SANTA ROSA, CA – Much like Sally Field in the movie Sybil, the new Honda CR-Z hybrid sports coupe is hard to pin down.

But unlike the movie character, who suffered multiple identities, the ’11 CR-Z on sale in August has only two personalities: sort-of-sporty and slow.

The 2-seat CR-Z’s agile side is decidedly apparent while in Sport driving mode. This is its best and most-important persona if the car is to appeal to the younger buyer Honda is targeting, as well as older buyers who owned the CRX predecessor.

Even in Normal mode, which is the default setting, the CR-Z is somewhat peppy. But the car’s slow side reveals itself in Econ, the third driver-selectable mode and the only obvious way to know the CR-Z is indeed a hybrid with Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist technology under the hood.

The two divergent personalities make a single lukewarm impression. With 122 hp and a nearly 2,700-lb. (1,225 kg) curb weight, just shy of the Insight’s, it’s not really all that athletic.

And while our testers’ fuel economy was decent, in the upper 30-mpg (8 L/100 km) range, a larger, nearly-as-efficient Civic coupe can be had for about the same price, or even less.

CR-Z chief engineer Norio Tomobe says the development target was for a low, short and wide vehicle that offered a high degree of sportiness. The car’s windshield is wide for good cornering visibility, and the driver sits in a low position with upright steering.

The CR-Z’s exterior sheetmetal has visible tension, with a close-to-the-ground look for “presence,” he adds.

The production CR-Z isn’t quite as daring as the concept version unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January. But it still cuts an attractive image on the road, with its blackened pillars making the windshield look even wider and the low grille, with the Honda logo on the edge of the hood, is a step in the right direction.

It almost makes us forget about the ill-proportioned Accord Crosstour.

The CR-Z’s most unattractive feature is its tall and triangular-shaped rear, which – for all the talk linking it and the CRX – is most mindful of the original Honda Insight. However, the rear treatment creates huge blind spots for the driver, just as it did in the Insight.

Inside, obvious corners were cut to bring the CR-Z in under $20,000, with a rat-fur headliner, flimsy vinyl-wrapped visors, no center armrest or grab bars, and, most obviously, only two usable seats.

But the interior is redeemed with its sole color scheme, black and gray. Controls are well laid out and seats are bolstered to hold drivers in place. The cargo area, which can be expanded by collapsing the rear divider, is voluminous.

The CR-Z’s IMA mostly carries over from the Insight. Although it has the same 13-hp (10-kW) electric motor, its engine is bigger: a 1.5L 16-valve SOHC 4-cyl. with Honda’s i-VTEC variable valve timing technology.

The pairing allows for a low torque peak of 128 lb.-ft. (173 Nm) from 1,000-1,750 rpm in 6-speed manual models, while versions with a continuously variable transmission make 123 lb.-ft. (167 Nm) in the same range.

’11 Honda CR-Z EX with Navigation
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-drive, 2-passenger coupe
Engine 1.5L SOHC all-aluminum inline 4-cyl.
Power (SAE net) 122 hp @ 6,000 rpm (total, electric motor 13 hp)
Torque 128 lb.-ft (173 Nm) @ 1,000-1,750 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 73.0 x 89.0
Compression ratio 10.4:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 95.9 ins. (243 cm)
Overall length 160.6 ins. (408 cm)
Overall width 68.5 ins. (174 cm)
Overall height 54.9 ins. (139 cm)
Curb weight 2,654 lbs./1,204 kg
Base price $20,000 est.
Fuel economy 31/37 mpg (7.6-6.3 L/100 km)
Competition Mini Cooper, Scion tC, Volkswagen Beetle, Mitsubishi Eclipse
Pros Cons
Good fuel economy Bigger, less-costly Civic almost as stingy
Nice interior design Cheap materials, missing features
Fun in Sport mode Econ mode equals zero sportiness

That un-Honda-like low torque peak helps the CR-Z get out of its own way and makes the lowest gears the most exciting, at least in 6-speed-manual models. The car agreeably launches in second, and most testers here took it through an autocross course in first.

However, cruising the undulating roads near San Francisco, it’s hard to find the right gear. Perhaps 3.5 would have helped, as third was too low, fourth too high and fifth and sixth totally toothless for the type of terrain encountered.

Honda is betting the manual will take a big slice of CR-Z sales, 25%-30%, a larger portion than the single-digit percentage take rate most self-shifters now garner. The manual is decent. The shifter is a bit notchy, but the clutch is nicely tensioned, engaging somewhere in the middle of pedal travel.

A quick jaunt in the CR-Z with the CVT, complete with standard paddles, reveals a totally different personality for the car: the transmisssion’s aggressiveness was sapped in Sport mode and acceleration even weaker in Econ and Normal driving modes.

Our excessive toying with the paddles to find the most satisfying gear among the faux seven likely contributed to a piddling 29 mpg (8.1 L/100 km) average.

Sport, Normal and Econ driving modes in the manual models also offer different levels of steering feedback. But overall, the CR-Z’s electric power-assisted rack and pinion steering is direct and heavy, with Sport steering even weightier.

Throttle tip-in also is varied between all three modes, with the lightest touch needed for Sport mode. In Econ, a foot to the floor is required.

The autocross course demonstrates the CR-Z’s “fling-ability” factor. Even with stability control switched on, there is the right amount of body roll in tight corners. The car has front a MacPherson strut and torsion-beam rear suspension.

A comparison test here of an ’85 CRX makes the weight and generally fortified nature of the newer car apparent, leading one journalist to crack the CRX is the most charismatic vehicle he has driven all day.

We wouldn’t go that far. It’s unlikely the light, precise, but crude nature of the aged CRX can be replicated in today’s vehicles. Too much reinforcement is necessary for safety reasons, and the numerous creature comforts demanded by drivers add extra pounds. It’s unfair to judge the two against one another.

Still, the feeling something’s missing can’t be shaken. If only the CR-Z was lighter and had Honda’s 1.8L or 2.0L 4-cyl. engines and a silkier shifter. If Honda had skipped the electric motor and gone with gasoline-only, the CR-Z would be a contender.

Likely the performance quotient was reigned in to save space for an Si version, about which Honda executives are elusive. But “sport” and “hybrid” are too distinctly different to combine into one persona.

Honda is targeting 15,000 CR-Z sales annually. This is probably too high, but it’s hard to gauge the car’s market appeal, especially in lieu of a new Civic due soon.

If Honda can position the Civic differently enough to give the CR-Z some breathing space, the hybrid could see mild success with buyers looking for an alternative to a 5-passenger coupe.

It also might just be quirky and cheap enough to woo the Mini Cooper or Scion tC competition Honda is targeting.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com