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First drive: Honda's Civic responsibility

Cruising: The Civic IMA cruises effortlessly at highway speeds.

Always a good citizen, Honda's Civic small car has now gone green

19 Sep 2003

By GAUTAM SHARMA in THE UK

PUT the words “Honda” and “hybrid” in the same sentence and a rather ungainly image springs to mind. Blame the Insight. Its George Jetson-inspired styling stands out from the crowd for all the wrong reasons.

Throw into the Insight equation a high asking price, even higher depreciation and limited practicality, and the result is a car that is not hugely desirable. The sales figures say it all – just six Insights have found buyers to date this year.

But next March Honda will unleash its second take on the hybrid theme and the vehicle in question has a lot more going for it. The Civic IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) is based on the conventional Civic sedan, but differs by virtue of its “clean green” hybrid petrol-electric powerplant.

In principle, it is much the same as the Insight. A 1.3-litre engine is the primary source of power, but it’s assisted under load – such as when accelerating from a standstill – by an electric motor. The electric motor has no bearing on the peak power output of 66kW, but it plays a role in the maximum torque figure of 117Nm, which occurs at just 1000rpm – not much higher than idling speed.

As is the case with the Insight, the petrol engine cuts out when stationary – for example, at the traffic lights – and fires up automatically as soon as you depress the clutch. A five-speed manual gearbox is the only transmission offered.

The whole concept is geared towards optimising fuel usage in the interests of lower running costs and protecting the environment.

There’s no doubting its credentials on the latter point, but presenting a sound economic argument for it is not easy. Although pricing is yet to be announced, the Civic IMA is likely to cost at least $35,000, which would represent a premium of around $10,000 over the conventional sedan.

GoAuto had the opportunity to drive the Civic IMA in the UK and overall consumption averaged 5 litres per 100km. This is roughly 2 litres per 100km better than the conventional Civic sedan. Do the maths and you’ll see that you need to drive about 500,000km before you recoup the IMA’s price premium.

But, as mentioned earlier, its environmental credentials are beyond debate. Honda is obviously aware of this and will pitch the vehicle primarily at government bodies. Honda Australia spokesman Mark Higgins said 100 annual sales would be a good result for the Civic IMA.

Unlike the Insight, the Civic IMA has four doors, a decent size boot and styling that can perhaps best be described as mainstream – it will offend few, if any, people.

The interior trim is standard Civic and one of the only giveaways that this is a different kettle of fish is display that indicates whether the electric motor is in “assist” mode or whether it is receiving charge. There’s also an “upshift” indicator that lights up at the optimum gear-change points.

Honda claims the Civic IMA can accelerate from standstill to 100km/h in a respectable 12.5 seconds and top speed is quoted at 176km/h.

The standard equipment list for Australia-spec cars is yet to be confirmed, but the vehicle we drove had dual front and side airbags, air-conditioning, remote central locking and power windows and mirrors. It also had 15-inch alloy wheels.

Service intervals are set at 20,000km, so the ownership experience is likely to be much the same as is the case with the conventional model.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

PERHAPS it’s a good thing, but the driving experience in the Civic IMA is hard to differentiate from the conventional model.

GoAuto had the opportunity to punt the hybrid Honda for a couple of days in the UK across a variety of terrain – ranging from country roads to dual carriageways – and the overriding impression was of how “normal” the car seemed.

There are few clues that this is no ordinary Civic and the only constant reminder is a display on the dash that indicates whether the electric motor is putting in its two cents worth. Other than that, it’s business as usual.

The Civic IMA has a respectable amount of poke off the mark and it cruises effortlessly at highway speeds. You need to get a bit of a run-up for overtaking manoeuvres but soon learn to appreciate its power delivery characteristics and drive accordingly.

A five-speed manual gearbox is the only transmission offered and, as with all Honda units, it’s a slick, smooth shifting unit. If you pay attention, you’ll notice the petrol engine cutting out when stationary, and it kicks in as unobtrusively as soon as you depress the clutch.

We recorded an average of 50 miles per gallon (or about 5 litres/100km) on a drive route that included a mixture of highways and country roads. To put this into perspective, a Honda Jazz would probably have used an extra litre per 100km, while a conventional Civic sedan might have consumed an additional two litres per 100km.

The interior, ride and handling of the Civic IMA are as per the standard car – competent without being exceptional.

Overall, the Civic IMA is a convincing attempt at incorporating new technology in a mainstream car. Well, it would be a mainstream car if it didn’t cost so much.

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