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Road Test: Honda Civic Hybrid

By Peter Maniatis - 25/Sep/2006

Honda Civic HybridThe Civic is evolving. Many previous buyers of the Civic hatch and sedan models probably wouldn't even recognise the new model, and the hybrid petrol-electric version? Yep, it hums quietly by without anyone really noticing.

Hybrid vehicles release much less carbon dioxide and generally drink a lot less fuel than normal petrol engines, so the benefits of owning one of these is that they're cheaper to run, and cause less damage to the environment by way of reduced green house gas (GHG) emissions. They cost a bit more than a standard petrol engine, but if you're trying to reduce your carbon footprint, or have just watched Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and want to be proactive in lowering your C02 emissions, these cars are a good starting point.

Up until now, most hybrid cars have been expensive, impractical and generally unappealing to the mainstream. This green and clean Civic attempts to address such negatives and Honda has put a lot of effort into reaching this goal.

The Civic's only real rival is Toyota's Prius, which costs about $6,000 more and doesn't have the sophisticated styling, nor half the standard features of the Civic. But on it's own merits and with no comparisons, I was asked this this question by a friend: is this new green machine worth $31,990? I'm interested, but should I buy one, or wait until the technology improves? In order to answer this question, I must first divulge my thoughts on the car's operation:

Make: Honda
Model: Civic Hybrid
Price: $31,990
Transmission: CVT (continuously variable transmission)
Engine: 1.3-litre, inline 4-cylinder hybrid petrol + electric motor
Seats: 5
Safety: 6 airbags (driver and front passenger front and side airbags, front and rear side curtain airbags), ABS

Honda Civic Hybrid

The Civic Hybrid a surprisingly stylish exterior

EngineEngine: Honda Petrol/Electric 1.3-litre 4-cylinder

The transversely mounted inline 4-cylinder engine has a 1.3-litre (1339cc) capacity, with aluminium alloy cylinder heads and engine block. Single overhead camshafts (SOHC) actuate a total of 8-valves, 2 per cylinder. The petrol-powered motor has an 10.8:1 compression ratio and will accept almost any grade of fuel, from 91 to 98 RON unleaded when filling the 50 litre fuel bladder. It also features a permanent-magnet electric motor, which uses Honda's IMA (integrated motor assist) system to charge the batteries.

Claimed Fuel Consumption: 4.6L/100km (combined)

Max Power: 85kW @ 6000rpm
Max Torque: 170Nm @ 1000-2500rpm

Honda Civic Hybrid

One of the great things about the new Civic Hybrid is that it doesn't look too different from the standard Civic models. Unlike the Prius, which appears to have been styled to look like a 'future' car (but comes off looking like a complete dork) the Civic retains the sleek profile of the petrol powered models. Until you step inside and see a few of the hybrid tags, it's hard to tell you're actually driving something capable of delivering fuel efficiency levels of 5.5L/100km.

On the freeway, the Civic Hybrid a lovely car to drive. It's quiet, has a refined and relaxed drive and all the mod cons you'd expect of an upper-class Japanese car, such as power steering and cruise control. I managed to get 5.5L/100km at 100km/h on the freeway, which isn't as frugal as the official Honda specifications claim, but is very efficient never the less, drinking about half the fuel that Holden's new Commodore requires.

With more driving of the Civic Hybrid, and this involved driving with more vehemence and on steeper inclines and declines, I was able to maintain fuel economy in the order of high sixes per 100 kilometers. That's a far cry from my own petrol guzzling V8 Calais – and all the while I didn’t feel totally compromised on ride, power and maneuverability.

The Toyota Prius generates 57kW of power, while Honda's engine technicians have managed to coax 85kW from the Civic Hybrid power system, and it moves quickly enough and can be filled with crappy 91 RON petrol. It's not a performance car, but for something with a SOHC 1.3-litre engine, it handles the slower traffic of city driving and the fast cruising of highway adeptly.

The electric motor provides an added torque boost, which can really come in handy, and the Civic Hybrid uses what Honda terms IMA, which is an acronym for integrated motor assist. Unlike the previous Honda Civic Hybrid model, this new car can run solely on the electric engine under light loads (down a hill, slow acceleration, etc) and in "steady-state" situations, like on the freeway, and therefore becomes a very environmentally friendly vehicle.

Under the hood is a 1.3-litre 4-cylinder engine, which is connected to the electric battery that's located between the rear seats and the boot divider (leaving a decent 376 litres of boot space), and is recharged via regenerative braking and when the car is coasting via the petrol engine. There are IMA instrument panel meters in the car to tell you what the two different engines are doing, and it's nice to have this feature as you can tell exactly when your recharging the battery, or using the electric motor.

The gearbox it uses is a CVT, or continuously variable gearbox, which at the moment is the most fuel efficient gearbox on the market. Instead of revving the engine from 1000 to 5000rpm, the CVT allows the engine to sit constantly at any given engine speed dependent on how hard you push the accelerator pedal. So if you just tickle it lightly the engine will rev to 1500rpm and sit there eternally. It's a great solution to reducing fuel consumption and is a great partner for Honda's IMA.

What a great blend of electric and petrol propulsion systems. It's an optimum energy utilisation scheme, which charges the battery on unused engine power or brake heat, to give a happy compromise in saving the environment and importantly for many drivers – the back pocket.

I’ve test driven all of the Civic range of vehicles and have come to find them not only stylish and comfortable but exceptionally refined in their mechanical competencies. I enjoy the Civic's handling, zippiness and its very easy to use - everything is within reach, from the CD/MP3 stereo to the heating controls, and the advanced speedometer with its two-tiered display system means your eyes barely leave the road to read your speed. The Civic Hybrid takes nothing away from the standard vehicle and I would have to say it enhances the whole driving experience because you know that you are saving fuel and money, and reducing harm to the environment.

For anyone conscious of energy usage and wanting to save a few dollars on an economical yet practical vehicle, then the Honda Civic Hybrid should definitely be at the top of your thinking. One point of note is, don't get disturbed when you stop at a red light and the engine switches off on you – at first it's a little unnerving but it demonstrates to you that you are saving on petrol. There's also drum brakes at the rear, which is a bit cheap, but the thing weighs less than 1300kg, so it doesn't need high tech brakes.

Another nice aspect to buying one of these Hybrid Civic passenger cars is that Honda in partnership with Greenfleet Australia will plant trees on your behalf to allegedly nullify the Civic's GHG emissions. The Honda Australia Climate Care Warranty guarantees that for each Civic Hybrid sold, 18 trees are planted, and assuming they don't perish, they are sufficient to absorb the vehicle's low GHG emissions for three years.

I will confess that there are a number of highly efficient diesel cars from European car makers out there that can almost match the Honda Civic Hybrid's fuel efficiency ratings, but for my money you get a good deal with this Japanese car. And it's $6000 less than Toyota's Prius, and far trendier.

The Honda Civic Hybrid is quite a unique vehicle – but should it be? Some of the fundamental functions of its fuel saving modes and technology initiatives should be shared across the most common of vehicles in market today. But with many car companies having invested almost a century in developing the modern combustion engine, and countless billions of dollars, it could be some time before we see a monumental shift towards cleaner propulsion technologies, such as this IMA.

Overall: 4.25/5

For $31,990, the Honda Civic Hybrid is money well spent. In addition to the reduced environmental impact, it's actually a very practical car. With a roomy interior that will happily seat five occupants (but more like four adults), and many useful standard features like a 6-CD stereo, electric windows, steering wheel audio controls, six airbags, central locking, climate control and interior map lights, you need make few compromises to become an ally of the environment in your everyday pursuits.

There's a good reason why the Honda Civic Hybrid took out the World Car of the Year Award for greenest car in New York early in 2006, and it's mainly to do with the car's electric-petrol hybrid engine system. It's frugal, it's quiet, it's refined, and it works. I'd love to see this technology made standard on all cars. Great technology, great application - this is what we need to begin reducing vehicle emissions. Think of it as a stepping stone between full electric or fuel-cell powered cars.

In another five or 10 years, there's a good chance that many popular makes and models may offer a hybrid option. From Commodores to Camrys, Falcons to MX-5s, we could all be driving these thought-provoking vehicles, because as time passes and their popularity increases, research and development into the hybrid technology will increase also, and the result will gains in efficiency and drops in cost for the manufacturer, and then the consumer. I, for one, am eagerly awaiting this day, when even budget car buyers can get a hybrid for under twenty thousand dollars.

I'd love to see more hybrid cars on the road, and the Honda Civic Hybrid proves that they don't have to be expensive, ugly, or impractical.

Pros:

Cons:

  • Fuel Economy
  • Dynamic Exterior
  • Roomy Cabin
  • Standard Features
  • Rear Drum Brakes
  • Compromised Boot (Electric Battery)
  • Rear Seats Don't Fold (Electric Battery)

Comments on the review? The Car? Your Car? Email us.

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