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Honda CR-Z

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On the hybrid technology front Honda has charted a slightly different path to its main rival, Toyota.

Instead of offering buyers the ability to run a car completely on battery power, Hondaís Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) technology predictably assists the carís petrol engine but never acts as a substitute.

The end result is a lighter, more compact package - motor, battery, assorted electronics - as thereís no heavy lifting, battery-only driving to be done. It also means thereís no need for a big petrol engine if itís regularly receiving assistance from an electric motor.

All this talk of light weight and lean construction wouldnít be out of place if the subject matter was a sports car. Until now hybrids have been worthy, fuel-sipping machines for those seeking to save money, petrol and the planet. But what if you could have it all: economy, low emissions and fun.

According to Honda now you can, with its rakish CR-Z offering a slightly different take on hybrid motoring. Pitched at a more youthful audience seeking the benefits weíre all familiar with plus the enjoyment you get from running a warmed-over compact hatchback, the CR-Z boasts the looks and the performance to satisfy both your head and your heart. Itís even been designed with a very sporting two-plus-two seating arrangement, confirming that the real focus is on front seat occupants.

Unusually for a hybrid, the raw data only tells half the story. Other more eco-focused models might trump the CR-Zís economy and emissions figures (56.5mpg, 117g/km CO2), but the little Hondaís on-road performance (9.9 seconds to 62mph, 124mph top speed) is right up there with more conventional alternatives. And remember, this is a hybrid thatís been tuned for fun, making the carís 1.5-litre, 114 horsepower engine and motor combo all the more impressive.

Just to prove Honda is deadly serious about pitching the CR-Z as a sporty model, it has fitted the wedge-shaped car with a conventional six-speed manual gearbox. No slush-box auto here, and in true Honda fashion the shifter is super-short and slick just like that of a Civic Type R. And even with three pedals you still get an auto engine stop-start function as standard.

On the road the CR-Z offers drivers a firm yet engaging experience. You sit low down in the car, further enhancing its racy appeal, and corners can be attacked with considerable enthusiasm. And itís when youíre pressing on that the extra assistance from the carís electric motor makes a valuable contribution. That overtaking manoeuvre or uphill sprint is easily despatched with the aid of some additional electric power. Weíre not talking warp-factor acceleration here, but just enough to see your pace quicken a few notches.

The situation is further enhanced by the carís sport mode, which channels even more electric power if you want to throw caution and economy to the wind. Itís in this mode that the CR-Z is at its most entertaining and makes you wonder how conservative those on-paper performance figures really are.

Take the opposite approach - select the carís economy mode - and youíll instantly experience a more conservative throttle response. Ideal for low stress urban motoring, itís now that it should appeal to your greener side.

Keeping you in the loop when switching between modes is the carís array of predictably futuristic instruments and displays. The CR-Z wouldnít be a hybrid Honda if the speedometer didnít glow red if you used too much throttle, for example. Overall there are parallels with Civicís interior, as the gently curving fascia, outstanding build quality and clear (if a little wacky) displays should make Hondaís fan feel at home.

On balance the CR-Z delivers a better real world performance than its figures suggest possible. The modest range offers buyers a trio of well equipped cars to choose from, while the CR-Z is surprisingly practical for what is in reality a two-seat coupe for grown-ups. Cabin storage space plus a sizable boot and rear folding seats ensure daily life doesnít have to be a compromise.

Although a brave move from Honda - a sporty hybrid is something of an oxymoron - the CR-Z performs well in the context of delivering thrills at a time when saving money and fuel have become the dominant activities. Styling the car like something from the 25th century is further proof that Honda remains a risk-taker, which should be applauded.

FACTS AT A GLANCE


Model: Honda CR-Z 1.5i V-TEC GT From £19,999 on the road. Range from £16,999.

Engine: 1.5-litre petrol unit combined with electric motor developing 114bhp.

Transmission: 6-speed manual transmission as standard, driving the front wheels.

Performance: Maximum speed 124mph, 0-62mph 9.9 seconds.

Economy: 56.5mpg.

CO2 Rating: 117g/km.