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Car reviews - Honda - Civic - Hybrid sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Fuel economy, rear legroom, cabin ergonomics, digital display, ride quality, quietness at low speeds
Room for improvement
Expensive, lack of standard features, steering feel, small boot, no folding rear seat, noisy when pushed, sluggish CVT

25 Jul 2012

HYBRID cars have had a tough time of it in Australia since their arrival in the early part of last decade, with early adopters Toyota and Honda returning sales numbers well short of expectations.

Popular in markets like Japan and the US, petrol-electric cars such as the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius have instead been viewed by Australian buyers as too expensive, too compromised and – particularly in the case of the first-generation Insight from 2001 – too oddball.

Things appear to be changing, though, with a host of new hybrid models appearing in local showrooms over the past year, and an even larger number set to arrive in the near future, including from luxury brands BMW, Audi and Infiniti.

But it is Honda that is in the spotlight here and, like fellow pioneer Toyota, it hasn’t sat idle in its development of petrol-electric technology.

The Japanese company has filled its Australian showrooms with dedicated hybrid models – the Insight hatch and the acclaimed CR-Z coupe – while a hybrid version of its Jazz light car is just around the corner.

Likewise, the company made sure to include a hybrid version of the new, ninth-generation Civic sedan immediately from Australian launch in February.

Sales projections are still low – around five per cent of the total – but, as with the previous model, Honda considers this early adopting clientele to be fiercely loyal.

The question is whether Honda has done enough to expand its Civic Hybrid buyer base beyond this core group with a mainstream offering that brings value, practicality and performance to the table along with the obvious gains in fuel economy.

In our opinion, it hasn’t.

Under the snub bonnet sits a 67kW/132Nm 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine (only Euro 4 emissions complaint) in place of the old 1.3-litre unit, backed by a small 17kW electric motor.

A new lithium-ion battery pack is 29 per cent lighter and 35 per cent more efficient than the nickel-metal-hydride unit from the old model, meaning the new model can operate in full electric mode for longer.

Usually the strength of an electric motor is the immediacy with its power delivery, but the Civic feels decidedly lifeless off the line, a result we suspect of the continuously variable transmission (CVT).

It is smooth and quiet at lower speeds such as those presented by the average inner-city commute and the idle-stop system is slicker and less intrusive than most.

Firmer dabs of the throttle yield decent poke once up and running, but the trade-off is the raucous drone from the small petrol engine.

We recorded respectable fuel economy of around 5.5 litres per 100km with careful driving, which is about 50 per cent better than we recorded in a base petrol Civic, and about on a par with a typical small diesel like a Volkswagen Golf.

Considering the starting price of the Civic Hybrid, though, it would take an eternity to recoup the extra spend in the showroom.

The regenerative brakes, which channel energy back into the battery pack, have a wooden feel and give precious little feedback. The car also runs drum brakes at the rear, which is underwhelming at this price.

Similarly disappointing is the artificial and overly light electric power steering that fails to add weight at higher speeds and exhibits notable woolliness off-centre.

The flip-side is an ease of mobility at low speeds that makes parking a cinch, helped by the excellent forward visibility afforded by narrow A-pillars.

Considering its small 15-inch alloy wheels, there was a surprising amount of road noise and tyre roar at highway speeds, but the ride from the independent suspension is acceptable, if a little firm.

The interior shares its design with the rest of the Civic sedan range easy to read instruments but full of hard plastic surfaces. Unique to the hybrid is its 1990s-style spotted beige seat trim.

We were bemused by the dearth of standard equipment compared to the $5000-cheaper petrol-engined Sport, which has features not found on the Hybrid, including electric sunroof, reversing camera, satellite navigation and leather seats.

Indeed, the specification levels are almost identical to the mid-range VTi-L petrol, which is powered by a 104kW/174Nm 1.8-litre petrol engine and is a whopping $12,000 cheaper.

We did like the chunky little steering wheel and the expansive digital display, and while the instrument panel is not particularly pleasing aesthetically, everything is intuitive and ergonomic.

The digital display is also suitably ‘techie’, with an Eco Assist bar that coaches the driver by changing colours depending on driving style, and there are a plethora of menu settings in the trip computer.

As you would expect from Honda, everything felt well-made and built to last, if not the last word in tactility.

Like the rest of the Civic sedan range, the Hybrid is spacious in the front, with plenty of room and adjustability, and the seats provide adequate comfort and support.

In the back seat there is room for three adults at a pinch or two in comfort, with above-average space for knees and feet, although anybody over 183cm (6ft) might feel tight for headroom.

As with the previous generation, the Hybrid has less boot space than the regular Civic thanks to its lithium-ion battery pack. A capacity of 351 litres is small for a sedan of this size, and load-carrying flexibility is compromised by having a fixed rear seat (petrol Civics have a 60/40 split-fold backrest).

With all this in mind, it’s hard to make a case for the Civic Hybrid.

The fuel savings are more than negated by its substantial price premium over the petrol-powered Civic Sport and VTi-L, while the sparse features list and lacklustre drive experience fall short of class-leading small cars like the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus.

As for buyers drawn to hybrid cars more by the environmental benefits than the economics, the $35,990 Civic is beaten by the faster, roomier and better-equipped petrol-electric Camry Hybrid (from $34,990).

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