2011 Honda CR-Z is lively 2-seater that's thrifty with fuel

Honda is at it again — building a fuel-sipping, two-seat gasoline-electric hybrid car. This time, though, the car is not just thrifty, it's comfortable and lively.

With a starting retail price of $19,950, the new-for-2011 Honda CR-Z, coming to showrooms in August, is slated to have the lowest starting price for a hybrid in the United States from a major automaker.

The CR-Z also is expected to be the only hybrid in the country offered with a manual transmission. And the six-speed stick shift CR-Z is fun to drive while delivering a government fuel economy rating of 34 miles per gallon for combined city and highway travel. Highway mileage alone is rated at 37 mpg.

The $19,950 is for a base CR-Z — which stands for Compact Renaissance Zero — with manual transmission.

The other transmission available is a continuously variable transmission (CVT) which pushes the government fuel economy rating to 37 mpg for combined city/highway travel and highway mileage rating to 39 mpg. Drivers operate a fuel-conscious CVT as they would a regular automatic transmission. A CR-Z with CVT has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $20,600.

The CR-Z competes with larger hybrids that have back seats. These include Honda's Civic Hybrid, which remains in the lineup and starts at $24,550 as a 2010 model, and the Toyota Prius, which starts at $22,150 as a 2010 model.

The CR-Z doesn't look or feel like a cheap, thrifty car, though it is a tidy, easy-to-park package stretching just 13.4 feet from bumper to bumper. This is just 15 inches longer than a Mini Cooper.

The CR-Z body is wedge-shaped, with a cargo liftgate that's so high off the ground it comes to near chest level on me. To aid driver views out the back of the car, both the liftgate and small, upright rear area above the bumper have glass in them, a la the Honda CR-X sporty car. At the front, the CR-Z has a gaping mouth grille area that's similar to some Audi cars.

Inside, there are attractive upholstered seats, high-tech gauges and a good amount of standard equipment, including mesh-covered sport seats, 160-watt AM-FM stereo with CD player and six speakers, USB and MP3 interfaces, automatic climate control, rear window wiper, antilock brakes, electronic stability control and traction control as well as curtain air bags.

Given the limit of two passengers and cargo space that tops out at 25.1 cubic feet, which is enough for two golf bags or a couple of suitcases, Honda officials aren't looking for huge sales of the CR-Z.

The company's initial sales target is 15,000 for the first year. In comparison, the Toyota Prius, which is the best-selling hybrid in the United States, tallied 139,682 sales in calendar 2009.

In some respects, the CR-Z harkens back to Honda's groundbreaking history in the U.S. hybrid market. Honda was the first major carmaker with a gas-electric hybrid car for sale here in December 1999, and it was a two-seat Honda Insight.

But compared with the early Insight's lightweight, flimsy feel, rough ride, odd, bug-like exterior styling and thin, uncomfortable seats, the new CR-Z is a significant upgrade.

Using the chassis from the Honda Fit small car, the CR-Z is wide enough — 68.5 inches — that passengers don't feel cramped. Seats are bolted low to the floor, so headroom inside is a commendable 36.9 inches. Too bad, though, that the front passenger doesn't get seat height adjustment.

There's not a tinny sound when the long CR-Z doors close. Just be sure to watch how closely you park to other vehicles.

I loved the easy, short-throw shifting of the manual transmission in the test CR-Z. The clutch pedal took just the right amount of leg muscle, and power delivery was linear.

The car moved in a sprightly manner in normal mode, where I passed other cars without much delay on flat roads. But a sport button on the CR-Z dashboard immediately added some verve to the acceleration by adjusting engine throttle response, electric motor power assist and the power steering effort.

Fuel economy isn't best in sport mode, but there's also an econ mode where the engine operates for optimal fuel economy, and the air conditioner is managed for a lighter load on the engine.

The CR-Z suspension is nicely compliant and not punishing. But note: There's much road noise from the tires.

For all the spunkiness of the CR-Z around town and in passing maneuvers, the gasoline engine is pretty much the same one as in the Honda Fit: A 122-horsepower, 1.5-liter, single overhead cam four cylinder with Honda's variable valve technology.

But unlike the Fit, the engine is mated to a 10-kilowatt electric motor that adds up to 13 horsepower at a very low 1,500 rpm. The electric motor, which comes on and off on its own as needed, also contributes up to 58 foot-pounds of torque at 1,000 rpm, which explains the decent acceleration.

The four-cylinder engine's torque tops out on its own at 123 foot-pounds to 128 foot-pounds, depending on the transmission.

Regular gasoline is all that's needed, and the electric motor recharges on its own from the engine and regenerative brakes. To save gas, the CR-Z also turns off its gas engine on its own when the car is coming to a stop.

There are many fuel mileage indicators in the CR-Z, including a circle that changes color in the instrument panel to denote fuel-saving driving (green) or fuel-draining driving (red).