Only Honda - stubborn, a little self-righteous, convinced of its own engineering choices - would have the chutzpah to create a car for the "responsibly indulgent" driver. This would be the 2011 CR-Z ($23,490), an honest and true heir to the now-defunct Accord V-6 Hybrid (2005-07).
The Accord Hybrid was a sales failure, but an engineering marvel. Heck, that Accord Hybrid came with an advanced super capacitor for a "battery." Heady stuff, yet almost no one bought this so-called "performance hybrid" with the $38,000 price tag. Too racy, too pricey.
At the heart of both that old Accord and the new CR-Z is the company's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) technology. Think of the IMA as a kind of electric turbocharger. The Accord Hybrid raced from 0-100 km/h in the seven-second range, yet managed 6.1 litres/100 km on the highway; the CR-Z scoots from 0-100 km/h in around nine seconds.
2011 Honda CR-Z: The world's first two-seat sports hybrid
The CR-Z uses essentially the same hybrid powertrain as the Honda Insight, yet unlike the turtle-like Insight, the CR-Z is quick while still getting 6.5 litres/100 km in the city and 5.3 on the highway.
Honda's "sport hybrid," a two-seat hatchback, will find a very small audience, but the design and engineering smarts are not to be overlooked. You may not cotton to that wedgy shape with the ducktail rear end, but it's aerodynamic. There is some of the old CRX (1985-93) here, but also some of the original Honda Insight hybrid.
As for power, under the hood is a sweet little 1.5-litre four-banger that, combined with the output of the 10-kilowatt electric motor, produces 113 hp at 6,000 rpm. The battery is a pack of 84 D-sized nickel metal hydride cells mainly designed to store and discharge energy captured from the car's regenerative braking system. Total gas/electric system horsepower and torque: 122 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque.
To underscore the car's sporty bona-fides, this little hybrid is available with a six-speed manual transmission, though you can also get one of those highly fuel-efficient CVTs - which use bands and pulleys instead of fixed gears - to strip all the fun out of the car. You'll pay an extra $800 for the privilege.
This electrified little pocket rocket pulls its guts out in the high-rev range and makes satisfying, though fairly muted, growls when hammered about. The manual also comes with a nice little polished-alloy gearshift lever.
That said, the CR-Z borrows much of its mechanical bits and pieces from the Insight. Like the Insight, the CR-Z has a three-mode drive system (Sport, Normal and Economy) with different software "maps" for the drive-by-wire throttle, transmission, electric power-steering assist and the power delivery for the electric motor. The CR-Z instrument cluster glows with a red ring in Sport mode - blue or green if you're being less aggressive.
Honestly, there is no intelligent reason to drive in Economy mode. Why mute the throttle response in a sporty hybrid? Why suffer an idle-stop that kicks in as you're coasting to a stop? Why endure air-conditioning with little cooling?
Where the Honda engineering culture seems to have lost its way is in the suspension. The CR-Z has a rear beam axle and strut front suspension, which is exactly what you get in the Insight. Pretty pedestrian stuff. At least the CR-Z has far better rubber than the Insight.
The cabin is also something for the fan boys to dislike. Like many Hondas these days, this car is overrun with buttons and knobs and dials and switches - all of it needlessly complex.
That said, the stereo is a good one, a six-speaker, 160-watt system with a USB port. Because there are no rear seats (as is the case in overseas versions), the cargo area is huge and can be reconfigured in a number of ways. Just behind the front seats are cargo bins where seat bottoms would normally be. They are there to hold your iPad or whatever.
Seating? The driver's side is acceptable, with adequate padding and decent support. But the passenger's pew feels like it was designed by accountants. Good luck getting comfortable.
The CR-Z is a unique piece of business with a reasonable price tag, given the technology. The hybrid technology here - an electric motor sandwiched between the engine and the transmission and a small battery pack in the trunk - is effective at giving you a turbo-like boost.
But no, you cannot drive this hybrid on battery power alone. The real "green" gains are in the use of lightweight materials and aerodynamic designs.
You have to admire Honda for stubbornly pushing ahead its vision of hybrid technology, even if the marketplace in North America has consistently rejected it. If only Honda would take the same simplified approach to its cabin designs.
2011 Honda CR-Z
Type: Two-door hatchback/coupe
Price: $23,490 (plus $1,395 freight)
Engine: 1.5-litre, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 113 hp/107 lb-ft
Electric motor (horsepower/torque): 13 hp/58 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.5 city/5.3 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Honda Civic Si, Scion tC, Kia Forte Koup, Mini Cooper, Volkswagen Golf
Updated: Photos from the 2010 Paris Auto Show
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