The 2012 Honda CR-Z probably starts with two strikes against it: Memories of the old CRX may make it into more than it was, and because the CR-Z is a hybrid, it will never have the crisp purity of performance that the CRX embodied. If you take it on those terms, and add a caveat--"for a hybrid, anyway"--the CR-Z can be fun to drive.
The powertrain is roughly the same as the one used in the Honda Civic Hybrid, with a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and a 15-kilowatt (20-horsepower) electric motor sandwiched between it and the transmission. Together, the engine and motor produce a maximum of 122 hp and 128 pound-feet of torque. But, like all Honda mild hybrids, you can't move away from rest on electric power alone--the battery pack delivers its energy only to supplement the engine power and restart the car after it comes to a stop and switches off the engine.
The engine still likes to rev, like most Hondas, and unusually for a hybrid, buyers can opt not only for the usual continuously variable transmission (CVT) but also a six-speed manual. That makes the CR-Z the sole manual-transmission hybrid car sold this year, though it comes with a gas-mileage penalty. The six-speed was fun to drive, though we still haven't had a chance to drive a CVT-equipped CR-Z. We suspect it's not nearly as enjoyable as the manual, despite paddle shifters that provide simulated "upshifts" and "downshifts" to wring more power out of the otherwise uber-economical engine programming.
Like every new Honda, the 2012 CR-Z includes an "Econ" button on the dash. But it also offers a Sport mode (the default Normal mode makes three). Each mode offers different mapping for throttle response, transmission shift points and ratios, and steering feel. Econ mode is joyless, slow, and frustrating, with slower acceleration and a disconcerting ability to lose momentum rapidly on hills. Even the climate controls produce less heat or cool air in this mode, and only the masochistically green will use it regularly.
Sport brings the CR-Z much closer to the character of a two-seater roller skate, though there's still the odd feeling of electric power switching in and out. The steering is quicker, the engine response is faster, and there's less resistance in the pedal to hard acceleration. If we had our way, we'd keep the CR-Z in Sport mode all the time--and suffer the gas-mileage consequences.
The EPA rates the 2012 CR-Z at 35 mpg city, 39 mpg highway, for a combined 37 mpg--if you get the CVT. Opt for more reward behind the wheel with the six-speed, and the ratings drop to 31 mpg city, 37 mpg highway, for a combined 34 mpg. Former CRX owners (of which there seem to be many) will immediately howl that their car got better mileage than that--which it likely did. It also had far less safety equipment, fewer standard features, emitted more pollutants, and weighed 700 pounds less. In other words, that CRX of memory couldn't be sold today. The CR-Z may be as good as you're going to get.
The Insight, on the other hand, has more interior space and two more doors, but still gets higher mileage ratings--42 mpg city, 44 mpg highway for 2012. It also has a smaller engine and slower acceleration, so you picks your money and you takes your choice. But we suspect that the CR-Z won't be cross-shopped against a five-door hybrid hatch, but rather the dwindling number of small, inexpensive coupe models in the compact and subcompact class. All of those, however, have a nominal four seats, even if the rear ones aren't habitable for full-size adults.
Handling-wise, the CR-Z is small and chuckable. It has nowhere near the balance of a Mazda Miata, but with a lower seating position, a shorter wheelbase, and more power than the Insight, it may be the most fun hybrid on the road south of the German and Japanese luxury makes. It's not quite a sports car, but it's definitely not a traditional hybrid hatchback. Like most front-wheel drive Hondas, it understeers at the limit, scrubbing off speed with the front tires. It's not so much fun to drive that you'll find yourself testing the limits regularly, though.
The electric power steering was decently weighted and provided some feedback (not all Japanese makers have mastered that trick), but the short wheelbase and torsion-beam rear suspension mean the ride starts at firm and can degenerate into crashy on particularly bad road surfaces. Drivers will feel the transition from electric assist to regenerative braking as the electric motor switches tasks, and they may occasionally feel the transition from regenerative to friction braking as well.
The one advantage of the CR-Z is that if you're an urban dweller who parks on the street, the CR-Z is probably second only to the unpleasant Smart ForTwo in ease of parking. It'll slot into spaces that a Prius driver can't even dream of attempting. Competing with the Smart ForTwo, however, would be a grim and reductive fate for this mixed-mode sports-economy two-seat coupe.