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2011 Honda CR-Z: The hybrid that likes to have fun

Futuristic two-seat mixes economy with entertainment
by:  Futuristic styling, zippy or economical driving modes and sporty handling makes the Honda CR-Z a unique hybrid.

Despite their better fuel economy, hybrids have been criticized as slow and unresponsive. The Ford Fusion Hybrid has been praised for driving more like a normal mid-size sedan - which is not a very high bar, when you think about it. But now Honda has decided to prove hybrids can be also sporty with the introduction of the CR-Z, a small, stylish coupe that makes saving gas fun.

Honda intends the CR-Z to evoke memories of the CRX, it's entertaining two-seater of the 1980s. The CR-Z is much more futuristic-looking, however. With its pointy nose, wedge shape and chopped off rear end, the new small Honda looks like something from The Jetsons. The Space Age styling continues into the interior with a sharply angled dash, digital gauges and sport seats covered in heavy mesh-like cloth.

Our bright white CR-Z attracted a lot of looks over the week we had it - and it's unlikely that many of the admirers even knew it was a hybrid.

In fact, the CR-Z is three hybrids. That is to say, it features three driving modes, each set by pressing a button on the left edge of the dash. Economy is far maximum mileage. Sport is for maximum performance. And as the name implies, Normal is somewhere in between.

In the Economy mode, the CR-Z drives like a typical hybrid - slowly, especially up hills. The fun happens in the Sport mode, which makes the CR-Z zippy. And in the Normal mode, the CR-Z drives, well, like a normal small car.

The settings change the interaction between the car's 1.5-liter inline engine, which produces 107 horsepower, and its electric motor, which produces 13 horsepower. As might be expected, the electric motor is used more in the Economy mode and the two work together more often in the Sport mode. And of course, the Economy mode produces the highest mileage while the Sport mode sacrifices some of it for entertainment.

And entertaining the CR-Z certainly is in the Sport mode. Not fast like a V8 or even V6 performance car - more like a sports car with a small turbocharged four-cylinder engine. If the Mazda RX8 goes Zoom Zoom, the CR-Z in Sport mode goes Zip Zip. Especially with the six-speed manual transmission that came with our test car.

The first four speeds were well arranged for city driving. Throw distances were short and close, making it a breeze to shift up and down the gears. Fifth and sixth were a long stretch to the right, but that was OK because they are geared for speeds above 50 miles per hour anyway.

The three settings can be changed while the car is moving, which increases the options even more. For example, when approaching a freeway on ramp, the CR-Z can be put in Sport mode, then changed to Economy mode after merging into traffic. We didn't have the car long enough to know whether these adjustments actually saved much (of even any) more gas, but they gave us something to play with as we drove throughout the metropolitan area.

Because the CR-Z is so small and low, getting in and out may be a little challenging for older drivers. Not as bad as a Lotus Elise, but trickier than even the compact Ford Fiesta. Honda is clearly aiming the CR-Z at younger buyers, though, especially those without children. The storage bins behind the front seats are handy, but too small for a federally-mandated child seat.

The CR-Z shares its drivetrain with Honda's other hybrid, the slightly larger Insight sedan. The CR-Z also shares a design feature that hinders rear visibility - a spoiler across the hatchback glass that looks cool from the outside but partially obscures the view though it. The problems is heightened in the CR-Z by the smaller rear windows, requiring drivers to be especially attentive when changing lanes and parallel parking.

Because Honda has designed the CR-Z for fun as much as economy, its EPA estimated mileage is lower than larger hybrids. Many drivers will probably do even worse than the 31 city/37 highway projections because the Sport mode is so tempting. For those of you who value economy more, there are plenty of other hybrids out there. But for pure entertainment value, the CR-Z is currently in a class by itself.

• Model: 2011 CR-Z.

• Manufacturer: Honda.

• Class: Subcompact coupe.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Two door, two-passenger hatchback.

• Powertrain: 1.5-liter inline 4/electric motor (122 hp, 128 ft-lbs).

• Transmissions: Six-speed manual; Continuously Variable Transmission.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 31/37.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $19,200 ($23,310 as tested).