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Honda’s new hot hybrid adds style, performance to the mix

The terms hybrid and performance have largely been mutually exclusive within the last few years of car manufacturing. Honda’s new CR-Z hybrid sports coupe has gone some way to change that perception. The new 2+2 coupe gives people who care about emissions, just as much as the experience of driving, a new option.

For £17,000, you get a very stylish modern car with technology under the hood to match. Honda’s theory was to use make the car “wedge”-like so it is angular and futuristic but also low and wide like a sports car. The result is an attractive car that makes its rivals look out of date, both in technology and style.

Driving the CR-Z, you hardly notice the hybrid powertrain. It is different from other hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, as it can’t run on electricity alone. Instead, the electric motor is there to assist the traditional 1.5-litre, i-VTEC petrol engine to give you a boost and save fuel. The electric motor provides its peak torque instantly from the start, improving initial acceleration and making the car feel nippy at the lights.

The torque curve of this new hybrid is unusually flat for a naturally aspirated engine, with the peak arriving at just 1,500 rpm so the car feels more balanced through the rev range — think of it as a super-efficient techy turbocharger.

Honda’s CR-Z produces a total power output of 122bhp with 14 of those horses coming from the electric motor. This produces a 0-62 time of 9.9 seconds, which breaks the 10-second mark but is in no way blistering.

The key for Honda to make a performance-oriented hybrid was to hook up a hybrid drivetrain to a manual transmission. The CR-Z is the first hybrid to come with a six-speed manual box. The gear changes are short, precise and direct, keeping the driver engaged with the car.

The loves-to-be-revved i-VTEC motor comes with a satisfyingly sporty sound out of the exhaust, essential to keep the driver’s senses happy.

Mechanically, the CR-Z is an engineering hybrid as it shares a lot of parts and knowledge with other cars in the Honda range. The hybrid system of the car is straight from the Insight but the sporty credentials are from the Civic Type R, giving the car a stiff but smooth ride and great feel in the corners.

The theme of driver orientation continues in the cabin, with a dash and dials that warp around the driver. Most details are finished with materials which are great to touch but passengers can feel a bit left out as the other side looks a bit bare as there are more scratchy plastics surrounding them.

Passengers are strictly limited to one, as you would struggle to strap anything but your shopping in the rear seats. There is the more-sensible option of dropping the rear seats to open up a massive 401 litres of space, more than enough for a couple of golf bags or a sack of organic compost.

To try and balance the act of a road-hugging sports car performance with mindful CO2 actions, the car can change its behaviour depending on what environment you are in. Located on the dash are three buttons that change the car’s setup for how you want to drive.

You can choose from either “Sport,” “Normal” or “Econ” and — depending on your decision — the throttle, steering, idle stop timing, climate control and the level of assistance provided by the electric motor will change.

“Sport” mode sharpens the throttle response, gets the most power from the hybrid system and increases the weight of the electric power steering to give the driver more feel — all essential for a solid driving experience.

“Econ” mode is used for best efficiency and fuel economy. The throttle is numbed and less responsive so you don’t fly away from the lights, the air conditioning is given a rest and the dashboard changes colour to a red mist when you start getting wasteful with the fuel.

“Normal” achieves the best of both worlds and is what people will use most of the time as “Sport” mode can be a bit aggressive all of the time.

But isn’t this juggling act of performance and efficiency just making the CR-Z not a really a performance car and not really a green car?

Well, kind of. The MPG and CO2 figures for the car aren’t exactly ground-breaking with 117g/km being offloaded whilst on a combined cycle of 56.5mpg. The CR-Z’s 0-62 time of 9.9 seconds is no way class-leading either but it does come in cheaper than its rivals.

But this car is no way a compromise; in fact it is doing a great thing of breaking down the sterotype of hybrid drivers. This car could liberate people from not having to say that they own a hybrid in a hushed voice when in a crowd of petrolheads. It looks like the strategy is working, too, as a number of Japanese car tuners are taking the CR-Z onboard to make it a green pocket rocket.

So is this the first “hot” hybrid? Yes it is, and I hope there are more to come.

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