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Honda CR-Z: A hybrid that's actually fun

There has been much gnashing of teeth over whether the new Honda CR-Z qualifies as a sports car. This was brought home when I picked up the test car -- a young autoscribe was wondering about the CRZ's ability to be both an economical hybrid and a sports car at the same time. The reality is that it's both and more.

At the heart of the CR-Z is a 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine that produces 113 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque. The hybrid part comes in the form of an electric motor that chips in with another 13 hp and 58 lb-ft of torque at 1,000 rpm. Combine the outputs and the CR-Z has a net of 122 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque between 1,000 and 1,750 rpm when married to the slick-shifting six-speed manual.

Spend a little time driving the CR-Z and it becomes obvious this car has multiple personalities. It's the driver's wants that will determine the right mode. In Eco mode, the quest for fuel economy takes precedence over all other considerations. It softens the throttle response to the point where it takes a really deep stab at the gas pedal to get things rolling, it cuts the air conditioning run time and it alters the manner in which the idle stop functions. Only those with a real economy bent will use Eco, such is the yawn factor of the drive. The Normal mode strikes a balance between the quest for economy and the need for a little performance.

Sport is the best mode, as it breathes life into the CR-Z. The response it brings to the drive casts the little runabout in a much more favourable light. Initial response off the line is perky and the midrange is respectable -- the CR-Z scampers to 100 kilometres an hour in 9.8 seconds. This isn't enough to quicken one's pulse, but it's more than enough to entertain. And it's also economical. Even when driven with enthusiasm in Sport mode, the CR-Z still returned a test average of 6.9 litres per 100 kilometres.

Where the CR-Z really comes into its own and makes its claim as a sports car is the manner in which it challenges a twisty road. There's little body roll, the response to steering input is both sharp and direct and it has a balance that belies the fact it's towed along by the front wheels. Typically, front-drivers tend to understeer if the driver even thinks about taking liberties. Not here. It takes quite a lot to overpower the P195/55R16 tires and get the nose to plough in a corner. The other upside is that the tenacious handling comes with little impact on ride comfort -- the two-seater is very European in its feel.

From a practical standpoint, the CR-Z again succeeds. There is plenty of space and decent cargo capacity (a maximum of 25.1 cubic feet with the trunk separator folded flat) to go along with the convenience of the hatchback. The lone downside to practicality is the car's limited rearward visibility. The seam formed by the rear window and transparent back panel cuts the view through the rear-view mirror in two. The small side rear windows exacerbate things. It is such that it takes a deliberate shoulder check before changing lanes and quite some time to get comfortable backing the CR-Z into a tight parking spot.

The manner in which the cabin is finished and laid out is a cut above the entry-level norm. The toys are all in place, the boldly bolstered wingback seats provide plenty of support and the dash is stunning. The latter not only presents information in an easy-to-understand format, it is way cool thanks to its three-dimensional appearance. Likewise, the ergonomics are up to snuff. In fact, one has to dig pretty deep to find a design peeve -- but find one I did. There is a 12-volt outlet and a USB connector located neatly beside a convenience storage tray, which is as it should be. However, the auxiliary input sits on the face of the radio, which leaves the cable dangling within reach of the driver's right hand when shifting gears. It should be located with the USB connector.

Many have questioned the CR-Z's power and overall performance. A week with the car proved it has all the power it really needs as long as the Sport button is depressed. Yes, more would be better, but that does not detract from the CRZ's fun-to-drive factor -- it is the car's ability to make light work of a twisty road that makes the real difference.

Over the years, there have been some great cars that made do with modest power yet became famous for their fun-to-drive quotient. The original Mini (48 hp), the current Mini Cooper (118 hp), the first Mazda Miata (116 hp) and the Honda CR-X (92 hp) are prime examples. My money says that, with time, the CR-Z's spunky handling and miserly thirst for fuel will earn a similar reputation.

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