Honda’s CR-Z coupé

Pay attention, class. This week’s discussion is on the psychology of the hybrid. To help explore it – Oxford English Dictionary, please note – I have come up with a meaningful new word. It is “priety”. And it defines the caring state of grace that drivers of Toyota’s Prius hybrid “green” car tend to bestow upon themselves.

The Prius made its debut on the world’s roads well over a decade ago. There are now more than one million in circulation, their drivers virtuously demonstrating how they are helping to save the planet.

To some extent, the Prius’s progress has been a triumph of subtle, holier-than-thou image-building almost as much as innovative machinery. In the real world of day-to-day usage including long journeys, the Prius does well to achieve an average 55 miles per gallon – not the mid-70s with which it is credited by official EU test figures and barely better than state-of-the-art turbodiesels.

But the Prius’s figures are still highly commendable and, coupled with the hybrid’s low CO2 emissions and ability to cover short distances on battery power only, its right to exemption from London’s congestion charging has been fairly earned.

It has achieved a big enough following for Honda to come up with a small-saloon rival, the Insight hybrid, which uses essentially the same technology. Similar hybrids from other carmakers are imminent.

Many more hybrids would be on the roads already but for the current narrowness of their appeal. Young or old, most people could be expected to want to do their bit to reduce the potential for global warming. And to drive a hybrid could be considered a good start. Try telling that, however, to younger drivers for whom style and flair also loom large in their car-buying priorities.

The original Prius was perhaps the most boringly styled saloon ever to take to the road apart from a Russian Lada or Moskvich. And while successive Prius models and the Insight have become increasingly attractive aesthetically, an air of fustiness and middle-aged self-righteousness has clung to the hybrid ever since. Who among the style-conscious in their twenties or early thirties would thus want to risk being mistaken for an ancient, defecting Volvo estate car driver, or – horrors – a Westminster politician or mandarin?

Honda might just, however, be poised to trigger a substantial shift in perceptions. Its tool for doing so is the new, sub-£20,000 CR-Z. It is a two-door coupé. It looks sensational. It goes round corners rather well – a first for the small, relatively cheap hybrid sector – and it only sacrifices function to form with two mainly token, small-child-only perches in the rear (although folded down, the latter provide good boot space).

If there is a notable downside, it is that, while the CR-Z is an altogether perkier performer than either the Prius or Insight, it still falls short of most conventional sports coupés in terms of pace. Standstill to 62mph takes an only-briskish nine seconds-plus and top speed is reached at 124mph.

Its twin power units – an electric motor allied to a nickel metal hydride battery pack and a 1.5 litre petrol engine taken from the Jazz hatchback – provide a combined 122 horsepower and 128lb/ft of torque. Despite the CR-Z being almost 50kg lighter than the Insight, however, the higher performance does extract its price: its official EU combined rural/urban test cycle consumption of 56.5mpg is nearly 20mpg worse than the Prius while the 117g/km of CO2 it emits is well above a number of sub-99g/km turbodiesels denied (unlike the CR-Z) exemption from the congestion charge.

Young and sporting drivers, once seated, are likely to feel much more at home in the CR-Z than in either the Insight or Prius. The seats are hip-hugging and supportive. The driver sits low and the expanse of dashboard with its futuristically styled instrumentation exudes cool style. Just like the Insight, if the CR-Z is driven with a featherlight foot, a small green virtual tree symbol “grows” more leaves in approval.

They have a lot harder time growing, however, than in the Insight. Select “sport” mode and electric and petrol motors join forces with little prompting to maximise performance, which subjectively seems better than it is because of the electric motor’s low-speed torque. The throttle responses sharpen and the car takes on a most unhybrid-like alertness and agility. The ride, handling and perfectly weighted, accurate steering are of a different order from the Prius; even more so from the Insight, whose wooden, thumping progress over bumps reminded me faintly of the soapbox derby karts in which I began a lifelong career of scenery-clouting.

The CR-Z goes best and feels best in “sport”. Resist temptation, however; instead, engage “economy” and the engine management system will slow responses, curb throttle abuse, bring the official 56.5mpg back within sight and grow dashboard leaves galore. There is a “normal” setting but it makes the car humdrum – neither fast fish nor frugal fowl.

But no one need know the CR-Z is in “economy” mode. Just like Porsches and Ferraris can often be seen loping along the motorway at 70mph, it would be easy to glance at the CR-Z’s low, aggressive form and assume the driver is simply relaxing towards home after a hard-driven “track day”. That will be even more likely for those who opt for the CR-Z’s aerodynamic and other sporting aids that Honda is launching multinationally through Mugen, its tuning and motor sport arm.

Will it win over the young? If what happened in Japan is anything to go by, Honda has good cause for optimism. It took 10,000 orders in its first month on sale – 10 times what Honda had dared hope.

The details

Honda’s hybrid races ahead of the competition

How much?

From £16,999 before extras

How fast?

0-62mph, 9.7 secs, top speed 124mph

How thirsty?

56.5mpg on EU urban/rural test cycle

How green?

117g/km CO2

Also consider

Prius (from £19,500), Insight (from £16,300). But only if four seats are vital

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