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2011 Honda CR-Z hybrid is a sporty eco-activist

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Cars typically force drivers to make a choice: sporty but piggish on fuel or efficient and underwhelming.

With its 2011 CR-Z, Honda Motor Co. is playing with a new concept. It's called responsible indulgence, and Honda's debuting the idea with a two-seat "sporty hybrid coupe" that's got some spunk but doesn't force drivers to check their environmental consciences at the door. Starting at $19,200, the CR-Z offers conservationist virtues and Kardashian curves on a Kmart budget.

The latest gas-electric powertrain from Honda is slightly larger than the one used in its slow-selling Insight hybrid. The CR-Z has 0.2 liters of additional displacement and twice as many valves on its inline four cylinders. As a result, its 1.5-liter i-VTEC engine and 10-kilowatt brushless electric motor are slightly less fuel efficient, rating 39 miles per gallon on the highway for the automatic and 37 mpg for the one I tested — a six-speed manual transmission, a first for a hybrid car.

Fuel economy varies, of course, depending on how a car is driven. In that arena the CR-Z provides options that go beyond the usual accelerator and brake-pedal inputs. The 3-mode drive system switches the balance of performance and fuel economy, letting drivers choose between the bridled torque of "econ," just-the-facts-ma'am "normal" and "sport," which is quite frisky for such a small engine.

Taking it on serpentine stretches of the historic Arroyo Seco Parkway (a.k.a. the 110 freeway near Pasadena), I was impressed with the CR-Z's handling in sport mode, and how well this little hybrid hugged the road.

The CR-Z never lets the driver forget its environmental mission. Each drive mode rings the tachometer in a different hue of neon light, kind of like a mood ring: green for economy, blue for normal and red for sport. When an up- or down-shift would help the car achieve better fuel economy, a light on the 3-D dash display in the manual version let me know. And if I didn't get the message while I was flooring it, the car's Eco Assist feature pointed it out in no uncertain terms. It actually assigned me an "eco" score that was presented with a botanical-themed graphic, rather than numbers. The more efficient my driving, the more "leaves" that appeared on the dashboard.

How'd I do? Uh, time to up my contribution to Carbonfund.org.

The CR-Z is primarily designed to appeal to the young and single — or anyone, really, who wants to roll lean and green. Part of what enabled Honda to keep the cost under $20,000 is the car's Integrated Motor Assist, a system that mounts the ultra-thin electric motor between the transmission and gasoline engine and metes the flow of electricity to and from the motor.

Design-wise, the CR-Z is quite the looker. Its teardrop body shape makes it clear the car is a hybrid, but it has a far more aggressive stance than the upstanding-citizen look of other gas-electrics on the market. Although the CR-Z looks similar to the Insight and other products in the Honda portfolio, it's related in the same way Khloe, Kim and Kourtney Kardashian look like sisters — only the CR-Z has the pedigree and the personality and the curvaceous, come-hither bod all rolled in to one.

Like the sport cars that provided its inspiration, the bonnet and, more importantly, the engine and motor beneath it are both situated low for a more sporty performance. The double spoiler is in the front to provide better aerodynamics. Overall, the CR-Z's profile is lean and low slung, and its seat will make drivers feel like trolls.

The driver's seat can be moved upward. It just has to be pumped by hand, and pumping it too much nearly cranked my cranium into the roof. Luckily, we're not living in the 1980s, because big hair would be squished.

There's no way to seat anyone in the back. Although the Japanese and European versions of the CR-Z have a rear seat, the American CR-Z is a two-seat coupe. At least it has a rear storage area. With the push of a button, the rear cargo "console," as Honda calls it, can be flattened, providing 25.1 cubic feet of space for the loads of dirty laundry single guys tend to haul home to their mothers, or a couple of pony kegs of beer, which will be unloaded at their apartment.

Although it has two seats, the CR-Z seems designed for solo driving. That's evident from the curvature of the car's controls, which are angled in toward the driver, almost cup-like. The shape not only beckoned me to become one with the CR-Z, but improved the ergonomics, making it easy to operate the 360-watt stereo and satellite-linked, voice-activated navigation system of the EX version I tested.

For such a low price, I was relieved Honda didn't cheap out the interior. The seats aren't leather, but the textiles and other touch points were soft, the color scheme a pleasing metallic and black.

My EX came with a manual transmission, but the automatic would have been my preference because manuals are a pain in L.A. traffic and the automatic's outfitted with paddle shifters. More fun. Less work.

Both versions offer far less fuel economy than the Toyota Prius, which has the best of any car currently on the market — 51 mpg city and 48 highway. That lands the CR-Z in the mpg and price realm of sporty mini- and sub-compacts like the BMW Mini and Honda Fit, market segments that are also gaining momentum and are likely to be competition for the CR-Z.

Overall, I wish the CR-Z felt a bit torquier and sportier, and that the fuel economy was more Prius-like, but the design and concept are both spectacular. I look forward to the CR-Z, generation two.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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