A Manual Hybrid

Of the two transmissions, the standard six-speed manual is the more responsive and certainly the more fun, as manuals usually are. The six-speed stick has a decent feel, with reasonably short throws. The gear ratios are well chosen to give the car a respectable launch, and the clutch and all other aspects feel like any other manual, which is nice when compared with all other hybrids, whose continuously variable characteristics vary in refinement and all feel a bit foreign in the best of circumstances.

It doesn't hurt that the engine-motor combination has 5 pounds-feet more torque at a lower rpm when teamed with the stick: 128 pounds-feet at 1,750 rpm versus 123 at 2,000 rpm. The horsepower rating is constant at 122. The hybrid system is Honda's relatively simple Integrated Motor Assist, in which an electric motor is effectively mounted to the crankshaft — an oversimplification, but the point is it turns only when the engine does. The gas engine automatically turns off when the car comes to a stop, and the electric motor restarts it when you lift your foot off the brake.

The motor also assists in acceleration, contributing 13 horsepower at 1,500 rpm and 58 pounds-feet of torque at 1,000 rpm to the overall rating. When coasting or braking, it serves as a generator, regenerating electricity and charging the high-voltage battery pack.

Where the Insight uses a 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine, the CR-Z has a 1.5-liter. This higher displacement and sportier, higher-rolling-resistance tires play a part in the car's decreased mileage, as does a higher coefficient of drag: 0.3 versus the Insight's 0.2.

The brake pedal feel is also quite good for a hybrid. Regenerative braking tends to make the pedal mushy and nonlinear. (If anything, the current-generation Prius is worse in this regard than the previous one.) Between its stick shift and decent brake pedal feel, the manual CR-Z is the least hybridlike hybrid we've driven.

It's good to drive a manual hybrid again, as the last one went out of production with the previous-generation Civic Hybrid in 2005. There is a tradeoff, though, in gas mileage. In regular cars, manuals often are more efficient, but it all depends on how you drive them. This goes double for hybrids, because the alternative, a computer-controlled CVT, does a better job of maximizing regenerative braking. However, Honda says a driver who follows the manual CR-Z's shift-up and shift-down indicator arrows can come close to the CVT's rating.

Continuously Variable Automatic Transmission

I also drove the CVT version, which behaves pretty well. CVTs sometimes accelerate abruptly from a standing start or come to a stop awkwardly. The CR-Z lurched a bit upon launch, but it improved once the car had warmed. I also noticed smoother response if I let off the brake and waited for the engine to spin up and engage the transmission before hitting the gas pedal. Otherwise I'd catch the sleeping engine by surprise and it would jump out of bed and whack its head on the transmission, if you will. Like other CVTs, when you accelerate hard, the engine zooms to its top speed and the transmission accelerates the car as the engine drones on at a constant and rather loud level.

The CVT makes full use of the CR-Z's three-mode drive system. In both versions, Sport mode decreases the power-steering assist, and Econ mode switches the air-conditioning compressor to a more efficient cycle. With the manual transmission, the modes vary how much the car accelerates based on accelerator-pedal depression. It's more responsive in Sport, reluctant in Econ and up the middle in Normal mode. In the CVT, it varies the throttle response less and the gear ratio quite a bit.

For example, if you're cruising along and switch on Sport mode, it instantly boosts the engine speed by about 1,000 rpm, keeping the vehicle speed constant. To remind you not to stay in the mode unintentionally and waste gas, a blue ring around the digital speedometer turns red and stays that way. In the Normal and Econ modes, it starts out blue but transitions to green when you drive in an efficient manner.

Keeping the engine at higher revs makes it ready to accelerate with more power, and it provides more engine braking. Econ holds the engine at lower rpm and makes the first few inches of accelerator-pedal travel less productive. Again, Normal is in between.

If you floor the accelerator, regardless of mode, the CR-Z goes full-steam ahead. I can't overemphasize how important this is. When you need a car to go, you need it to go, and cars that rob you of full power in the name of an efficiency mode (there are some) are potentially hazardous. When you request passing power from the CR-Z at highway speeds, there's slightly more delay if you're in Econ mode because the CVT has to up the ratio and the engine needs to rev up, but this is incremental; there's no artificial limitation. In any mode with either transmission, passing power is serviceable, but again, it's not exactly sports-car material.

Anyone who wants the manual experience with the CVT can have it, thanks to shift paddles on the steering wheel, which select among seven fixed gear ratios that emulate a conventional transmission. It shifts up and down relatively quickly. You can trigger a manual selection at any time, but in Normal mode, it will promptly revert to automatic operation. When in Sport, it stays in the selected gear and manual mode unless you hold the shift-up paddle for a few seconds or change mode altogether.

It appears that the EPA estimates are conservative, as is the case with the Insight. I exceeded the automatic's highway rating with 39.4 mpg, according to the trip computer. That's not bad for a car with only 1,000 miles on it, hardly broken in. Of course, this was on flat terrain on a warm day. Other conditions might change the results.

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