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Clarkson's Columns: the Honda Civic eHEV review & Britain is mad on the underdog

The Clarkson Review: Honda Civic eHEV
Smooth, sensible and strangely appealing — this hybrid hatch defies all logic
By Jeremy Clarkson (Sunday Times, Nov. 27)
It’s very odd. Twenty years ago I would have argued until I was blue in the face that when all the economies of scale had played themselves out, there’d only be two car manufacturers left. And Honda would be one of them.
Honda came late to the car business. It wasn’t until 1966, or 1962, or 1967, depending on how much of a pedant you are, that it branched out from motorcycles and gave us something with four wheels. But God it grew quickly. So quickly that, just 20 years later, its Accord was the bestselling car in America, and it had done a deal here with the dying donkey that was British Leyland.
Their first joint venture was the Triumph Acclaim, which didn’t really rock any boats, especially in Germany because Triumph Acclaim is roughly translated as Sieg Heil. That’s not a good look over there. Sure, the Japanese did their best, but they never really got the Brummies to understand that quality was important. Which is why one side of the Rover 800 was accidentally longer than the other.
It was a rare blip, though, because by this stage Honda had the world’s elderly all to itself. Even my mother was converted. It also made some fantastic little sports cars, and one, the original CRX, was so enticing I was converted as well. Then there was the Prelude and the NSX, and in Formula One Honda engines powered McLaren and Williams to first place in the world championship every year from 1986 to 1991.
And then it all seemed to stop. The Honda factory in Swindon closed. The sports cars were phased out. It blazed a trail with electric cars and then seemed to give up. The Civic Type R went supernova and mad before imploding, and while Honda is still in Formula One, and still winning, you’d never know. Most people don’t have a clue what powers Max Verstappen to the chequered flag every other weekend. It’s almost as if Honda is embarrassed by it somehow.
It’s as though Honda has disappeared from our national consciousness. But it’s still out there, making its core products, and I recently decided I should borrow one for a few days. I chose the Jazz because this is the car that converted my mum to Hondadom, but before I had the chance to try it out someone who shall remain nameless (save to say she’s called Lisa Hogan) nicked it for a quick trip to the farm shop and forgot to stop turning the steering wheel after the corner was over.
It wasn’t a big tree she hit. More of a hedgerow weed, really, but it was obviously a sturdy old thing because the damage it did was enormous. Even the roof was stoved in.
It was therefore taken away on the back of a lorry and a couple of weeks later it was replaced by the new Civic. This is possibly the dreariest-looking car I’ve ever seen, and to make my shoulders sag even more a small “eHEV” badge on the back suggested it was some kind of eco version with two engines. Naturally I asked the nameless person if she’d like to drive this into a tree as well, to put it out of my misery, but she declined.
So off I went and straight away my senses were tickled by not being tickled at all. I know the roads round my house and I know that many of them are quite bumpy. But in the Civic I couldn’t feel any of the irregularities at all. It was like being in a hovercraft, only with steering and nice seats and controls that make sense.
I’m going to stick my neck out now and say that if you are looking for the last word in comfort, and you can’t afford an S-class Mercedes-Benz or a Rolls-Royce Phantom, this is your best bet. It’s uncanny. And quite brilliant.
Then it gets interesting as well. No one seems to have worked out yet how a hybrid car should operate. Everyone’s experimenting with different ideas and on paper Honda’s solution is stupid. This, you see, is an electric car. Its electrical motor is what drives you along. And then to charge it up there’s a two-litre, petrol-powered generator, which — and this is where things get complicated — can occasionally be used to power the wheels if you want to go quickly.
If you want to go really quickly you can put it in sport mode and then, as you get to the red line, there’s an artificial but hilarious motorcycle soundtrack that will make you want to stretch it to the limit in the next gear as well.
Only there’s no gearbox. I have read the blurb many times and I cannot work out how the petrol engine can power the wheels without one, but there we are. Instead you get what we used to call a continuously variable transmission. Only it didn’t feel like a CVT system to me. It felt like a normal automatic.
And that’s probably the most amazing thing about this car: its normality. Underneath there’s all kinds of witchcraft and unicorn magic going on, but from behind the wheel it behaves just like every other family runaround. The only difference is that when you use the paddles, you effectively brake the car, which helps charge the battery pack.
I don’t like electric cars but I’m forced to admit that for those who do, or those who want 55mpg from a family hatchback, this car makes a good deal of sense. It’s so eco in fact that if you encounter any global warmingists who’ve glued themselves to the road to stop the traffic, it’s entirely likely they will tear their own hands off to let you by. They certainly should.
And Honda says that its fairy dust engineering means the battery will have a longer life than some electric cars, which means a) the Civic should hold its value pretty well and b) that fewer child slaves are needed to mine the components to make new car batteries.
So, it’s comfortable, cheap to run, kind to child slaves and, despite the fact it doesn’t really have a gearbox, it’s easy to use. It’s also spacious, built to a higher standard than almost anything else in the world, including the machines they use to do eye operations, and with prices starting at less than £30,000, it’s cheap as well.
Not that you care. Because if you’ve read this far into a car review, the chances are you’re a petrolhead, so you are not going to be even slightly interested in a hybrid Civic hatchback. And if by some miracle you’ve read this far and you’re not a petrolhead, you’re not interested in a hybrid Civic hatchback either, because you would much prefer an SUV of some sort.
This Civic eHEV — such an ugly name — is almost certainly the best option there is for people who need a car. Rather than want one. It’s as though Honda has realised that in the sensible times that lie ahead, people will need a sensible car. And that’s exactly the sort of thinking you’d expect from a company that I still believe will be one of the last men standing.
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