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Warren Brown reviews the 2011 Honda CR-Z EX

(Courtesy of Honda)
(Courtesy of Honda)

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By Warren Brown
Sunday, September 5, 2010

The theory of "temperate pragmatism," in vogue with some futurists, says we will no longer pursue luxury without portfolio. Hard times have chastened us, including those with money, or those left with less of it after Wall Street scams and bank failures, the theory says.

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As a result, according to that thinking, luxury now requires redemptive virtue. It must offer something other than exclusivity and pizazz. The new luxury must have meaning, function.

It's a theory that may fade away with the current, slowly fading recession. But it has already brought forth automotive products for the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too crowd.

The trend is particularly noticeable in the arena of gas-electric hybrid cars, once occupied by environmental purists looking only for better fuel economy and less tailpipe pollution.

Today, environmental fundamentalism has strayed from its ascetic, science-project roots into a world of fashion, passion and Walter Mitty fantasy. The result is a host of new hybrids designed to stroke affluent egos while assuaging their consumptive guilt. Hybrid versions of the luxury Volkswagen Touareg SUV and Lexus GS 450 sedan are examples.

And now we have what is perhaps an inevitable development -- the gas-electric hybrid as fast and furious sports car . . . when it wants to be. The caveat is needed because the 2011 Honda CR-Z EX sports coupe, the subject of this week's column, wants to be, and is capable of being, so many seemingly contradictory things, thanks largely to advanced electronics.

Push the "Sport" button on the left side of the instrument panel and the front-wheel-drive two-seater becomes a zippy runabout, replete with sporty handling and burbling exhaust note. Push the "Normal" button and the CR-Z settles down for civil urban commutes. Push the appropriately green-colored-with-leaf-insignia "Econ" button and enter Honda's version of eco-heaven, where all of your green driving deeds are dutifully recorded by logarithm-digesting sensors and reported to you on instrument-panel screens.

It's a hoot, made more fun and enjoyable by the CR-Z's pricing, $19,200 to $23,210 in base-sticker numbers. Affluent parents can buy a couple of CR-Z models for their kids and look environmentally and fiscally responsible. They can buy one or two for themselves and have fun with austerity. Honda is onto something here -- accessible, affordable, approachable, enjoyable, fun-to-drive environmentalism.

People who find the CR-Z reminiscent of the now-departed Honda Prelude and CRX models are correct in their assessments. Like the CR-Z, those cars have rear ends afflicted with woefully obscure rear vision.

The hybrid CR-Z, unlike its longer-bodied, four-door hybrid sibling, the Honda Insight, makes no pretense of family utility. Like most sport coupes, it will accept a couple of soft, crushable bags for an overnight trip. To ask it to do more is to defeat its design intent, which brings up another point.

The term "sport" in reference to the CR-Z is used advisedly. This isn't a car that will please recalcitrant throttle jockeys, although it is available with an optional six-speed manual gearbox, or with Formula One race-type paddle shifters on either side of the steering wheel for models bought with the continuously variable automatic transmission.

You can have fun in the CR-Z. You can envision yourself tearing around a racetrack in "Sport" mode. But it isn't too difficult to push this one too far or too hard before it starts hiccupping, downshifting, wiggling a bit and letting you know that it's just a dream, something like irrational exuberance over a stock offering.


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