Toyota’s hot answer to Honda’s CR-Z

TOKYO -- Could this be Toyota’s riposte to Honda’s CR-Z sporty hybrid?

Since debuting at January’s Tokyo Auto Salon, an open-cockpit sports hybrid concept based on Toyota’s MR2 has tantalized buffs yearning for something brawnier in the company’s lineup.

I finally drove the car around the grounds of Fuji Speedway this month. And I think I can safely say that this is what people have in mind when they think sporty hybrid.

Don’t get me wrong. The CR-Z is a fun ride. But Honda’s take is still a compromise package that delivers neither outstanding fuel efficiency nor exhilarating horsepower.

The specs of Toyota’s incarnation speak for themselves: a 3.3-liter V-6 engine, all-wheel drive, an electric motor that helps deliver output equivalent to a 4-liter powerplant. And it’s a convertible. Then there’s its 0-60 time, reportedly 4.5 seconds. Not too shabby.

I didn’t clock it myself. But the low-end torque, courtesy of the electric motor, gives real zip.

The hybrid concept is still too obviously a concept. Our Toyota minders repeatedly asked us to take it easy on the car so it wouldn’t break. But Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada says the company is working on sporty hybrid and wants to offer one. No promises, though…

Until then, keep an eye the affordable sports car, the FT-86, due in 2012 as a joint project with Subaru. Any chance of Toyota’s version getting a hybrid option to set it apart?