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Car Report

2011 Honda CR-Z

On paper, the 2011 Honda CR-Z doesn’t make the best case for itself. The specifications sheet for the ostensibly sporty hybrid indicating that it is neither particularly fast (with only 122 hp how could it be?) or astonishingly fuel efficient, its EPA rating of 34 mpg combined is not quite top of the charts.

On the road, things are a bit different.

As the spiritual successor to both the lovable Honda CR-X of the 1980s and the original Honda Insight – the first hybrid sold in America and still the all-time fuel economy champ at 53 MPG combined – the CR-Z has some pretty big, albeit literally small, shoes to fill. But since it is based in part on the somewhat disappointing current version of the Insight, it also comes to market with rather low expectations.

It shouldn’t.

The CR-Z is one of the sharpest-looking cars on the road. Its tidy hatchback shape is well-muscled with bulging fenders and deep character lines aplenty. The face is all-Honda. The tires spaced at the far corners? All-business.

Open the doors – which are enormous both relative to the car and in absolute terms – and you’re treated to the best iteration yet of the pseudo-futuristic dashboard design found in many Hondas today. The cluster of gauges and buttons surrounding the steering wheel looking much like the one in a Ferrari 458 Italia – really.

Also similar to that car, the Honda only has two seats, at least on this side of the Pacific. In Japan the CR-Z – which is selling like seaweed-flavored hotcakes over there – can be had with a 2+2 layout, but for us the minuscule second row is replaced by a pair of cubbies. Personally, I think a flat parcel shelf would be more functional, or even an otherwise useless bench seat to augment the petite cargo bay behind it, but the carpeted nooks are good for bags and appear to be the perfect place for a Chihuahua to sit. This was evidenced by the short dog hairs filling the bin on the passenger side of my tester when it was delivered.

At least I hope they were dog hairs.

Most notable for a hybrid is the odd thing poking out from the center console: a stick for a 6-speed manual transmission. The CR-Z is the only hybrid in the world that has one. A continuously variable automatic transmission that increases fuel economy to 37 mpg combined is also available, but what’s so original about that?

Power is provided by a 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine combined with a small electric motor. It operates in the fashion of a mild-hybrid, which means you won’t be silently sneaking up on anyone in the parking lot. The internal combustion engine always spins as long as the car is moving. When you come to a stop, it usually does too, firing up again as you depress the clutch to shift back into first gear.

There are three drive modes to choose from – Econ, Normal and Sport – which progressively increase the responsiveness of the accelerator and the resistance of the speed-sensitive power steering. There’s a marked difference between the two extremes. Eco offers a muted feel that promotes better fuel economy, while Sport adds a little kick to the equation.

Highlighting your selection is an illuminated ring around the speedometer that transitions from blue to green as you drive in what the car deems a more eco-friendly manner, but turns red and stays there when you engage Sport, you little devil.

Do so, and the CR-Z feels frisky and doesn’t leave you completely high and dry when you merge into traffic. The clutch is light, if a little jumpy to engage, but the shifter is slick and all of those gears make the most of the power on hand.

Handling is where the CR-Z really shines. Steering is direct and the car turns in sharply, the little bugger taking an eerily neutral set around curves for such a short front-wheel-drive car. Indulge in a few laps of the first traffic circle you encounter and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Unfortunately the slippery, low-rolling resistance tires are also just as quick to go off the handle if they don’t like what you’re telling them to do.

I kid because I love.

A suspension that’s on the soft side won’t have you running to the nearest autocross competition, but it does make for a comfortable ride. Only the worst bumps will truly upset the car and/or its occupants.

Perhaps the nicest surprise is how quiet it is for them in there. Compared to Honda’s other small car offerings, the CR-Z sounds like it was insulated by Owens Corning. If the engine is buzzy, you’d never know it. Even road noise is kept outside where it belongs. It is such a far cry from the tin-canny Insight that it makes you think the engineers took the leftover doors and sheet metal from that one and doubled them up here.

That said, they may have used a little too much of the latter on the upper half of the CR-Z. The blind spots on both sides will amaze, delight and frighten you, while the bar that splits the hatchback glass into lower and upper sections is so thick that vehicles more than eight or nine car lengths behind are completely obscured. Potential owners who are employed in the field of espionage will want to keep this in mind as they will be especially susceptible to picking up a tail. And given the CR-Zs other attributes, you probably aren’t likely to lose them by blending into traffic or speeding away, but at least they may be the first to pull over for a fill-up.

Even if it’s not on par with the Prius, the CR-Z delivers the fuel economy that the sticker promises, and then some. Over the course of a week, I had no problem keeping the mpgs in the high 30s with the air conditioner fully utilized and the Econ button largely untouched.

The obvious and sensible cross shop for the $19,950 CR-Z is the Fit parked next to it in the showroom – a fun-to-drive five-door that’s faster, has tons of passenger and cargo room, costs $4,700 less and still gets 29 mpg combined, which means you’ll spend less than $200 more a year at the pump than in the CR-Z. But people who buy two-seaters aren’t always sensible.

What they are is willing to sacrifice a little practicality in exchange for a lot of pizzazz. So it is actually the similar in price, similar in size, 32 mpg, ever-ubiquitous Mini Cooper that should prove to be the most tempting option for them.

At least on paper.

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2011 Honda CR-Z

Base Price: $19,950

Type: 2-passenger, front-wheel-drive 3-door hatchback

Powerplant: 1.5-liter inline-4 cylinder engine w/permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor

Power: 122 hp, 128 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

MPG: 31 city/37 hwy