Sipping fuel in Honda's Civic IMA

ROB MAETZIG
Last updated 06:01 22/06/2012

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I always enjoy driving a hybrid car. The whole concept of combining a petrol engine with an electric motor to lower fuel consumption, while at the same time offering a decent level of performance, is still fresh enough to make driving a hybrid an entertaining experience.

Educational too, if the hybrid in question is Honda's latest Civic IMA. That's because, when you are behind the wheel of this car, you are presented with a wealth of visual tools that are all there to teach you how to drive economically in what is officially called the Honda Driver Coaching Programme.

There are bars each side of the speedometer that glow green when you are gentle on the accelerator, but blue when you are more lead-footed. There's what looks like a tree that sprouts leaves to indicate that your environmentally friendly driving style is progressing nicely. And there's an ECON button that you can choose to press to activate a series of mechanical initiatives aimed at getting fuel use down.

While it all may seem a little complicated, it's not. That's because you can choose instead to ignore all that educational encouragement, refuse to be coached, and simply drive in a reasonable way.

HONDA CIVIC IMA

POWER PLANT: 1.5-litre, in- line, four-cylinder SOHC petrol engine, connected to a 20 kilowatt electric motor in a parallel hybrid system, 82 kW at 5500 rpm, 172 Nm at 1000-3500 rpm.

RUNNING GEAR: Front-wheel drive. Continuously variable automatic transmission. MacPherson- strut front suspension, multi- link setup at the rear. Full suite of electronic handling and safety aids including stability control and motion- adaptive electric power steering.

HOW BIG: Length 4549mm, width 1753mm, height 1434mm, wheelbase 2670mm.

HOW MUCH: $43,500.

WHAT'S GOOD: Better than the model it replaces, and with improved fuel consumption. Comfortable and spacious.

WHAT'S NOT: Low rolling resistance tyres mean this Civic doesn't handle as well as the others. Performance isn't as good either.

OUR VERDICT: Honda Civic IMA is an excellent car all round and continues Honda's campaign to have its hybrid product accepted as nothing special - simply another form of motive power.

Even then, you will be rewarded with an average fuel consumption of around 4.4 litres per 100 kilometres.

In fact, the way to go - as I also discovered several months ago with the smaller Honda Insight hybrid hatchback - is to hit the ECON button, keep the speedo bars green as much as you can, and take it from there. The ECON system blunts the electronic performance of various components such as engine management, the transmission, air conditioning and cruise control, thus saving fuel all on its own.

You really only want to do this when out on the open road, however; because unless you've got momentum going, you'll find that performance potential isn't really there. I suppose it's a modern-day hybrid version of what used to happen when you selected overdrive - the vehicle's legs got longer, but the grunt got lost.

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But the Honda Civic hybrid has always been like this. Ever since the first-generation model was launched more than a decade ago, it has always been at its most fuel- efficient out on the open road rather than around town, which is the environment where its hybrid arch-rival the Toyota Prius comes into its own.

It's all due to the Honda's hybrid system. Whereas the Prius is a full hybrid that can run on just the petrol engine, or just the batteries, or a combination of both, the Civic has a parallel hybrid system in which an electric motor is sandwiched between the engine and the transmission and constantly assists the engine - that's why it is officially called Integrated Motor Assist or IMA for short.

This direct coupling of the engine and the electric motor means the Civic hybrid can never operate on electricity alone so will never be truly efficient around town, even though it is capable of just sipping fuel. But out on the open road, things are a lot different; because the IMA can work to offer electric assistance to a petrol engine that is a small 1.5 litres in cubic capacity in the first place, and the resultant fuel economy can be excellent, especially when the ECON button has been pressed.

Which hybrid system is best?

Actually, I don't care. As far as I'm concerned, hybrid technology has now firmly established itself as just another form of motive power, just like petrol and diesel.

In the case of the Civic, it means that a buyer can opt for an entry 1.8-litre petrol model with a choice of manual or auto, or a more luxurious 2.0-litre S petrol version with auto, or the technologically superior and most economical version, the IMA.

From the point of view of looks, there's not a lot of difference between the three Civics - they all have exactly the same bodyshell. But if you look hard, you will notice that the hybrid has a ducktail boot spoiler, blue accenting on the front grille and headlights, special 15-inch alloy wheels shod with low-rolling- resistance tyres, a roof-mounted antenna, and of course, IMA Boost badging.

There's not a lot that is different inside, either. But, in among the innards, there are those big differences that make the car so special.

Under the bonnet, there is a 1.5-litre SOHC i-VTEC engine pinched from the Jazz Sport and fellow hybrid the CR-Z. It is connected to a 20 kW electric motor, and together they offer 82 kW of power at 5500 rpm, and 172 Newton metres of torque from just 1000 rpm through to 3500 rpm.

Power to the electric motor is provided by a new lithium-ion battery, which replaces a nickel-hydride battery that was aboard the last Civic hybrid, and which is so efficient it boasts 285 per cent more storage despite being a lot smaller.

Energy for this battery is provided via regenerative braking and by the kinetics of the sedan moving along the road. It all works naturally and efficiently, to the extent that I have never run out of battery power.

Transmission is a continuously variable automatic that works efficiently, and which has a Sport mode that hikes up the engine revolutions if slightly more enthusiastic driving is desired. But don't expect the performance to be sparkling - this IMA version is the slowest of the Civic fleet.

The upside is that it is the most fuel-efficient, offering stop-start technology around town - it actually shuts the engine down well before you've braked to a stop at an intersection - and economical low-revolutions performance out on the open road.

And that is what hybrid technology is all about.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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