If there's a standout in the Honda 2013 lineup, it's the CR-Z, but not for the reasons you might expect. The car's true purpose remains masked by its contradictions, even after receiving a modest makeover and powertrain upgrade.
Visually, the car appears as sporty as all get out and a modern interpretation of the cute little CRX buzz-bomb of the 1980s and early '90s. That Civic-based two-seater was the ideal dance partner for drivers of modest means who wanted something that was light on its feet, looked cool and could perform magic zipping around town or over twisty highways.
Honda envisions a significantly different role for the CR-Z, however, one that blends modest performance with an equally modest attempt at eco-friendliness with its gasoline-electric hybrid power system.
The result is a pretty decent (and attractive) commuter vehicle, but it's ultimately a car that won't set the hearts of sports-car fans aflutter. Like a timid swimmer, the CR-Z only sticks its big toe into the automotive mainstream, something that anyone wishing to avoid the sameness of your typical econo-box should find appealing.
As for its 2013 updates, the good news is that Honda has avoided messing about with the CR-Z's looks, other than installing mesh-look inserts for the grille, fog-light pods and rear bodywork (diffuser) and adding extra bling around the headlights. That also goes for the interior, which now features some fancier trim and reshaped door panels with added bottle holders.
Unchanged are the wide and generally comfortable seats and the simple, but effective, dash- /control-panel layout.
Under its elongated hood are significant changes to the CR-Z's hybrid heart. The 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine now makes 119 horsepower, up six over the 2012 model. In addition, the nickel-metal-hydride battery pack is replaced with a lighter and more efficient lithium-ion battery pack to backstop the electric motor. The system output is now 130 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque, or 127 pound-feet on models fitted with the optional continuously variable transmission (CVT). That's up from 122 horses and 128 (123) pound-feet of torque.
The CR-Z comes with a selectable "3-Mode Drive System" with Sport, Normal and Econ settings to allow the driver a choice of efficiencies in operating performance and fuel consumption. Added for 2013 is a unique Plus Sport System. Provided the battery has at least a 50-percent charge, pushing the "S+" button on the steering wheel while accelerating produces an extra boost of power that lasts for up to five seconds, regardless of which of the three drive-system modes you're in.
The CR-Z's six-speed manual transmission returns with a beefed-up clutch and a different final gear ratio for improved (by one mpg) highway efficiency. From driving experience, sticking with the manual with its light, precise shifter is unquestionably your best choice if maximum performance is preferred.
Fuel economy is estimated at 31/38-mpg city/highway, however better results can be achieved with the CVT option that gets 36/39 city highway. Other manufacturer's hybrids can do better, but most cost more than the CR-Z's $20,800 asking price, which includes destination charges.
For that entry fee you can count on all of the usual and expected comfort features for the base model, but step up to the EX and you'll get fancier trim with ambient console lighting, high-intensity discharge headlights and a 650-watt premium audio system. A navigation system with rear-view camera is available specifically for the EX. Unfortunately, options such as leather-covered power-adjustable seats and the latest electronic safety items aren't available at any price.
Otherwise the CR-Z's advantages appear to outweigh its drawbacks. The car's sharp styling, comfortable cabin and extra-roomy and versatile cargo area are not-to-be-overlooked virtues that make it an ideal touring car for two.
Dial in some extra power and fuel efficiency and the 2013 CR-Z's quirky nature just makes it that much more attractive.
What you should know: 2013 Honda CR-Z
Type: Two-door, two seat compact hybrid hatchback
Engine (hp): 1.5-liter SOHC I4 (119 plus a 20-hp electric motor, 13-net horsepower)
Transmissions: Six-speed manual; continuously variable (CVT) opt.
Market position: Honda's niche-model CR-Z hasn't caught on with the public in the same way as the similar CRX did two decades ago. It also fights an uphill battle with Toyota for hybrid marketshare (as do other competing brands).
Points: Excellent design basically untouched for 2013; Hybrid powerplant produces more power, but CR-Z cries for the Civic's Si engine option; Manual gearbox should be your only choice; Power boost system makes you feel like a racer, but is helpful for overtaking; Despite some issues, the CR-Z is still fun to drive and good for long trips.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy) 36/39 (CVT)
Base price (incl. destination) $20,800
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