SAN FRANCISCO -- Although it's no sports car, the Honda CR-Z may change some people's minds about just how sporty a hybrid vehicle can be.
On the other hand, by giving the two-seater such a sporty appearance, Honda may be overstating how hot the CR-Z is.
The basics: For the United States, Honda made the CR-Z just a two-seater, whereas Japan and Europe get a plus-two version of a back seat.
Honda saved development costs by using the engine and much of the Integrated Motor Assist hybrid system from the Insight hybrid five-door hatchback. The CR-Z comes with a choice of a six-speed manual transmission or a continuously variable automatic.
Notable features: To improve performance, Honda shaved weight in such places as the 16-inch wheels and by using forged aluminum lower control arms for the front suspension.
A "sport" mode provides a noticeable boost in power by monitoring throttle input. An "eco" mode cuts the power but sips gas. The federal fuel economy tests were done in "normal" mode.
The instruments have nice touches, like a 3-D speedometer and tachometer ring that glows green, blue or red depending on how cautiously or aggressively the CR-Z is being driven. The stereo is a six-speaker, 160-watt system with a USB port. Instead of two rear seats, the U.S.-edition CR-Z has an expanded cargo area that can be reconfigured.
Standard features include security system, variable wipers, LED brake lights, automatic climate control, cruise control and the usual traction and braking-assist technologies.
What Honda says: "The engine is the main driver and the [electric] motor is just an assist," Norio Tomobe, CR-Z chief engineer, said about using the hardware carried over from the Insight. "It is a light, compact, low-cost system. It is optimal for small vehicles."
Compromises and shortcomings: Honda considered using a 1.8-liter engine instead of the Insight's 1.5 liters, but it would have added only 20 hp. Tomobe said a higher-performance version may come in the future.
The ride is a bit jouncy because Honda chose a torsion-beam rear suspension instead of a fully independent setup. A day of spirited country-highway driving netted 35 mpg -- not much better than the similarly sized Honda Fit, which isn't even a hybrid. The CR-Z received four stars out of a possible five on the revised New Car Assessment Program crash-test ratings.
The market: The CR-Z goes on sale Aug. 24 at a price expected to be less than $20,000, including shipping. Sales goals are modest -- about 15,000 annually. The CR-Z Web site has had 1 million hits since the car's public unveiling at the Detroit auto show in January.
The skinny: So is it a sports car? Well, it won't set your hair on fire, and a small car can feel fast even when it isn't. Is it more fun to drive than a Prius or Insight? Definitely.