Can a hybrid car also be a sporty car? The answer: It depends on what your expectations are when it comes to hybrid fuel efficiency, and how you define sporty as applied to cars.

Enter Honda’s two-seat 2012 CR-Z which carries over unchanged since being introduced last year. Styled with cues including those of Honda’s sporting CR-X of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the CR-Z strives to be both sporty and a hybrid. The result is a middling achievement of each. On the hybrid side, others trump Honda’s semi-electric approach to hybrid technology when it comes to fuel economy, and the CR-Z with an automatic transmission falls in line with 35 mpg city/39 mpg highway and 37 mpg combined. While those numbers are good enough to place the CR-Z seventh on the EPA’s 2012 Hybrid Fuel Economy list, they are a long way from the Toyota Prius’s leading numbers of 51 city and 48 highway. Plus, when equipped with a six-speed manual transmission – manual shifting helps define sporty – the CR-Z drops two notches with a rating of 31/37/34.

And speaking of sporty, notice there’s the letter “y” after sport; we’re not talking sports car here.

If a car’s styling is part of the definition of sporty, then the CR-Z certainly gets high marks. If fast is included in the equation, then a 0 to 60 mph time of 8.5 seconds falls a little short. Perhaps handling is a more important ingredient for a sporty car than speed, and this is where the CR-Z becomes entertaining and the fun factor of driving is evident.

Powertrain

The CR-Z employs the sixth-generation parallel hybrid system that Honda calls Integrated Motor Assist (IMA). It’s a descriptive moniker in that a thin, pancake-type electric motor/generator is “integrated” between the engine and transmission and only “assists” the gasoline engine. In certain instances, the CR-Z engine does cut off fuel and the car operates briefly on electric power only, but the engine’s parts still move. Like other hybrid vehicles, the CR-Z shuts off the engine when the car comes to a stop, and then fires up again when it’s time to go.

2012 Honda CR-Z Hybrid

The primary power source is a 1.5-liter, four cylinder, 16-valve engine that features Honda’s i-VTEC, a computer controlled variable valve timing and lift system that improves fuel economy and reduces exhaust emissions. The four has a peak output of 113 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 107 pounds-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm.

The 10-kilowatt electric motor adds a maximum peak output of 13 horsepower at 1,500 rpm and 58 pound-feet of torque at 1000 rpm. Combined output of the gas engine and electric motor is 122 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. And no, the combined horsepower rating of 122 and combined torque number of 128 are not typos. Honda states that peak output for the CR-Z’s gas engine and electric motor occur at significantly different rpm ranges. Therefore, combined power ratings represent peak power delivery in real-world operating conditions and take into account the unique rpm when each peak occurs.

Two transmissions are available, a standard six-speed manual – the only hybrid with three pedals – and a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Drivers who want a manual experience with the CVT can have it, courtesy of shift paddles on the steering wheel. There are seven fixed speed ratios that mimic a manual shifter, and up or down shifts are executed quite quickly. Of note, like a manual transmission, the CVT will stay in the selected gear, a nice sporty touch.

2012 Honda CR-Z Hybrid

Completing the IMA system is a 100.8-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack and all of the controls to operate the system. Located beneath the cargo area, the battery pack stores electricity generated during regenerative braking and sends power to the electric motor when it assists the engine.

There are three driver-selected operation modes for the powertrain: Sport, Normal and Econ. The Econ mode is the most fuel efficient. It limits the engine’s power and torque while relying more on battery power, and tones down air conditioning effort resulting in laggard forward progress. Selecting the Sport system quickens throttle input response, adds more electric power and tightens up steering effort. On start up, Normal is the default setting and the car operates, well, normally.

Exterior and Interior

The CR-Z’s styling blends design elements from the aforementioned 1984-1991 CR-X and the current Honda Insight with the 2009 CR-Z Concept. When you look at the CR-Z, you have a strong inkling that the designers had a clear vision of what they wanted out of the starting gate: a help-save-the-planet sporty coupe that has no equals in appearance.

2012 Honda CR-Z Hybrid

The distinctive wedge shape originates from a low-slung hood to form an aggressive forward stance. An aerodynamic, raked roofline and sharply abrupt rear are reminiscent of the CR-X, but brought up-to-date with modern flowing lines. The truncated rear, called Kammback, is a design shape that reduces air resistance. The tail’s low drag helps improve fuel consumption.

The hatchback shape produces noteworthy interior space for a two-seat coupe. There’s adequate leg and headroom, even for taller occupants, and the driver and passenger are seated in firm, comfortable cloth sports seats. There’s 25.1 cubic feet of space behind the seats – more than twice the volume of an everyday compact car’s trunk, and more than a Lincoln Town Car. Small bins behind the seats can hide items like a cell phone, and a cargo cover keeps larger objects out of sight.

2012 Honda CR-Z Hybrid

Low slung in stance, a low driving position may not be for everyone. But well-placed pedals and shift lever complement the seat’s positioning. As with other hatchback hybrid vehicles – Toyota Prius, Chevrolet Volt and Honda Insight – rear-ward view is compromised by large support pillars and the horizontal bar that separates the glass in the rear hatch.

The dash layout and styling are a near copy of the CR-Z Concept vehicle. The gauge cluster has a three-dimensional, electroluminescent central analog tachometer with a digital speed display in the center. When the driving modes are selected, the ring around the digital speedometer changes color: green for Econ, blue for Normal and red for Sport. For fuel-economy minded drivers, a display rewards good behavior with a growing number of green leaves.

2012 Honda CR-Z Hybrid

All controls are easy-to-reach, and the switchgear feels substantial and operates with a smooth deliberateness. Interior fit and finish is quite good, while the quality of the materials is not too cheap looking, they are not luxurious either.

Model Lineup

The CR-Z is available in three offerings: Base, EX and EX with Navigation. Unlike other automakers, Honda doesn’t offer a long list of options; each model in the lineup has a set suite of features. Priced starting at $19,545, the base CR-Z is moderately equipped with: keyless entry; power windows, doors and outside mirrors; cruise control; tilt/telescopic steering column – often over looked in small cars; and a six-speaker, 160-watt audio system.

With a sticker price of $21,105, the EX, adds: a leather wrapped steering wheel; polished interior accents; a 360-watt audio system with a subwoofer; and Bluetooth technology. The $22,905 EX with Navigation adds Honda’s navigation system with voice recognition and illuminated steering wheel-mounted navigation controls. Both audio systems are PC-savvy, accepting formats like MP3, WMA and iPod.

2012 Honda CR-Z Hybrid

Honda apparently feels new buyers place little value on the luxuries Boomers desire: the coupe is not available with leather seats, let alone, heated seats or even a sunroof. Buyers can, however, order a 17-inch tire and alloy wheel package in place of the standard 16-inch set up.

For safety, all CR-Z models are equipped with anti-lock disc brakes with brake-force distribution, electronic stability control and a full complement of airbags, including curtain-style bags.

 

Road Review

 

Editor’s Note: This road test of a 2012 CR-Z was previously a stand-alone review we’ve merged into the general review.

Last year, HybridCars.com staffers drove a CVT-equipped Honda CR-Z on a 125-mile loop to see how the sporty hybrid coupe fared. The drive consisted of a broad sampling of road conditions: highways, town streets, and sweeping country roads. At the end of the run the coupe tallied 35.3 miles per gallon – three tenths more mpg than the EPA city rating of 35 mpg in the city, and nearly 4 mpg shy of the 39 highway rating. The conclusion: maybe a little too raucous during in-town driving, but overall what most drivers will experience.

2012 Honda CR-Z Hybrid

A few weeks later, I checked out a manual shift CR-Z EX with navigation for a week. Logging 379 miles during the seven days, fuel mileage was recorded in three segments: 73 miles of normal running errands and shopping in town; 132 mile drive from Olympia, Wash. to Seattle during morning and late afternoon brake lights and gridlocks; and 174 miles of hey, let’s flog this thing and see just how sporty it is, and oh yeah, how much gas did the little four-banger guzzle.

No one has ever accused me of having a light foot on the go pedal, although I have changed my driving habits the past several years. I just didn’t know how much until I looked at the mpg numbers of the CR-Z that said, “Oh no, you’re becoming a greenie!”

Great MPG, With Some Work

During my drives about town the colored ring around the speedometer was primarily green, but I didn’t need it as a reminder that mode selection was Econ. The word sluggish best defines the forward motion of the CR-Z in this setting, and following the shift-up and shift-down indicator arrows was foreign even to my changed driving habits. Really Honda? Up shift from 1st to 2nd at 15 mph, and from 2nd to 3rd at 18 mph? But, it works; fuel economy averaged 43.3 mpg – 12.3 more than the government’s 31 mpg. Makes one wonder how those EPA folks come up with their numbers. Oh please, don’t tell me I have succumbed to hypermiling.

2012 Honda CR-Z Hybrid

I saw a lot of truck bumpers on the Interstate drive to Seattle and back. The Econ mode seemed to be the logical choice during the seemingly endless stop, go, stop commuter traffic movement. Unlike the CVT-equipped Zs that automatically shut the engine off when the car is stopped, manual shifters require the transmission be in neutral. Holding the clutch in with the right foot on the brake pedal does not turn off the engine. So, constantly shifting to neutral and then shoving back into gear to restart is a chore. But again, the system works, and with maybe 50 miles out of the 132 total in the Normal mode, the little hatch scored 39.2 mpg. Hmmm, that’s the highway rating given to the more fuel efficient CVT equipped CR-Z. Did the Feds get things backwards?

After five hours that covered 174 miles of driving primarily in Sport mode, the coupe registered 32.7 mpg. That’s a number even a Prius would be envious of with the tachometer close to red line for many of those miles.

Sporty, As In Handling, Not Horsepower

The CR-Z is built on the same platform as the Insight hybrid, but engineers didn’t just copy, cut and paste. The structure is more rigid, the wheelbase is clipped 4.5 inches, overall length is shortened by some 8 inches and the car is considerably wider and lower. Add the suspension from the Insight – McPherson struts and a rear torsion-beam setup – and you have Honda’s formula for a sporty coupe.

Around town the CR-Z has a smooth, fairly well-damped ride and it’s easy-to-drive, easy-to-park and with wide doors, easy-to-get in and out of. I found the highway ride to be firm, controlled and pleasant, not harsh. Bumps and those pesky expansion joints had a negligible impact.

Like all Honda four cylinder VTEC engines, this one brings on power in a linear, effortless manner. Its response to throttle input is prompt, almost brisk, except in the Econ mode, and if it lacks urgency it makes up for it in pluck and willingness. And when pressed – to merge with freeway traffic, for example – it does get noisy. There is a surprise, however, just left of the steering wheel. Select the piano key-like button marked Sport and there’s right-now throttle response. It’s like the Honda suddenly found an additional 50 horsepower.

2012 Honda CR-Z Hybrid

However, the CR-Z’s sporty personality isn’t derived from horsepower, it’s all about the handling. The attention to vehicle dynamics is surprising. The coupe’s precise and nicely weighted electric rack-and-pinion steering tracks true with good feedback, making abrupt lane changes and sudden, tight curves a delight.

Should you drive slightly over your capabilities, the stability control system and anti-lock brakes respond in quick fashion. Under brisk cornering there is an expected amount of understeer and a moderate dose of body roll. But the Z never felt like the average driver might fight for control.

Unlike some hybrids, the brakes have good pedal feel and are not grabby. The manual transmission offers relatively short throws with clean gates and a comfortable, easily engaged clutch action. Gear ratios are well selected to give the car a suitable launch, first through third gears.

Hybrid puritans will scoff at the CR-Z’s fuel efficiency and driving enthusiasts will pooh-pooh its performance. But kudos to Honda for developing a car that is fun-to-drive and fuel-efficient.

 

The Car For You?

Hybrid puritans will scoff at the CR-Z’s fuel efficiency and driving enthusiasts will pooh-pooh its performance. But kudos to Honda for developing a car that is fun-to-drive and fuel efficient. The Detroit News’s reviewer put it this way: “There will be some people who just fall in love with the CR-Z. They will look past the things so many see as detriments. They will be those willing to admit they don’t need everything in a single vehicle and use the CR-Z as a tool for getting around in style. They know that not everyone needs a back seat for imaginary friends who will never ride in their car.”

2012 Honda CR-Z Hybrid

There are other choices for a sporty car that not only offer decent fuel economy, but also have room for two or three actual friends. Ford’s nifty Fiesta SE hatchback with manual transmission and optional SYNC and Sound package lists for $16,265 and serves up 29 mpg city and 38 mpg highway. For $24,235, Volkswagen’s Golf TDI offers German engineered handling while the torquey diesel engine delivers 30 mpg in town and 42 on the highway. Perhaps the closest fun-to-drive two-door competitor is the Mini Cooper. The modest-powered base model starts at $19,500, dispenses 29 city/37 highway fuel mileage and carves canyon roads like nothing in this price range.

The CR-Z isn’t the only hybrid car that has sporty performance characteristics. Lexus began selling its CT 200h last year that has a combined city-highway fuel mileage of 42 mpg. But it’s starting price of $29,120 puts it out of reach for a large number of buyers. The Z’s starting price of $19,345 makes it an every-man’s green car, and for now it’s the only sporty game in town.

Prices are Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.

This article was updated on Feb. 23, 2012. The first comments below are from original publication prior to the vehicle’s release.