The introduction of Honda's new CR-Z marks the first time that a mass-market hybrid has been explicitly pitched at the more sporting driver, rather than the purely parsimonious one. Sure, there have been swift hybrids (most of Lexus's range spring to mind) and most all-electric sports cars are easily the equal of their petrol powered siblings when it comes to sprinting off the line. But up until now, hybrids have largely been defined by Toyota's saintly Prius and its Honda-built rival, the Insight, both four-door family cars that offer high tech but little in the way of temptation for the enthusiast.
Honda hopes the CR-Z will change all that. Boldly claiming inspiration from the stubby little CR-X, first introduced in 1983, the CR-Z was shown as a concept back in 2009. Although the basic proportions have survived the transition from studio model to production line, the bolder details have not been so lucky. Where the concept was space-age, sharp-edged and futuristic, the production car is, to put it bluntly, rather ungainly, with broad brush styling that doesn't really work terribly well from any angle. Rear accommodation is also woefully tight - the back seats are off-limits to anyone over five foot, and they've been deleted entirely on the American model.
Up front it's a different matter. Although Honda's angular dash is a riot of blue, red and questionably racy graphics it won't win any prizes for cohesion or simplicity. Somehow, however, it works and suits the car's quirky character. The CR-Z is an easy drive, with steering that feels direct and precise and a real sense that it's slightly lighter on resources than other cars on the road.
After a multi-hundred horsepower beast the CR-Z naturally feels lacking in punch, but enter 'Sport' mode (the dash lighting glows red, rather than the soothing green of 'Eco' mode) and it fizzes like an Alka Seltzer. A 1.5 litre petrol engine gets extra pep from the electric motor. Although the interior is high-tech, the flimsy construction knocks decades off the car's feel, but in a good way - it has the spirit of a 1970s classic. That means the small engine that must be revved hard to make progress (and you can easily reach the limits of adhesion of the skinny tires) but the gearbox is brilliant and everything feels tight and compact.
Certain quarters of the automotive press have been less than enthusiastic about the CR-Z, which has apparently not managed to better age-enhanced memories of the original CR-X. But we liked the CR-Z a lot. A hybrid car hasn't been so small and light since the first generation Insight, way back in 1999. The combination of curious looks and modest performance make this a fine city car, a vehicle that might ultimately garner something of a cult following. That might not help Honda's push to dominate the hybrid market, but it adds a welcome choice for everyone else.