As a new Smart is unveiled, we look at the greatest rear-engined creations of all time
On test: Honda Civic IMA review (2003-2005 model)
- Bodystyle:4dr saloon
- Engine:1.3-litre in-line 4-cylinder with integral electric motor
- Fuel type:Petrol
- Transmission:5-speed manual
- Date of test:October 2003
What is it?
Remember the Insight? That space-age car which seated two, delivered huge mpg figures, commanded plenty of press but never really sold that well? Well, this is its replacement, believe it or not. Gone is the wild, far-out styling and in its place is a four-door bodyshell not available in the UK because we don't like our small saloons. Beneath the (actually quite sporty) bonnet sits a tiny 1.3-litre engine from the Jazz, but in between it and the gearbox is a powerful electric motor. This, so the theory goes, provides the 'pull' of a big engine when required, along with all the economy benefits of the ultra-efficient engine. Even better, the motor is powered by a brace of batteries at the rear of the car, which are recharged automatically under braking, rather like a reverse dynamo. So you don't need to plug it in, it achieves sky-high economy figures for a vehicle of its size; where's the catch? Well, it depends on your line of thinking.
Where does it fit?
The Civic is effectively a rival for that other saloon-car 'hybrid', the Toyota Prius. Unlike the Prius, the Honda is a 'proper' car, also available (in the US) as a regular petrol-engined saloon. This explains styling which is mainstream and inoffensive. Effectively, it's therefore a rival for saloon Ford Focus, Toyota Corollas, Vauxhall Astras and VW Boras. The engine's economy means only diesel rivals will be considered, while the price tag ensures only the most expensive range-topping variants will be considered. Bit of a mixed bag, then; and that's without reckoning that many people who look at the Civic IMA will, in fact, also be looking at ultra-efficient machines such as diesel Renault Clios, Peugeot 206 HDis and Vauxhall Corsa ECOs. It's pretty much a vehicle without rival, with a multitude of rivals.
Is it for you?
The Civic IMA is a car primarily for eco warriors. It can genuinely claim to be one of the greenest cars on the planet, and certainly debuts technology which most other manufacturers will not be able to release for a good half-decade or longer. But there are other more tangible benefits too. Clean emissions means it earns a 3% reduction in company car tax, while the fact that it's an 'alternative power' vehicle also sees it exempt from London's Congestion Charge. Yet it's also a roomy four-door car which completely conceals its technology, so will intimidate no-one. An easy way to save the world which will appeal to many.
What does it do well?
It's operated just like a normal car. Ordinary gearshift, clutch, steering wheel, driving manners; only the ultra-informative instrument pack suggest there's something different about the car. The engine is nippy, near-silent and rarely feels underpowered thanks to the battery assistance, while handling is fuss-free and ride quality acceptable. Best of all, the economy features work flawlessly. The engine is started by the electric motor, which means there's no starter motor whirr - odd - but this allows it to switch on and off in traffic near-instantaneously. As you come to a rest and dip the clutch, the engine shuts down but restarts automatically when you reselect a gear. Give it 15 minute's familiarisation and you realise this really is the future, particularly as the engine can be 'off' for 50% of the time in busy cities. Just make sure you dip the clutch far enough to activate the electronics; be lazy and the car won't register your command, and not restart.
What doesn't it do well?
Consider it a normal car, judge it by the same standards, and you'll find handling a little lifeless and dull. It's not poor, just uninvolving. Similarly, ride quality is easily unsettled by poorer road surfaces, though again it's not extreme. The styling has more than a hint of grandfather's Rover 400, with the low waistline and dashboard instilling a dated feel at odds with the ultra high-tech under the bonnet. To unleash full power from the engine/electric motor combo, a weighty right foot is needed; drive it gently and the full power of the battery is not released. It's wise to keep an eye on the 'battery assist' dial.
What's it like to live with?
As easy as any Honda - which is exceptional given all the high tech it packs. It needs no extra servicing, the batteries never need charging, it's essentially technology you can forget about yet constantly reap economy of 60mpg. The boot is decent and unencumbered by batteries, there's decent room in the front and rear of the cabin, the seats are comfy and clad as standard with leather, there's a CD player, air conditioning and side airbags; this car is a loss-leader for Honda, exceptional value for customers. What's more, residuals are decent and could possibly be boosted if congestion charging spreads; exemption means it's already winning plenty of fans in Central London, where its ease of use and parsimonious nature also appeal. Oh, and it's flawlessly well-built and rattle-free, a real quality item.
Would we buy it?
The Civic IMA wins our vote, with a few clauses. Certainly the styling is dull and unappealing, and completely fails to reflect the cutting-edge hardware beneath. For this is a revolutionary car, with the ability to seat five yet also return economy figures to embarrass a diesel supermini. Furthermore, it's technology which even technophobes won't be intimidated by - it calls for no funny procedures or creates no compromises in performance. The price will be an issue for some - Mondeo money for effectively a Focus-sized car - but Honda has responded to this by loading it with equipment. If you want to drive with a clear conscience, this is a good place to start. It's a car of the future which you can buy today, and Honda should be praised for both making it possible and making it work so well.
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