Current Trends in Small Cars - Small is Big

Honda CR-Z
When it goes on sale this summer, the 2011 Honda CR-Z will be the smallest hybrid you can buy. It's a foot shorter than the current Insight, although it's longer, wider, and taller than the original, two-seat Honda Insight, which, when it arrived in late 1999, was the first hybrid on American roads.

Along with the original Insight, the CR-Z's other spiritual ancestor is the CRX (sold from 1985 to 1991), Honda's superefficient two-seat funster. Chief chassis engineer Terukazu Torikai has said that, in developing the CR-Z's suspension, Honda benchmarked the Mini Cooper, the (European-market) Volkswagen Scirocco, and the Lotus Elise. That's some pretty lofty company, given the CR-Z's simple strut-type front suspension and torsion-beam rear axle.

To amp up its performance, Honda gave the CR-Z a larger, more powerful engine than the Insight, a 122-hp, 1.5-liter in-line four (versus the Insight's 98-hp 1.3-liter) bolstered by the same 10-kW electric motor. Whether the 24 extra ponies will be enough to significantly boost performance remains to be seen. In a further attempt to inject some fun into the hybrid equation, Honda is offering a six-speed manual transmission as standard equipment, which will make the CR-Z the only current hybrid to offer a manual.

Despite being a foot shorter than its four-door sibling, the CR-Z isn't really any lighter. At 2725 pounds, the CVT version weighs virtually the same as an Insight, while the stick-shift car is a bit more svelte at 2670 pounds. Because of its larger engine, the CR-Z's fuel economy falls short of the Insight's. Preliminary estimates are 36/38 mpg city/highway (CVT) and 31/37 mpg (manual), versus the Insight's 40/43 mpg. The blogosphere has been alight with criticism of these fuel-economy figures, most of it coming from fans of the old - and rare - CRX HF and the original Insight, both of which posted better numbers in their day.

Clearly, the CR-Z is not a pure mpg play but instead will have to make a case for itself by combining good fuel economy and good performance. But are the powertrain and chassis evolved enough from the Insight's to deliver the latter? We'll know better once we get a turn behind the wheel.

On sale: Mid-2010
What's the big deal?
The CR-Z is a foot shorter than the Insight, and more powerful, but can it recapture the spirit of the CRX?
1.5L I-4/electric hybrid, 122 hp, 128 lb-ft; continuously variable transmission or 6-speed manual; 36/38 mpg

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