But in the meantime, the CR-Z is an exercise in compromise. It was conceived as a 1.3-liter car for Europe but was given a 1.5-liter engine to appeal to U.S. drivers. It aims to be sporty with a six-speed stick-shift option but also comes in a version with continuously variable transmission to squeeze out extra fuel economy.
The result: a 122-hp package that delivers a 0-to-62-mph time that, at 9.7 seconds, barely edges the Toyota Prius. And fuel economy is only 36/38 mpg, well below the Prius' 51/48.
The 0-62 time comes from a leaked early edition of the Japanese sales catalog. Honda has dropped all references to it. Indeed, Honda conspicuously omits a 0-60 speed for a car that it touts as sporty.
The CR-Z went on sale in Japan in February and reaches U.S. showrooms this summer.
Honda plans to sell 40,000 to 50,000 CR-Zs a year worldwide, 15,000 in North America. Japan sales are projected at 12,000 a year, and Europe will get the rest.
Tetsuo Iwamura, president of American Honda Motor Co., was skeptical right up until he drove the final prototype.
"He kept saying they don't need a hybrid," recalled Tomobe.
"In the American market, people equate hybrids with the Prius," he said of Iwamura's cool response. "If the hybrid is sporty, it's going to confuse the customers and dealers."
The CR-Z's fate was put before Takanobu Ito, now president of Honda Motor but then head of automobile operations. "He said, 'Don't worry about the States, just keep developing it,' " Tomobe said.
While driving early prototypes, Iwamura relentlessly derided the car, Tomobe said. But when he got behind the wheel of the final version, his reaction changed.
Suddenly, the project was a go.
"It's ironic that the United States was the most vocal in saying they didn't want the car, but the CR-Z still made its world debut at the Detroit motor show," Tomobe said.
Tomobe, who cut his teeth as chief engineer on Japanese market projects such as the Mobilio Spike and Elysion minivans, is unapologetic about the CR-Z's compromises.
"I'm satisfied," he said. "This is what the future of sports cars will be for Honda. We are not pursuing absolute maximum speed. What we aim for is a car that is exhilarating to drive."
On paper, the CR-Z's power may seem lackluster. But sporty handling makes up for it, Tomobe said. The three-mode drive system helps by delivering extra throttle responsiveness.
Drivers can select normal, economy or sporty driving modes. In sporty mode, drivers of the CVT can simulate stepped shifting manually by flipping paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
The CR-Z borrows liberally from its hybrid forerunner, the Insight, which came out last year. It has the same engine room, front flooring, fuel tank and hybrid system. The motor, battery and inverter essentially are the same as the Insight's, Tomobe said.