Despite the best efforts of Hollywood A-listers to raise the profile of environmentally-friendly petrol-electric vehicles, research suggests the message is still struggling to get through.
According to recent research by Honda, 51% of drivers have never heard of hybrid cars, while 77% said they would be more motivated to change their driving habits by money than environmental change.
This may explain why, in the UK at least, the new Honda Civic Hybrid has an initial annual sales target of just 1,000, with half going to fleets.
But to please those motivated by money, it is priced at £16,300 – more than £1,200 less than the equivalent Toyota Prius hybrid.
At this price, Honda is practically giving them away, because the technology the car carries has cost hundreds of millions to develop. However, it insists the car was not a loss-leader to promote the technology.
Put simply, hybrids have two engines, a traditional petrol engine and an electric power unit. In the Honda, the petrol engine is assisted by the electric motor when more power is required.
This means a smaller, more efficient petrol engine can be used – in this case a 1.4-litre 94bhp petrol engine from the Jazz – with boost from the 19bhp electric unit when needed.
But the real benefit is in torque, which is 166lb-ft at 4,600rpm – more than a 2.0-litre engine and enough to heft the Hybrid, equivalent in weight to a Honda Accord, to 62mph in a respectable 12.1 seconds. This is despite power being transferred through an automatic gearbox.
The battery pack helps reduce emissions during acceleration. During cruising, the petrol engine does the majority of the work, but under light loads, such as motorway cruising on a trailing throttle, the pistons stop firing and the electric motor takes the strain.
Then while slowing down, power is transferred back into the battery to recharge it. At the same time, fuel flow to the engine is stopped. Finally, while stationary, the engine is off, but the battery pack can keep the air conditioning working.
A spokesman for Honda added that because of the simplicity of the system, it could be placed in practically any car they liked.
In July last year, Honda said it was planning a hybrid version of every model within five years and there is already a green Accord on sale in the US, so watch this space.
To keep the battery pack weight and thickness down to a minimum, it can only operate for two minutes on full load before it needs recharging. This means that with air-con active at traffic lights, the engine will spark up after a while to refresh the battery pack, but leave the windows open instead and it will stay silent indefinitely. If everything goes to plan, this should mean 61.4mpg average fuel economy and 54.3mpg around town. CO2 emissions are a very clean 109g/km, which makes this one of the first cars to qualify for the 10% BIK tax rate from 2008/2009. Currently, it is taxed at 12%.
Compared to its predecessor, the Civic IMA, the Honda has grown 65mm to 4,545mm, 35mm in width (1,750mm) and its wheelbase has jumped 75mm (2,700mm).
Weight is up by about 100kgs, but the result is ample room both front and back. From the front, this car could be mistaken for a Volkswagen Passat at first glance, although the fuel-saving 15-inch alloys instantly make this car stand out as something different – alternatives are available, thankfully.
The rear is nicely proportioned and overall it is not too outlandish, which is a far cry from the stunning Honda Civic hatchback. Apparently, this is driven by the main market, the US, as there just isn’t demand to justify another version based on the sexier hatchback. So we’re stuck with the more conservative saloon. The key message is that the Hybrid is good for your wallet as well as the environment.
Luckily, the interior is based on the new hatchback, so you get split-level, innovative displays, a great steering wheel and quality materials throughout.
You also get front, side and curtain airbags, active head restraints, ABS, vehicle stability control, brake assist, CD multichanger, cruise control, front and rear electric windows, automatic air conditioning, trip computer, foglamps and heated, retractable door mirrors.
Service intervals are every 12,000 miles, the battery unit is guaranteed for eight years and there are a stack of financial arguments in the Hybrid’s favour as well.
It has a lower insurance rating than the hatchback (7 against 9), its predicted residual value according to Glass’s Guide is 39% after three years/60,000 miles (although a new diesel Civic is predicted to do better still) and it is exempt from the London congestion charge, which could save more than £2,000 a year alone.
If you are also lucky enough to hit the fuel economy predictions (see Behind the Wheel) and you drive into London, then this car could end up costing less than a supermini in terms of wholelife costs.
Behind the wheel
TWO things are vital to winning the hearts and minds of drivers when it comes to a hybrid – it has to save them money and they mustn’t look like an eccentric driving one.
The new Civic Hybrid wins on both counts. From 2008, it will have an ultra-low tax bill and it escapes the congestion charge. And, from the outside, it would fit in happily in any company car park.
On the inside, there is a quality feel and a level of comfort that is easily a match for an equivalent upper-medium or lower-medium rival.
The steering wheel is fully adjustable and the seating position is millimetre-perfect for most drivers. There is plenty of room in the back and boot space is a healthy 350 litres.
During a test drive around London, the Hybrid proved almost silent as it made slow progress through the congested streets, including a number of loops through the congestion charging zone – just because it was free.
Potholes were soaked up with ease and the steering was light and direct, while there was enough power to squirt the car into a space when needed.
There is no display to tell you what sort of power the car is using, unlike the complex display in the Prius, and apart from when it sits silently at traffic lights, there is little to tell you what the Hybrid’s computer is thinking. Setting off is a fuss-free affair as the engine fires up as soon as you take your foot off the brake pedal.
After a few minutes trying to work out what the engine was doing and why, I realised it was best to ignore it and get on with driving. After all, this is what it is all meant to be about – environmentally-friendly motoring without penalty or fuss.
However, although the 32mpg we achieved during a short test run was commendable for city centre motoring, it was a far cry from the 54.3mpg official urban figure, so fleets will need to do their own tests before committing themselves.
HYBRIDS will be arriving on the streets in ever greater numbers as manufacturers try to reduce emissions. Out of all the options currently available, this could be the best hybrid your drivers have never heard of.
Model: Civic Hybrid
Max power (bhp/rpm): 113/6,000
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 166/4,600
Max speed (mph): 115
0-62mph (secs): 12.1
Fuel consumption (mpg): 61.4
CO2 emissions (g/km): 109
On sale: Now