Hybrid cars. They come with batteries. They save you fuel compared to normal cars. They are less polluting. They are getting more popular in Malaysia due to Government tax breaks. And if you’re a car enthusiast, it’s likely that they are also not on your radar.

Hybrid cars make for good urban transport, and we’re impressed by how frugal some of them can be, but these are not cars enthusiasts lust for. Good to have, maybe, but you won’t be buying one for how it drives, that’s for sure. The main backers of hybrid tech – Honda and Toyota – never saw the need to make an exciting hybrid for the longest time, and we can’t blame them. “Enthusiasts” form a small sub set of the car buying public, even more so in Japan.

Then came the Honda CR-Z, the first ever “sports hybrid”. If you’re like me, you would have scoffed at this “new CR-X”. The design is love or hate, the on-paper figures unexciting, but it went on to give me a rather pleasant surprise over two dates, one in Japan, one in back in Malaysia.

We drive both the manual CR-Z and the just launched CVT version. Full review and a mega 110-pic gallery after the jump.

The CR-Z’s looks don’t do it for me. I can’t seem to pin point where and what – perhaps it’s that sea creature nose – but I’m not sold. Like or not is of course subjective, but the CR-Z is without a doubt a head turner. The shape and proportions are unlike any other car in production today, and recall the original CR-X. I think the past master’s sharp lines suit the shape more than today’s curves, though.

Step inside and you won’t be mistaking this car for anything but a Honda, even if the badges are taped up. The sci-fi inspired dashboard, the colourful 3D displays, the busy feel – Honda has made spaceship cockpits a trademark since the eighth-gen Civic debut in 2006. I’m happy that the CR-Z uses a more conventional instrument layout in place of the two-tier system in the Civic, which I reckon is less sporty.

It’s driver centric enough; I can imagine the dashboard designer starting with the instrument binnacle, adding wing controls on it, stacking the air con vents above them, before attaching the ICE panel. The rest of the dashboard appears incidental, like the two passenger AC vents squashed together at the far end. I usually prefer simpler things, but can live with the CR-Z’s fascinating cockpit.

Plenty of displays, and I found most of them to be good eco coaches. Particularly helpful are the colour changing main dial (green when you’re light footed, blue for normal, red when Sport mode is on), along with the bar that tells whether you’re consuming or replenishing charge. The manual car has a shift light as well. Not serious enough? Eco driving rewards you with leaves; collect enough and you’ll get a flower! Sorry, never liked gardening!

Driving is another matter. A nice, low seating position is easy to find – the steering adjusts for reach and the good looking seats work quite well, although more thigh support wouldn’t have gone amiss. You might have guessed already, but the rear seats are useless for adults. Only small children will fit, but even then, they won’t be having much of a view out. Think of it as extra storage space to supplement the 225-litre boot.

As mentioned, I approached the CR-Z with very little expectation. It looks meek (and a little feminine to me) and the on-paper figures are underwhelming. 124 PS and 174 Nm of torque aren’t figures that will stir the imagination, so I fired it up with a blank canvas in mind. There were two possibilities: I would return the keys with an “it’s decent, but…” or it would pleasantly surprise me. Both happened.

Let’s start with the just launched (in Malaysia) CVT version, which I drove in Japan a couple of months ago. It was a rental car and the tyres could be better, but the CR-Z showed promise. It may share underpinnings with the Insight and Jazz hybrids, but the CR-Z drives much better from a sporty point of view.

For one, the steering is light, very quick and precise, much faster than the everyday hybrids, although they could have dialled in more feel. This extra liveliness jives well with the CR-Z’s darty character – turn in is sharp, body roll is negligible and body control is tight, as we found out charging up a Japanese mountain road. Back home, I took the manual up some hills, and it was even better.

Good ride comfort isn’t a given with Honda, but the CR-Z is less harsh and brittle than expected in this respect. The brakes feel good for a hybrid, too.

124 PS + mountain road = good fun? Yes, the fear of the CR-Z being underpowered was quite unfounded, although it’s far from fast. Adequate speed to have fun, if not race with turbo hot hatches, especially when the electric motor provides noticeable shove from low down. Press Sport and the motor will be fully dedicated to help you go faster, and the steering weightens up.

If one doesn’t notice the dual motivation, he will soon enough, when the battery runs dry and the i-VTEC is all on its own – the difference is palpable.

The 1.5L engine is a likeable little thing with its eagerness to rev and buzzy mechanical tune that’s so very Honda. The tone is beefier here, and with a distinct cam change at around 4,000 rpm, it’s not mad to call it a “Type R lite” experience. In contrast, pressing ECON mode dampens response by a few notches. Fuel saving efforts are further boosted by the standard auto stop-start.

Today’s CVTs are smoother creatures than their predecessors, exhibiting much less of the dreaded rubber band effect where rpm and km/h are allergic to one another. But the stepless transmission is still far from sporty, and a well sorted regular auto box such as Honda’s own five-speeder in the Civic will always be more satisfying for the keen driver.

Which is why there’s a paddle shift manual mode with seven virtual ratios in the CVT CR-Z. It’s a must when driving hard because a CVT by itself will never respond appropriately, but alas, there’s an artificial feel in how the engine picks up speed after a gear change. Doesn’t feel very natural, but the CVT is serviceable. I ended the session with mixed feelings. The CR-Z is fun, but…

In an ideal world, Honda wouldn’t have to make the CVT CR-Z. The company is one of few that knows the art of making a great manual gearbox, and executes them to perfection. They’ve done it for the Type Rs, and they’ve done it again for the CR-Z.

The short throw, snick-snack action of the six-speeder is addictive, retaining a good amount of mechanical “metal to metal” feel without being too raw. It’s smooth and glides into gates as if little men were there to pull it in.

It’s a shame that not many know what I’m rambling about. It also pains me that many CR-Zs will be bought with the CVT gearbox. I guess it’s a win-win situation: Honda sells more cars and everyone can enjoy the CR-Z’s intriguing “sports hybrid” concept.

Lastly, my 314 km weekend with the manual CR-Z yielded a trip computer figure of 12.4 km/l. Not bad considering the long idling time (for photos) and some hard driving up and down the hills. I’m guessing that 15 km/l shouldn’t be a problem with a more regular driving pattern. Didn’t care too much about FC in our short run with the CVT CR-Z in Japan.

A surprising little package at a tempting tax-free price. Now available with CVT, but best served with stick shift.