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Honda CR-Z packs a punch

Sometimes, good things do come in small packages. The Honda CR-Z is a prime example -- its attractiveness boils down to the amount of technology engineered into its diminutive dimensions (it is just 4,079 millimetres long and 1,740 mm wide). The secret to its likeable personality lies in the balance it strikes between its quest for fuel economy -- and the low emissions that result--and its fun-to-drive factor.

At the heart of the CR-Z is the latest iteration of Honda's mild hybrid system and its IntegratedMotorAssist. It blends a gasoline-powered engine with an electric motor and a large battery. The gasoline side features a 1.5-litre four-cylinder derived from the Honda Fit that uses Honda's i-VTEC (intelligent Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) -- this version having a slight twist from the norm. At low speeds, the intake valves follow a low-lift cam profile that staggers the opening of the valves. The primary intake valve opens more than the secondary valve, which promotes a swirl effect in the cylinder. At 2,300 rpm, things change. The intake valves switch to a higher-lift cam profile and now open in unison, which helps the engine breathe. This promotes high-end output. The net result is 113 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm.

The ultra-thin (just 61 mm wide) electric motor chips in with another 13 hp and 58 lb-ft of torque at 1,000 rpm. Combine the outputs and the CR-Z with six-speed manual has a net of 122 hp and 128 lbft of torque between 1,000 and 1,750 rpm. The combined output means that each of the CRZ's horses has only to motivate 9.8 kilograms of car.

To put this number into perspective, it helps to look at the CR-Z's spiritual predecessor, the CR-X (a car lauded for its fun-to-drive factor). The latter developed just 91 hp (and 94 lb-ft of torque), meaning each horsepower had to drive 9.4 kg of car.

On a different note, kudos for Honda's honest approach to the way it promotes the CRZ's net output. Some manufacturers add the gasoline and electric numbers together to arrive at a maximum output. The problem with this logic is that the gasoline engine and electric motor produce peak outputs at disparate points on the power curve. As such, the two never attain peak production at the same time. Honda's numbers reflect this reality.

The final link in the hybrid powertrain is the main battery. It is rated at 100.8 volts (84 1.2-volt cells). As with all hybrids, the battery's state of charge is topped up by regenerative braking. Whenever the driver begins to coast or brake, the electric motor switches function and begins to capture otherwise wasted energy and channel it back to the battery. Unlike many other hybrids, however, the CR-Z's brake pedal has a natural feel --most others have pedals that are mushy under foot, which makes modulation a trying exercise.

The CR-Z also features idle stop. Whenever the car comes to rest, the engine is shut down to conserve precious fuel. The electric motor fires the engine back to life the instant the driver lifts off the brake pedal. It is such that the stop feature is virtually transparent.

The CR-Z is offered with two transmissions. The aforementioned six-speed manual box makes the best of the available power. The wide ratio span (and low 4.11 final drive ratio) sees the first four gears key on performance, while fifth and sixth hone in on fuel economy. The net result is good off-the-line punch and a rewarding mid-range. No, you won't go looking for cars to drag at stoplights, but it is more than enough to be entertaining. The manual CR-Z runs to 100 kilometres an hour in less than nine seconds. It also features a shift light -- if drivers obey the indicated upshifts or downshifts, they will enjoy the best fuel economy. For most, however, it will be just another light to ignore.

Those interested in overall economy will tick the continuously variable transmission (CVT) box. This transmission generates better fuel economy (5.6 L/100 km in the city and 5.0 L/100 km on the highway versus the manual's 6.5 and 5.3, respectively), doing so because the engine is allowed to operate at its optimum for more of the typical drive. However, it has the usual CVT drawback -- under hard acceleration, it pegs the engine at redline and holds it there until the driver reaches the desired speed. The CR-Z, however, has a saving grace in that the steering wheel-mountedpaddleshifters give the driver access to seven predetermined speeds (ratios). Using the manual mode under hard acceleration makes the experience far more palatable. Each upshift drops the engine's speed by a couple of hundred rpm, which breaks up the monotony of the roar. Given the balance between performance and economy, it works. This only begins to scratch the surface. For example, there are three driving modes--Normal (good), Sport (the best setting) and Economy (forget it!).

The work that went into the CR-Z is such that Honda has produced a vehicle with two distinct personalities. It is a fuel miser when driven appropriately and it is a surprisingly sporty ride when the right mode is selected.

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Honda CR-Z packs a punch

Finally, a mini review that a) gets the car and b) gives some information missing from other full reviews.
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