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Car reviews - Honda - Civic - Hybrid sedan

Launch Story

Honda logo16 Feb 2006

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

TOYOTA has had it too easy for too long with the Prius.

In 2001 Honda, as the first to offer one, had a very strong chance to stake its claim as hybrid vehicle leader with its wonderfully eccentric Insight.

But the two-seater-only packaging, somewhat marginal highway performance from a 56kW 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol/electric motor combo, and Marty McFly styling paled against the Insight’s $50K ask – especially as no automatic was offered.

Alongside it the first Prius, despite its rubbish dynamics and homely appearance – seemed much more likely to start a revolution.

Well, that hasn’t happened yet even if Toyota has since become a byword for hybrids worldwide, although skyrocketing fuel prices and greater emissions controls are certainly opening the future to more manufacturers going the same way in the not too distant future.

But maybe – just maybe – the new Honda Civic Hybrid might make all this petrol/electric mumbo-jumbo mainstream in Australia.

It’s a case of "Civic Hybrid 1.3 i-DSI with IMA and CVT Automatic For The People", to paraphrase one of REM’s greatest albums.

A brief drive on coarse country roads in southern New Zealand revealed a hybrid that – while as easy and benign to operate as any regular small sedan – has a real sense of occasion about it.

To begin with, the engines/gearbox operation seems remarkably smooth, eager to go and ready to rev. In fact, this Civic’s powerplant feels much more like a traditional Honda engine than the other two conventional motors (1.8 and 2.0) do.

Then there’s the steering, perhaps the biggest surprise as it imparts a feeling of considered weightiness as well as an eagerness to turn with precision into corners.

Now you can’t say that about the comparative remote and leaden handling and roadholding of the Toyota – the only other hybrid available locally.

Mid-range performance is also impressive, no doubt partly due to the smooth and responsive CVT gearbox that spools up speed in next to no time.

Like the rest of the range the cabin ambience is inviting, with a freshness and funkiness to the presentation that makes it feel like a scaled-down Odyssey.

Top marks go to the digital speedo and fuel gauge readouts – which are unmissably within the driver’s line of vision – but points are deducted for a next-to-useless electronic ‘kilometres-per-litre’ meter – we use litres-per-100km in Australia, don’t we Honda?

Other gripes include a surprising amount of road rumble coming through somewhere beyond the rear parcel shelf – the NZ roads the cars were tested on might be responsible for this anomaly – and wheels that rate as among the world’s ugliest – but that’s a matter of taste.

Nevertheless, even this short stint was enough to raise eyebrows and instil thoughts that the Hybrid might actually be the best car in the Civic sedan range.

It certainly seems to be the sweetest to drive.

Honda may well be about to crash Toyota’s hitherto happy hybrid party, and with very good reason too.

And not just because the Civic costs over $6000 less than the suddenly quite pricey Prius, either.

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