Big things often come in small packages. For example, I know this young woman -- let's call her JJ. Well, JJ controls millions of dollars worth of equipment, big budgets and bigger egos, and she even tells spinning satellites where they should be and at what time. She also looks stunning and is super smart. The thing is, JJ fits into a size 2 dress, and I'd be surprised if she's over 5' 4" tall. It's easy to underestimate her and it's easy to underestimate the 2012 Honda CR-Z. Neither is imposing at first glance, but both pack a big punch when you look a little closer.

No one is suggesting the Honda CR-Z is a muscle car, or even a real sports car. In the real world, the CR-Z is no supermodel. It's probably more like a really attractive girl next door. It has more brains than brawn and yet is still just as much fun as an old Honda Civic CRX or even a current Mazda Miata.

Doesn't Disappoint

On paper, the 2012 Honda CR-Z looks like a disappointment. Under the hood, the CR-Z has a 1.5 liter, 4-cylinder engine that's good for 122 horsepower when combined with the car's electric motor. But don't let first impressions sway you. It's hard to explain, but some cars, like people, just have a way of sticking with you. The CR-Z's 2-seat configuration and $20,485 (including destination fee) price might have you lowering your expectations, too.

But the little car is anything but a disappointment. Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) gives the CR-Z a little boost that's noticeable when accelerating from a stop. It's the torque-rich nature of the electric motor that makes the CR-Z fun to drive. True, it's not overly powerful, but having a 6-speed manual transmission adds to the sporty nature of the CR-Z. The CR-Z isn't a thrill to drive hard, but it is rewarding.

Three Cars in One

Three drive modes are available to suit your mood. The default mode is Normal. If you leave the car in the Normal setting, it drives like a slightly sporty hatchback. If you want a little more spunk during your daily commute, select Sport. In the Sport setting, the CR-Z is livelier because the electric motor is used more aggressively. Honda puts it this way: "In Sport mode, the CR-Z will use the electric motor more aggressively, providing quicker acceleration and throttle response." Sport mode also changes the steering response, making it a little sharper. For those time you want the most mpg, the CR-Z has Econ mode. In this mode, the car is the least responsive and feels like the fuel-sipping hybrid it really is. Opt for the CR-Z's Constantly Variable Transmission (CVT) and you may get even better fuel economy.

Fuel Economy

According to EPA estimates, the CVT gets 35/37/39, while the manual is estimated at 31/34/37. However, the EPA fuel economy site also collects real-world results submitted by vehicle owners--here, the CVT is averaging 41.6 mpg while the 6-speed manual is averaging 42.4. Both are well above the EPA estimates.

When it comes to tackling a corner, the CR-Z does an adequate job. The car fees a little heavy because there's a Ni-MH battery pack on board; it powers the IMA electric motor. Again, the Honda CR-Z is not a real sports car, but we defy anyone to find a 40 mpg car that's this much fun to drive. Yes, the Toyota Prius gets more than 10 mpg better than the 2-door CR-Z, but they are such different cars that comparing them is almost pointless.

Sometimes, it's easy to underestimate cars and people. You just never know when one will really stick with you. If you have your heart set on a hybrid but you really like to drive, the Honda CR-Z is calling your name.

author photo

Brian Moody heads up the AutoTrader.com editorial team. An automotive writer and presenter for more than 12 years, he's contributed to such media outlets as CNBC, Edmunds.com, Fox Business, Speed TV and The Today Show.

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