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February 22, 2011 > Auto Review: Honda CR-Z

Auto Review: Honda CR-Z

Evocative Fuel Miser

By Steve Schaefer

Hybrid cars are becoming common, led by the ubiquitous Toyota Prius. But with the exception of the original minimalist Honda Insight, they have been sedans or, in some cases, SUVs. The CR-Z takes hybrids in a sportier direction, inspired both by that first Insight and their classic CR-X two-seater.

Proportions, called "one-motion wedge" by Honda, look wind-cheating. The laid back windshield continues in an arc all the way to the rear, meaning that the rear window, with its wiper, is parallel with the road. This somewhat useless window is supplemented with a vertical glass panel in the tail for moderate visibility.

The interior looks and feels surprisingly upscale. In my EX model, the higher of two levels, fittings had a jewelry metal quality and silver cloth on the doors added a futuristic feeling.

Behind the comfortable front buckets are two hard plastic "bins," good for sacks of potatoes, briefcases and groceries. You can easily fold these down and stash some serious cargo (including an upright bass) in the back.

Being a hybrid, the CR-Z's instrument panel is filled with interesting information to keep you driving efficiently. You can monitor if you are using battery power or charging them for later. You also can consult economy meters where you "earn" extra little tree images by driving carefully.

The CR-Z offers three modes of driving-Econ, Normal and Sport. In Econ mode you accelerate more gradually, the air conditioning runs more gently and an Auto Stop engine feature turns off the engine at stops. Sport Mode changes the power delivery curve and electronically recalibrates the steering effort for more driving pleasure. Normal mode, which is the default, is a balance between Sport and Econ modes.

More subtly, the tachometer ring illuminates in blue, green or red. It transitions between blue and green when you're driving in Econ mode, green representing efficient driving, blue an average, OK level. In Sport mode, the ring glows Red, which both represents and, perhaps, even encourages more aggressive driving.

With the Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system, Honda hybrids use the gasoline engine all the time, except when in Auto Stop mode and supplement it with a slim electric motor. In the CR-Z, this means a 1.5-liter engine shares power duty with a 10 KW electric motor, generating a total of 122 horsepower. The motor activates as needed, such as climbing hills or accelerating to pass. It all works smoothly, although I could sense the car turning back on after sitting at a red light.

Hybrids are all about fuel efficiency and clean emissions, and the numbers are very good, if not spectacular. The CR-Z, with the continuously-variable automatic transmission, averages 37 mpg, or 35 City, 39 Highway, per the EPA. I averaged 33.3 mpg-and I never even put the car into the Sport mode. For a 2,700 pound car with a small engine, I was hoping for better. The EPA Green Vehicle numbers are excellent-9 for Air Pollution and 8 for Greenhouse Gas, with either the manual or automatic transmission.

CR-Z is the first hybrid to offer a manual transmission, although my Crystal Black Pearl test car didn't have it. Being a Honda, it should be more fun with this gearbox, but the downside is lower fuel economy-only 31 City, 34 Highway.

There are two models-the plain CR-Z and the EX. Both receive automatic climate control, six-speaker audio system with compact disc player, a USB port for your iPod(r), power windows and locks, and keyless entry. The CR-Z EX adds a 360-watt high-power audio system with a subwoofer, steering wheel-integrated audio controls, Bluetooth(r) HandsFreeLink, alloy pedals and more. You can order a voice-activated navigation system on the EX.

The CR-Z evokes the beloved old CR-X, but it is much larger and heavier.

Prices range from the standard car with manual transmission at $20,095 to the EX with navigation system at $24,005.

The CR-Z feels very well put together; the doors have a solid slam. It's cute, and pleasant to drive, but not especially sporty-although the Sport mode, combined with the manual transmission, does increase the fun factor in direct inverse proportion to the economy factor. It's an attractive little commuter, offering a guilt-free, high quality, environmentally sensitive experience. But in the back of my mind, I wanted better fuel economy numbers.

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