2011 Honda CR-Z expert review

Americans have had a love affair with themselves for years. We collect Facebook friends like skeeball reward tickets and then Tweet to our sycophant followers that "baby manatees are like veal of the sea." Our own ability to see ourselves not as we are but as we want to be will be the downfall of the 2011 Honda CR-Z hybrid, a terrific little car that will hardly get noticed.

The CR-Z is a sharp-edged hybrid racer that will fail to connect to Americans in literally every way. It's a two-door hatchback; Americans want sedans. It has a manual version; Americans prefer right-foot driving only. It's a hybrid without super high mileage figures; Americans hear the word hybrid and think they will only have to fill up once a month. It does not have a back seat: Oh no!

See, there are three secrets Americans will never admit. We watch too much TV; some children are not special; and we never carry passengers in the back seat. Look around at rush hour and count the number of cars with a second person. We're a generous group of people, but we don't like to share.

The CR-Z was supposed to be a reincarnation of the CR-X -- that funky hatchback everyone drove until the wheels fell off. But the new CR-Z cannot answer all of the extreme situations of what ifs so many consumers seem to ask: What if it snows? What if I buy a boat and need to tow it? What if two of my Facebook friends actually want to meet me in person and they both need a ride? At the same time?

Sadly, the missing space for imaginary friends means fewer people will hop into the driver's seat.

Agile and fun, but a bit anemic
But they should: The CR-Z is fun to drive. My manual transmission model felt quick and solid on the road. Its wide-wheel base (65.8 inches) gives it a great starting point. The 122-horsepower engine certainly isn't Herculean but it provides some pep. The CR-Z moves along quite nicely and its light body (2,637 pounds) adds to its agility. It's fun around town and fine on the highway, though it does feel a little anemic when cruising along.

The six-speed manual transmission provides a little more sportiness, though if you kept the revs high, the gas mileage would surely suffer. Most buyers, however, would likely opt for the gearless Continuously Variable Transmission, which I did not test but fear would sap the fun out of the car.

Additionally, Honda has integrated an electric motor to assist the engine. This is where the hybrid technology improves the car's gas mileage. Unlike more traditional hybrids, the integrated electrical motor cannot power the CR-Z on electric power only.

But it does give it a boost. The disadvantage is the lack of super-high gas mileage numbers -- though Honda points out the 2011 CR-Z has the fifth best mileage numbers out of more than 250 nameplates being sold. So, it's no slouch.

Honda has been unfairly criticized for this technology in my book. Honda has simply moved in a different direction with its hybrid technology, focusing on lightweight, less expensive powertrains. Why build two drive trains when one works just as well?

Consumers, however, want the fully electric mode. They like that whirling sound the Toyota Prius or Ford Fusion hybrid makes while moving around a parking lot. The CR-Z is quiet, but it's not that quiet. Americans won't like that.

The CR-Z with a CVT can still hit 39 mpg on the highway and 35 mpg in the city. A CR-Z with a manual transmission does a little worse, 31 mpg city / 37 mpg highway. But like many consumers, when I looked at the car, I thought for certain it would get 50 mpg or even more. Much like my countrymen, I have completely unreasonable expectations for hybrid vehicles. Cars abide by the rules of physics, not wishful thinking.

The CR-Z also offers three driving modes: Sport, Normal and Economy. Each mode adjusts the throttle, steering and overall responsiveness. There's a noticeable difference between the three settings when you're driving.

Where this car excels is as a daily commuter, and that's where Americans spend the most time alone. The CR-Z is comfortable, quiet and complete.

Ample mix of style and space
Inside, everything is at your fingertips. Consumers will find all the amenities they expect: Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free cell phone operation, a navigation system, automatic climate control and an optional 360-watt stereo.

More importantly, the CR-Z feels big inside. There's space to store things behind the seat as well as the hatch area, which includes a cover so thieves cannot see inside the back.

Commuting in this car is a pleasure. The ride is balanced and quiet. The only downside is the seating position is low to the ground so you're often looking at truck bumpers. The car's petite size means it can park nearly anywhere.

Most of all, the CR-Z is one of the most exciting looking Hondas on the road. It's got lots of edges with a long hood and a cut-off back end. It will certainly stand out in the bland group of small cars that seem to focus on utility more than style. There's a lot more FCX Clarity in this car's design than Accord. We should all be thankful for that.

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.

They will see the mileage numbers as impressive and appreciate the car's road-worthy abilities, mixing efficiency with sportiness.

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