Drove the new Honda CR-Z hybrid coupe this week – and it knocked my socks off. Every year I reckon two or three cars come along and surprise me. The cars that deliver the greatest shock are often those when you're least expecting it; not fancy-named Modenese missiles, but more more mundane fare.
Last year it was the Skoda Yeti and this year's jolt had until now been the bargain Dacia Duster. The margin between expectation and reality can be greater in the ranks. As anyone will tell you, designing a brilliant supermini on a budget is like scaling Everest compared with the stroll of launching a supercar with a telephone directory price.
So why's the Honda CR-Z one of the surprise hits of 2010?
It's all to do with that chasm between expectation and delivery. The Honda Insight has had a rough ride around these parts. We were excited when news broke of Honda's plan to launch a new, more affordable kind of hybrid. We wrote scoops galore, penned big technical features in the magazine and teed up a decent drive once the Insight was born. The problem was, the end result was wide of the mark.
We've been so critical of the Honda Insight that it became hard to believe it could spawn a sportier hybrid. The Insight might undercut the Prius – its nemesis from Toyota – but we slated its driving dynamics, low-rent cabin, mild hybrid operation, refinement and, especially, its economy. We ran an Insight for six months and our average mpg was little better than a mid-market diesel. Honda even took extraordinary steps to announce mid-life fixes with an unusually candid admission that the Insight was underperforming in some areas.
And then the CR-Z came along and proved us all wrong.
Honda CR-Z: why making a manual hybrid makes all the difference
Back to the CR-Z that landed in our car park this week. With the above expectation weighing heavily on my mind, I plipped the key to the CR-Z the other night. The CR-Z is a pretty little thing, all short wheelbase and pert, distinctive dimensions. The doors open with that well oiled precision we've come to expect of Honda and you swing yourself into a cosy cabin.
Everything about the CR-Z is diminutive and the rear seats are a joke – it's a 2+0 more like. The cabin is modern, with that driver-focused pod of controls flanking the steering wheel as pioneered a decade back on the first Insight (how different that edgy pioneer was from today's Mk2). The CR-Z's plastics might not be soft to touch, but the layout is pleasingly modern and you just know it stands a good chance of not going wrong. The dials have a sophisticated luminescent glow, although there are too many separate eco instruments to baffle.
And to drive?
But the best single thing about the CR-Z is the way it drives. This is the first manual transmission hybrid I'm aware of, certainly the first in Europe – and what a difference this makes. Instead of the revs soaring up and down like a child playing scales on a piano, you're finally in control of the engine. It helps that the gearchange is a delight: a proper snickety Honda affair with nearly the joy of the Civic Type RIP's 'box. Without the CVT whine and unpredictable rpm, this hybrid finally makes sense. Is that more a reflection of me, preferring the comfort of old-school engine behaviour? Perhaps. But the CR-Z does what you want, when you expect it.
You've probably read our first drive and seen Mark Walton's video thrashing a CR-Z across the Pyrenees, so I won't deliver a full Honda CR-Z review here. Suffice to say that I was smitten with Honda's little hybrid coupe. Something distinctive, something fun, something chuckable and bursting with character. It won't drive on silent EV mode (it's not a full hybrid) but that battery pack contributes to 117g/km of CO2 and 57mpg and you'll sit silently at the traffic lights as the engine cuts out.
It's a genuine replacement for the CRX I lusted after as a child. And one of the first mass-market green cars you can genuinely get excited about without breaking the bank (it costs from £16,999). Bravo Honda.