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Honda Civic Hybrid 2006 Road Test

Sun, 25 Jun 2006

The UK market Honda Civic IMA was always a bit of an oddball. An Integrated Motor Assisted 1.3 engine, 5-speed manual transmission and the four-door South East Asian Honda Civic City body. Now there's a new one, called the Honda Civic Hybrid.

The Honda Civic Hybrid, has the striking 4-door body of the latest South East Asian and American Civic 4-door (the only way you can get that body in the UK). Plus a Jazz 1,339cc engine modified with self closing valves. And, taking a leaf from Toyota’s Prius book, a CVT rather than a manual transmission.

Like the old car, leather seats are the only option. Unlilke the old car, and like the UK built Civic 5-door, you get a superb line-of-sight digital speedometer and a rev counter seen through the steering wheel.

The idea is that on start-up and acceleration the petrol engine operates in low-speed valve timing mode with electric motor assist. During low-speed cruising the engine valves close and the car runs on electric motor alone. During gentle acceleration and high-speed cruising the petrol engine operating in low-speed valve timing mode powers the car. During hard acceleration the petrol engine operates in high-speed valve timing mode with motor assist. During deceleration, for example descending a hill with foot off the accelerator, the petrol engine’s valves are closed and the electric motor becomes a regenerator, recovering the maximum amount of energy and storing it in the battery. And if you stop in traffic the engine shuts down altogether, starting again as soon as you touch the accelerator.

With a CVT transmission and electric motor assisting the petrol engine, that rev counter performs some peculiar tricks. On hard acceleration it flicks round to 6,000rpm and stays there while the car gathers speed. Alternatively, it will cruise at 30mph per 1,000rpm, and more than 30mph per 1,000rpm descending a long hill, foot off the beans, where you can be travelling at 95mph, at 100mpg and recharging the electric motor’s batteries at the same time.

With more conventional controls than a Prius II, the Honda Hybrid seems to be more sporty, and will pick up speed with some alacrity. But the illusion disintegrates on twisty, hilly country roads when a sort of inertia sets in to the way the car handles. It just isn’t sprightly.

And progress is certainly far from jerk-free. In the badly signposted, speed camera-festooned traffic nightmare that is Northamptonshire (try following the A43 from Towcester to Corby**) it was roly-poly rounding roundabouts and almost impossible to start smoothly from the umpteen thousand sets of traffic lights. Part of the problem here seems to be the flywheel effect of the electric motor requiring more braking than you would otherwise need. As Andrew English pointed out in his Telegraph test, you are never quite sure how much braking you are going to need with the result that a minor braking drama can quite suddenly turn into a crisis. Then when you are stopped in Drive, the motor shuts down, so you are forced to apply the parking brake or footbrake to stop the car rolling back on a hill.

The seating and driving position are very comfortable, though. With about the best, most convenient parking brake I have encountered on any car recently. It’s perfectly positioned and angled on the driver’s side of the central console and a pleasure to use. I like the steering wheel too. It’s leather bound, quite small, slightly octagonal, with easy to use radio and cruise control buttons set into the spokes.

Whereas the Thai market Civic 1.8 saloon has fold-down rear seats so luggage can poke through from the boot, there’s no such thing on the Hybrid because the space over the back wheels is occupied by the batteries. So it’s a lot less versatile than the Prius hatchback. That said, it is a proper five seater with a completely flat rear floor that doesn’t force piggy in the middle to perch like a gargoyle.

Fuel economy was good, though not brilliant. Over 281 miles we averaged 42.7mpg. So it looks like the main benefit of the car will be avoiding city centre congestion charges. Or, if you want to put it in more environmental context, avoiding emitting harmful NOX that is the big disadvantage of a diesel engine.

(**The A43 vanishes around Northampton. Simply disappears and becomes the A45, but how is a stranger supposed to know that?)

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