A New Sporty Kind of Hybrid Car

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2011 Honda CR-Z.

One thing that’s been missing up to this point in the broad spectrum of hybrid cars on the market today is one that’s actually fun to drive. (The case could be made that the BMW ActiveHybrid X6 with its 450 horsepower is fun to drive, but at around $90,000 it’s out of reach for most people.) While hybrids have lots of admirable traits, putting a smile on the face of their drivers usually isn’t one of them.

Honda is launching a new hybrid that’s going to be a bit of a game-changer. The 2011 CR-Z has two seats, crisp handling, and even the choice of a 6-speed manual gearbox. Sounds very sporty, and rather un-hybrid-like.

This isn’t the first time Honda has taken a chance on breaking out of the hybrid mold a bit. Several years ago they came up with the very quick Accord Hybrid, which out-performed the conventional Accord by a wide margin. It was impressive to drive, but didn’t sell particularly well because it turned out that most hybrid buyers were after maximum fuel efficiency.

For the idea of the CR-Z, Honda looked back into its own history. In 1984 they launched the CR-X, a sporty two-seater based on the Civic that quickly drew a strong following. The CR-Z takes that idea into the modern world, with Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist, the name for their hybrid system. Thousands of IMA-equipped Civics and Insights are already roaming the freeways with above-average fuel economy and reduced emissions output.

Those hybrids are fine, but you’d never call them fun to drive. The CR-Z is, especially with the 6-speed manual gearbox. Don’t worry, automatic fans, you can also choose a CVT transmission that does the shifting for you. Automatic-equipped versions even have paddle shifters on the steering column.

I had the opportunity to tool around in a manual trans CR-Z that was loaded up with the EX package and navigation system. As a commuter car and fun car rolled into one, I came away very impressed. For some video that will be part of my upcoming television story, I ran the little Honda up and down Mulholland drive a few times. While this isn’t an all-out sports car, it drives and handles like no hybrid I’ve ever experienced.

Part of the fun factor comes when the driver selects “Sport” from the three-mode drive system. The other two modes are “Econ” and “Normal,” the latter of which is the default mode whenever the engine is started. Sport mode sharpens the throttle response and even makes the electric power steering a little crisper.

On the other end of the scale, Econ mode dulls the fun a bit with a different mapping for the engine electronics, but the payoff is much improved fuel economy. Honda’s instrument display even includes a little graph that lets you add leaves to a collection of foliage as you drive. The gentler you are with your throttle foot, the more leaves you’ll collect. In the center of the instrument pod, a glowing light will also change from blue to green whenever you drive efficiently.

There was early criticism of this car when the specifications were first announced. Combined horsepower of the engine and electric motor is only 122, which doesn’t sound great on paper. And estimated mileage is nowhere near that of the darling of the hybrid world, the Toyota Prius. The Honda CR-Z’s more fuel-miserly automatic version is rated at 35 mpg city and 39 highway, for a combined number of 37. The 6-speed does a little worse at 31/37/34, but is still pretty good on gas overall.

Honda is quick to point out that those numbers are exceptional for a sporty coupe, and that the testing was done with the CR-Z in its Normal drive mode. Hitting the Econ button and doing a little hypermiling could result in even better results.

As for the somewhat low horsepower number, here again Honda comes to its own defense with a good argument. The car’s ancestor, the CR-X of the 1980s, never had tons of horsepower either (something like 70), but its light weight and free-revving engine combined to provide a good seat-of-the-pants feel. Ditto for the new CR-Z.

I think Honda has a winner on its hands. As someone who has driven pretty much every hybrid available today, I can pay the CR-Z a kind of backhanded compliment: In essence, it doesn’t feel like a hybrid. For anyone who values driving fun, that’s exactly what Honda’s goal was.

This is also a pretty reasonably priced car, placed in the hybrid category or not. Base price for the CR-Z is $19,200 for the manual trans and $19,850 for the CVT automatic. Even the fully-loaded EX Navigation model is only $23,210. If you’ve priced hybrid cars lately, that’s a comparably low tariff .

Is the CR-Z the most fuel-efficient hybrid? Nope. Is it the quickest two-seater? Negative there too. But it does combine the best attributes of those two kinds of cars into one neat little package.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He can also be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. You can reach Dave at TVCarz@pacbell.net.

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