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Hybrid initiatives in recent years by Toyota and Honda have proved timely in an age of rising fuel prices and a growing awareness for protecting the environment.

The burning question remaining for most people is whether hybrid technology is the way forward or merely a token gesture favoured by green local bodies and companies and celebrities wanting to make the right impression.

Second-hand Honda Civic hybrids, some of which are now more than five years old, are on offer in New Zealand from as little as $10,000.
Yet prospective buyers have concerns about excessive operating costs as the petrol/electric cars enter old age.

There are also doubts over the real efficiencies of hybrids, given the relatively high cost of manufacture and the eventual disposal of the vehicles.

Alternatives are fast moving beyond the drawing boards, as witnessed by Honda’s FCX Clarity, the world’s first production fuel cell car and, perhaps, the most advanced vehicle to break cover in the past year.

Initially only 100 Clarity vehicles are being made, operating in Japan and California where a few hydrogen refuelling stations are set up. So don’t expect any influx of new or second-hand FCX Hondas on Kiwi highways in the immediate future.

The Clarity is powered electrically by a motor directly energised by a fuel cell stack and operating like an electric generator.

It’s claimed to have a range of 430 kilometres and, of course, produces nothing more than water from its exhaust pipe.

The side-draining fuel cell Honda averages an enticing 3.4 litres/100km – or 82mpg – and provided the hydrogen it consumes is generated from renewables, the car can be regarded as being emissions-free.

Honda is leasing the FCX to selected drivers until the car goes on sale in 2010.
Meanwhile, hybrids are available today and the minor price premium signifies a subsidy by the manufacturers.

The Civic IMA Hybrid CVT auto is a modest $35,300, or just $5800 more than a Civic 1.8S auto that shares the same body. And the Prius hybrid in least expensive form is $8350 more expensive than the Honda equivalent.

Honda’s hybrid technology is an integrated motor assist system (hence IMA) that originally made its debut in the two-door Insight coupe back in 2000. I helped drive one around the British coastline that year in a successful Guinness record attempt which made the magic 100mpg.

But the team of drivers worked hard to achieve that result under what would be regarded as unrealistic conditions.

The reality is somewhat different. Hybrids can produce outstanding fuel economy if you conscientiously drive slowly and smoothly, but the results are not so impressive in the cut and thrust of everyday driving.

Auto Trader’s 290-kilometre leg of all-round city, urban and highway running in a second-generation Civic Hybrid CVT averaged 6.3 litres/100km (44.8mpg). An easier run, inclined more towards open road operation, produced 4.8 litres/100km (58.8mpg).
The car’s CO² emissions of 109 grams/km is similar to the Prius’ and the conventional Mini Cooper Diesel’s.

Prius is likely to use slightly less fuel than the Civic in the city, and in all-round driving the Mini may actually be more economical than both hybrids. Time to pause for thought.
The Civic Hybrid accelerates to 100kmh in 11.8 seconds, has a top speed of 168kmh and certainly feels lively, with good mid-range performance.

The 85kW petrol engine is essentially a 16-valve, 1339cc, single overhead cam unit from the big-selling Jazz, producing 170Nm of torque.

It has self-closing valves and, in conjunction with the brushless DC electric motor, is claimed to offer the driving performance of a 1.8-litre petrol-only engine.

Arrival of the second-generation model saw a 46 per cent electric motor power increase, and a 14 per cent lift in torque because of new square wire windings.

When decelerating, the electric motor turns into a generator, using energy that would otherwise be lost to recharge its battery.

Honda says the latest Civic Hybrid has made huge gains in recapturing wasted energy lost in brake for use later in acceleration and cruising.

A further development is the electric air conditioning pump for continuous air cooling. Previously, the air conditioning was compromised when both engines were stopped.
An auto stop engine reactivation mode cuts the fuel and spark. Meanwhile, inlet and outlet valves are closed to reduce energy loss through friction pumping losses, and electric potential is maximised.

When stopping in traffic or at lights, the petrol engine shuts down, but only while the driver depresses the brake pedal.

In this situation I was unable to enjoy an economy gain because when stopping for any length of time, I usually engage the handbrake and take my foot off the brake. Each time you do that in the Civic, the engine fires up again.

The petrol engine deactivates using i-VTEC technology at speeds of less than 40kmh or when utilising regenerative braking, but I found this occurring infrequently, even when driving on a light throttle in easy conditions.

Although quick off the line, progress is not entirely jerk-free, with an electric car-like sensation when easing through traffic, dictated by a less than smooth transition of power when the petrol motor kicks in.

The electric motor acts as a beefy starter motor, so the start-up is virtually seamless and almost imperceptible.

Rear brakes are drums, and the braking is rather sensitive to the touch. As a result of this and the petrol/electric operation, slow speed manoeuvring can be jerky.

Mechanical noise is subdued, so the hybrid is a quiet cruiser unless pressing on when the continuously variable automatic transmission can be fussy.

The 195/65 15-inch Dunlop tyres produce high road noise, and on indifferent surfaces the ride tends towards harshness.

Surprisingly, Honda says if the car remains unused for a month or more, the service life of the nickel-metal hydride battery will be reduced and the battery may be permanently damaged.

Expect a roomy and well-equipped medium size saloon – no longer is a Civic a small car.
Cruise control, audio buttons on the three-spoke steering wheel, a trip computer, and full-face alloy wheels are all standard.

The front seats are flat, shapeless and provide little support, but there are plenty of storage compartments and the standard of finish is impeccable.

Without the benefit of a crystal ball, we can’t predict how important hybrids will be during the next decade or so.

Yet it’s clear they’ll form only part of comprehensive efforts for more economical transport.

Auto Trader New Zealand