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First drive: Civic goes green

Inconspicuous: unique alloys, tiny bootlid wing and rear badge set Civic Hybrid apart.

Forget the quirky Insight: Honda’s new hybrid is clothed as the mass-market Civic

Honda logo19 Feb 2004

YOU’D be forgiven for forgetting about Insight, Australia’s first petrol/electric-powered "hybrid" and a vehicle Honda has struggled to find just 60 Aussie homes for since its release in early 2001.

Desperate not to repeat the Insight’s poor sales performance but keen to demonstrate its spirit of innovation, Honda has eschewed the quirky and expensive two-door, two-seater for a far more mainstream approach to hybrid motoring.

Meet the Civic Hybrid, the second petrol-electric Honda to be made available Down Under and Honda’s answer to Toyota’s new Prius hybrid, whose sticker price it undercuts by some $7000.

That’s right, at a recommended retail price of just $29,990, the hybrid-powered Civic is just $3000 more expensive than the similarly equipped Civic GLi sedan auto upon which it’s based.

Meantime, Toyota’s second-generation Prius five-door is priced from $36,990, with the range-topping i-Tech Option Pack adding items like a better audio system, Bluetooth capability, stability/traction control, satellite-navigation, head airbags, seatbelt pretensioners and side airbags for a hefty $45,090.

Civic Hybrid includes the latter two features as standard within a specification package that’s based on the Civic GLi, meaning there’s power steering, CD player, five lap-sash seatbelts, front seatbelt pretensioners, 14-inch alloys, ABS with EBD, twin (dual-stage) front and side airbags, climate control, foglights, remote central locking and power windows/mirrors.

Honda makes much of Civic’s more populist approach to hybrid technology, claiming its $7000 price saving against Prius is equal to 7.5 years worth of petrol or the ability to travel 3.7 times around the earth’s equator.

As such, the company hopes to sell many more Civic Hybrids than it did Insights, but its forecast sales rate of 100 per year still falls well short of Toyota’s 600-unit annual sales projection for Prius II, which in turn hopes to increase on its predecessor’s 20 per cent private buyer profile with a funkier five-door bodystyle.

On sale from February 27, the electrified Civic joins the GLi four-door sedan and Vi five-door hatch in a broader, three-variant Civic line-up, and will target environmentally conscious 45 to 60-year-old males, who are expected to comprise 70 per cent of Civic Hybrid sales.

Aside from the subtle exterior changes that will form part of the mild Civic sedan facelift due on sale here in March – including different lighting and bumpers – the hybrid differs visually from the regular Civic sedan only its use of a small bootlid spoiler and even more subtle rear "Hybrid" badge.

Oh, there are also smaller, exclusive 14-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 185/70-section low rolling resistance tyres.

There’s identical passenger space in the cabin, while the boot is marginally smaller at 286 litres, thanks to the development of large, flat nickel-metal-hydride battery pack (or Intelligent Power Unit) that’s sandwiched between the (reinforced) rear seatback and the boot.

Weighing 28kg, not only is the IPU 42 per cent smaller than before, it charges 20 per cent more efficiently than in Insight. But it also means there’s no through-loading system and only a temporary spare wheel.

The only other visible interior concession to hybrid technology is a multifunction, blue backlit electronic instrument gauge that displays battery power and fuel consumption functions.

At the business end of Civic Hybrid lies a modified version of the 1.3-litre four-cylinder engine found in the base Jazz, mated to a 144-volt brushless DC electric motor that assists the petrol engine only when required to increase performance, thereby reducing fuel consumption and emissions.

Essentially, the maintenance-free system employs electric power only during acceleration and uses kinetic energy from deceleration to recharge the battery. Like Insight, both engines also shutdown temporarily at idle if the air-conditioning is switched off, in a process called Auto Idle Stop.

Dubbed the second-generation Integrated Motor Assist hybrid system, it increases engine power from 63kW to 69kW at 5700rpm, and peak torque from a regular 119Nm to 146Nm at 2000rpm.

Interesting technology includes a cylinder head featuring just eight valves, plus VTEC controlled Cylinder Idling System (which deactivates three cylinders) and eight Iridium sparkplugs capable of "intelligent" dual and sequential ignition (i-DSI).

Like Prius II, Civic Hybrid channels its power to the front wheels via a Continuously Variable Transmission, this time with Grade Logic Control and a creeping aid system.

The result for the 45kg-heavier Civic is claimed combined fuel consumption of just 5.2 litres per 100km, which betters the (1.7-litre) Civic GLi by some 44 per cent. The Jazz GLi 1.3, meantime, returns claimed combined fuel consumption of 7.5L/100km.

What’s more, Civic Hybrid – which comes with a full three-year/100,000km warranty plus an eight-year battery warranty – is claimed to save 1100kg of carbon dioxide each year, or almost its own (1190kg) kerb mass in emissions.

15 center imageWhile Honda claims its electrified Civic – the first hybrid in a mass market car – is a "significant advancement" on the potential shown by Insight (which is still in production), it admits hybrid power is only an intermediate step on the road to dedicated hydrogren power, which Honda hopes to sell in Japan, the US and possibly Australia by 2005.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

HONDA has taken a radically different approach to petrol-electric motoring in Australia second time round.

In total contrast to Toyota with its Prius, the Civic Hybrid dresses in mass-market clothes and goes virtually unnoticed among the many Japanese small cars on our roads, such as the one on which it’s based.

Only train spotters will pick up on the electrified Civic’s unique alloys, mini bootlid spoiler and understated rear badging. And there’ll be no displaying its hybrid wares under the bonnet (or boot, in this case), because there’s little difference in the engine bay and Honda’s cleverly concealed sandwich-shaped battery pack hides at the back of the boot, providing little bench-racing value.

The subtlety continues inside, where Civic Hybrid adds cheap looking fake woodgrain trim on the dash, console and doors, plus climate control air-conditioning and side airbags on top of the Civic GLi standard fare.

Only a discreet gauge at the right of the instrument panel - presenting the Integrated Motor Assist functions such as battery charge level and fuel economy information in a classy blue backlit display - tells the hybrid driver this is no ordinary Civic.

So while the least conspicuous hybrid on our roads lacks the certain feel-good factor offered by both Pruis and its ill-fated predecessor – and so won’t appeal to many extroverted greenies – the fact remains Civic Hybrid is also the least expensive petrol-electric car ever sold Down Under.

It’s also a fact Civic Hybrid doesn’t drive much differently from other Civics. Which means solid build quality, attention to detail, refinement and attention to detail, but little spark in the execution.

The 69kW/146Nm combined output of the 1.3-litre engine and electric motor is enough to keep this 1190kg hybrid ahead of garden variety traffic, and performance is not unlike that offered by 1.7-litre petrol Civics. However, although no performance figures are available and we’d wager performance will drop off dramatically when fully loaded.

Essentially, the electric motor assists the petrol engine only when required - such as during take-off, where the electric motor’s impressive torque really shines – and the battery pack is charged by kinetic energy during deceleration.

But all this happens in a seamless, unobtrusive manner and Civic Hybrid behaves in most circumstances very much like other Civics. That means softish settings for the MacPherson strut front and double wishbone rear suspension, super-light operation of the electric power steering and a generally mundane, unexciting drive.

No, the biggest change from the usual Civic driving experience is the hybrid’s continuously variable transmission, which changes its nature considerably from the standard car’s conventional four-speed auto and takes just a little getting used to.

Like all CVTs, it rewards enthusiastic throttle inputs with lots of revs, the tacho needle swinging immediately toward redline and resolutely staying there until you back off. Throttle response is good, especially from idle, and the hybrid powertrain’s only real shortfall is that it gets noisy when worked.

The newly developed CVT also offers a handy anti-rollback function not unlike that offered previously by some (manual) Subarus but, disappointingly, there’s no sequential manual shift function like that offered by the seven-speed CVT found in cheaper Jazz models – complete with steering wheel shift buttons on some variants.

But for all the fuel-saving claims, we managed no better than 6.7 litres per 100km over the 80km launch drive route, which covered a mixture of undulating city and suburban Melbourne roads.

Sure, some cars used slightly less fuel on the day, but they were still well off Honda’s Federal Government-tested consumption figure of 5.2L/100km – in fact closer to the regular Civic’s 7.5L/100km figure and more than can be had from the Jazz 1.5.

There are fuel savings to be had for certain, but even on the claimed figures it would take about six years to pay off the hybrid’s price premium in fuel savings over the petrol-only model, based on the national average of 20,000km travelled each year and therefore an annual average fuel cost saving of about $500.

But cost isn’t the only agenda for those wanting to make an environmentally sensitive statement, and Civic Hybrid demands no other concessions – save for boot space that’s about a third less than the standard car, the lack of a 60/60 split-folding rear seat and the use of a temporary spare wheel.

All the other Civic hallmarks are there too, in an inexpensive and frugal small sedan that undercuts its more outgoing Toyota rival on price considerably.

Honda is right when it says Civic Hybrid brings petrol-electric motoring within reach of the masses, and the hybrid theme is expected to expand rapidly in coming years such as when Honda produces its first petrol-electric V6 in the Accord V6 Hybrid.

But we wonder how much more effectively (and profitably) an even smaller Honda – like Jazz – would be at both saving fuel and making a statement about it.

GoAuto can help you buy a new Civic

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