The Insight was Honda’s
first foray into locally-delivered hybrid cars. Using a very aerodynamic
two-door body, the all-aluminium car could achieve simply phenomenal fuel
economy. When we drove the car 3500 kilometres it averaged just 3.6 litres/100
km – arguably the best fuel economy of any road car in the world. (See Honda Insight.)
However, under the Insight’s hatch there was little luggage space – instead you
got a big battery box. And at nearly $48,900, the Honda was just way too
expensive – less than 50 examples found local homes.
Fast forward 3 years and
now Honda has released the Civic Hybrid. And if the Insight screamed ‘radical’,
the Civic simply murmurs ‘conventional’.
Other than the Hybrid
badge, it’s impossible to tell from the exterior that this Civic boasts
petrol-electric technology. Even after you step inside, there’s not a lot to
notice – just charge/discharge and battery level displays incorporated into
the instrument cluster. And yes, even after you drive the car, you’re more
likely to notice the steplessly variable transmission than realise the
innovation in the engine bay.
Honda has certainly taken
the lesson of the poorly selling Insight very much to heart...
At $29,990, the Hybrid
Civic is only 10 per cent more expensive than the GLi auto trans Civic. For the
extra money you get a unique mechanical configuration that uses a 1339cc SOHC
8-valve VTEC engine. The long-stroke design develops 69kW at 5700 rpm and 119Nm
at 3300 rpm. The electric motor consists of a thin design sandwiched between the
transmission and the engine. It develops a maximum power of 10kW – however, as
in all hybrids, it’s the torque available from the electric motor which is more
important than the peak power - the combined petrol-electric torque is an
impressive 146Nm at 2000 rpm. Electrical power is provided by a 144-volt battery
pack that lives behind the rear seat.
Compared with a Toyota
Prius, the Honda system is a much softer hybrid. The electric motor is lower in
power and as a result, the petrol engine does most of the work. In fact, the
electric motor is used only to assist the petrol engine – the car cannot drive
on electric power alone. The electric motor is also used to start the petrol
engine, and with a 10kW starter motor, the petrol engine comes to life very
quickly indeed! This allows the system to switch off the petrol engine when the
car has been braked to a halt, for example at a red traffic light. When the
driver lifts their foot from the brake pedal, the petrol engine automatically
restarts. However, the petrol engine doesn’t turn off nearly as often as in the
Prius (or as often as we remember it occurring in the Insight) and so the
resulting reduction in fuel consumption is more limited.
The electric motor assists
the petrol engine when accelerating or climbing hills. This assistance is more
noticeable at low speeds, where the electric motor feels rather like a small
supercharger. The battery is recharged primarily through regenerative braking –
rather than wasting power as heat in the brakes, the motor becomes a generator
and pushes charge back into the battery whenever you slow. However, if the
battery level gets too low (eg because you’ve been climbing a steep hill) the
petrol engine is automatically used to charge the battery.
From an owner’s
perspective, all this can go unnoticed – just put normal unleaded in the tank
In the manner of all
hybrids, the 0-100 km/h time is slower than the actual on-road performance
feels. The Honda gets to 100 km/h in about 14 seconds but in its throttle
response and ability to dart off the line, behaves more like a 12-second car.
Top-end power from the VTEC engine is also quite adequate.
Unlike the Insight (which
had a manual trans that we loved) the Civic uses a continuously variable
transmission. This makes for more effortless driving – and probably also
improves real-life consumption and emissions – but it’s not nearly as much fun.
The logic of the trans control is such that at moderate throttle openings, the
petrol engine revs to only 2000 or so rpm, with plenty of electrical assist.
However, get right into the throttle and the engine revs will rise to 4000, then
slowly increasing to about 5000 rpm. It can be a bit deceptive – the car feeling
like it has clutch slip, rather than it’s accelerating. However, the way in
which the transmission logic and electric assist have been integrated is very
effective. (Yes, another Honda with really brilliant transmission
Lifting off the accelerator
enables regenerative braking. This occurs even before the driver manually brakes
and results in the car slowing more rapidly than normal. However, again it’s
been implemented very well and the only driver familiarity needed is to avoid
backing right off when you want to slow only a little. The integration of the
regen braking and the hydraulic braking is excellent; the brake pedal is
progressive and has good feel.
So with all this technology
at your disposal, what’s the fuel economy like? Honda claims a combined cycle
test economy of 5.2 litres/100 km but we averaged worse than that at 6.3
litres/100. In fact, our figure also matched the economy gained by this car over
its lifetime – this number can be also displayed on the dash. Comparison can be
made of the auto trans Civic GLi sedan - which at 88kW has a little more power –
that has a combined cycle average of 7.5 litres/100. So depending on how you
look at it, the Hybrid can be said to have economy that is 30 per cent better
than the standard Civic – or in the field of cars of around this size, have
excellent economy... rather than exceptional economy.
Certainly, its fuel
consumption is light-years away from being as good as the Insight and is not as
good as is achievable in the (more expensive but also faster) Prius.
Away from the driveline,
the rest of the car is competent without being outstanding. Apart from the
rather hard seats, the interior is comfortable and attractive, with tasteful
fake woodgrain splashed in small doses. Front and side airbags are standard
fitment and a single CD radio is provided. Because of the presence of the 28.6kg
battery pack behind the rear seat, fold-down access to the boot is not
available. However, at 268 litres, the boot is adequately sized. The climate
control comprises a non-digital rotary dial system and unlike the Prius, the
air-con compressor stops working whenever the engine has been automatically
The on-road driving
experience is let down by a poorly sorted ride. Despite the relatively high
profile 185/70 tyres, impact harshness can be high and on some surfaces, the
Civic develops an unpleasant bobbing motion. The rear end can at times be felt
to jump sideways – a disconcerting trait and one that, oddly enough, doesn’t
occur when the car is actually being cornered hard. Handling is competent when
the car is pushed, with some throttle-lift oversteer available. No traction
control or stability control systems are fitted and the rear brakes are
Dare we say it – with the
Civic Hybrid, Honda has gone too far the other way from the Insight. The Civic’s
hybrid driveline works very well, providing low emissions (the Hybrid Civic is
an official Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle), very good fuel economy and quite
adequate power and response. In fact, it’s the perfect hybrid car for someone
who wants to go about their tasks unnoticed – and with driving behaviour very
similar to a conventional car.
For Honda’s sake we hope
that there are enough people who don’t want to make the overt statement of the
Prius but at the same time want many of the advantages of hybrid power in a
The Honda Civic Hybrid was provided for this test by Honda Australia.