to meet safety standards not even dreamed of back in the day of the CR-X. Granted some of that comes from the nickel-metal-hydride battery pack, but the vast majority is safety related, primarily the structural components designed to absorb massive amounts of energy created in a crash rather than passing them along to the occupants.
But technology has easily outpaced safety regulations. The 1991 CRX SI weighed 988 kilograms and promised 9.8 litres/100 km in the city and 7.8 on the highway from its 108-horsepower engine and five-speed manual transmission. The 2011 CR-Z weighs 1,205 kilos, but the 122-horsepower combination of electric motor and 1.5-litre i-VTEC engine results in ratings of 6.5 highway and 5.3 city with a six-speed manual and an even more-impressive 5.6 highway and 5.0 city with an automatic (CVT) transmission.
The interior is a clear step forward from the CR-X but more importantly from the recent Insight. There is very little evidence of clear and cheap-appearing plastic. Instead, everything you touch and see is covered with soft-touch or textured materials. The highly legible instruments are three-dimensional and change colour to indicate whether you are driving efficiently.
However, there are too many buttons, knobs and controls - I stopped counting after three dozen on one side of the steering wheel. And there is a disconnect in terms of size, shape, surface and direction where the various panels and surfaces meet above the centre stack.
The seats are terrific with plenty of support and there is an air of spaciousness that belies the compact size of this vehicle. The CR-Z is a four-seater in markets outside North America, but product planners here wisely decided the two rear seats were little more than a joke and instead opted for a couple of sculpted storage area handy for purses, bags, etc. Cargo space beneath the large rear hatch is commodious to say the least. Not only can the rear "seatbacks" be folded flat for even more room, the three-position cargo cover denies access by curious eyes.
On the outside, while the CR-Z has overtones of the past, it also has all the modern touches - from large 16-inch rolling stock filling wheel wells that are out to the extremities, HID projector beam headlights and LED taillights to a rounded windshield and mirrors with turn signal repeaters resulting from extensive wind tunnel work to ensure the newcomer slips through the air with minimal disturbance. Not only does that help fuel economy, it reduces noise levels as well.
The CR-Z is quiet in this respect, but that is offset by tuning the exhaust to emit a throaty sound that reminds you of the car's intent - sporty performance.
This it does deliver, albeit not as much as the appearance promises. The tossability factor is right up there in sports car territory with plenty of feedback from the electric power steering and little lean even when pressed very hard. The CR-Z under steers at the limit but that is to be expected and the limit is very high. Transient response is immediately and linear. The is easily the best-handling hybrid on the planet with a fun-to-drive factor not far off some pretty notably pure sports cars. A three-mode drive system controls a number of items including steering and throttle response. Unlike other cars with this feature, there is a noticeably difference between economy, normal and sport.
Performance is a tad behind the promise of the looks and suspension. The combination of internal combustion engine and electric motor borrowed almost intact from the Insight (the chassis is Fit-based) provides smooth and steady acceleration whether from rest or at passing speeds. As is always the case with electric motors, which produce maximum power at idle, the CR-Z launches with authority.
The six-speed manual transmission, the only hybrid-manual combination on the market, is a beauty. Clean, crisp shifts are a breeze and clutch take-up smooth and progressive. If you've got even a tiny bit of enthusiast in your blood, this is the way to go. However, if fuel mileage tops fun on your priority list the CVT automatic clearly outperforms the self-shifter in that regard.
The CR-Z will be available in three trim levels south of the border, but only one when it gets to Canadian Honda stores Aug. 10 - fully loaded, including a 360-watt, seven-speaker sound system, power everything, air, etc. The only decisions are colours and manual or automatic transmission ($800).
Honda doesn't see this fuel-sipping, affordable and fun-to-drive hybrid as a volume seller, but more as an umbrella vehicle that will bring attention to the other hybrids in its lineup and a smile to the face of its drivers.
2011 Honda CR-Z
Type: Two-door, two-seat hybrid
Base Price: $23,490; as tested, $24,885 (including freight)
Engine: 1.5-litre, SOHC, inline-four combined with 10-kilowatt electric motor
Horsepower/torque: 122 hp/128 lb-ft (manual); 122hp/123 lb-ft (automatic)
Transmission: Six-speed manual or CVT
Fuel economy (litres/ 100 km): 6.5 city/5.3 highway (manual); 5.6 city/5.0 highway (CVT);