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Click to view road test review picture gallery“While a few die-hard
  motorists are saying
  they will never drive
  alternative-fuelled cars,
  thousands of motorists
  have been quietly
  switching to ‘green’
  vehicles. Have we,
  then, finally seen the
  green light?”

SALES OF 'ALTERNATIVELY FUELLED' vehicles in the UK grew by 82 per cent in the first nine months of 2007, and the forecast from The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders is that they this year they will amount to around 17,000 sales in total.

That might not sound many when we consider that the UK's new car market this year will be over 2.3 million vehicles. But in 2006 UK sales of such vehicles totalled fewer than 10,000 units, so the growth to an expected 17,000 registrations is actually very significant. Registrations of such vehicles year-to-date are 13,387 against 7,350 for the same period last year.

The 'green growth' is being driven by legislation, escalating fuel prices and vehicle manufacturer's technical innovations such as hybrid pro-pulsion. Hybrids are seen as more economical to run and they emit less CO2 — which is why in the UK they only incur a 15 annual road fund licence charge. All hybrid vehicles are currently free of the London Congestion Charge, but in January 2008 that will change for those hy-brids emitting over 120g/km of CO2. Any vehicles with Euro IV engines — hybrids or not — emitting under 120g/km of CO2 will be free of Congestion Charges in London next year.

The good news is that there are more and more non-hybrid models powered by the latest direct-injection petrol and high-pressure diesel engines which meet the sub 120g/km, so motorists have a wider choice. Toyota says that 23 per cent of Prius hybrid sales are to cus-tomers living within the M25, but many more are bought by customers commuting into London.

The majority of 'alternatively fuelled' vehicles are petrol/electric hybrids and the three major manufacturers are Toyota (with their Prius five-door hatchback range), Lexus with their executive saloons and SUVs and Honda with their Civic IMA four-door saloon. A small number of electric-powered vehicles, dual biofuel and LPG-fuelled models also come into the 'alternative fuel' category. In the future we can expect more manufacturers to offer hybrid and fuel-cell models, and vehicles fuelled by hydrogen are not too far away.

Last week's Tokyo Motor Show was awash with hybrid, electric-powered, fuel cell and Hydrogen concept vehicles which could make their way onto the European markets, including the UK, in the next
two years.

Toyota, for instance, said at the show that by the early 2010s
global sales of Toyota and Lexus hybrid models would be running
at a staggering one million vehicles a year.

In the UK, Toyota launched their Prius five-door hatchback range in 2000 and by the end of September this year they had sold a total
of 18,865 units. This year their UK sales target was 6,000 units but they are likely to end up selling at least 8,000 Prius models. The Prius range is priced from 17,777 to 20,677 — and they carry a 15 per year road tax levy and are London Congestion Charge exempt.

Lexus started selling hybrid models in the UK in 2005: their sales to date are 8,322, with prices ranging from 36,415 to 88,000 for their petrol/electric cars and SUVs. Lexus use hybrid power in a different way to Toyota and Honda. Their petrol-electric hybrid system allows for creating more power and performance. Although Lexus models are currently exempt from the London Congestion Charge, if the proposed 120g/km limit is confirmed for 2008 then Lexus owners will be paying
a fee to enter the capital. Lexus hybrid models currently incur an annual road tax fee of 190 because of their higher CO2 emissions even though they are classed as Alternative Fuel cars.

Honda launched their hybrid models in the UK in 2003 and are already selling their third generation of vehicles. Sales of the latest Civic IMA saloon models are up over 500 per cent this year, with a year-to-date total of 2,369 as opposed to just 403 cars in the same period last
year. Honda expects to sell around 4,000 Civic IMA saloons this year
in the UK. The Civic IMA's annual road fund licence costs 15. They
are exempt from the London Congestion Charge and will remain so if the new below 120g/km proposals are introduced next year.

Civic IMA models range in price from 16,300 up to 19,300 for the latest EX version, which has just been introduced to meet the needs
of business users. The EX has the additional specification of a voice-operated DVD navigation system with up-to-the-minute traffic infor-mation and a hands-free 'phone facility.

At the Tokyo Motor Show, Honda also announced a raft of new 'green' cars raging from hydrogen fuel cell to global lightweight hybrid small cars and a lightweight sports model. Honda said they would be selling over 250,000 hybrids a year by 2009.

Honda's Hybrid system is called IMA: for Integrated Motor Assist. It was first launched in 1999 for the Honda Insight. Since then the sys-tem has been developed, modified and now makes use of the latest lightweight and compact batteries to provide and store electric power as required. Today, IMA is available in Honda's Civic — not the 'edgy' angular styled Civic Hatchbacks manufactured in the UK at Swindon, but in the Japanese Civic four-door Saloon.

The Civic Saloon is slightly larger than European Civic Hatchbacks. It is a global IMA model and around the world saloons are more popular than hatchback models. Honda also use the saloon body option to 'package' the slim batteries in the backs of the rear seats so no space is lost in the boot.

In many ways the Civic Saloon is a more acceptably styled vehicle than the European Hatchback. It looks like a slightly smaller Honda Accord and 'conservative' — some may say bland — sums it up per-fectly. Larger than the European Civic Hatchbacks, it has more rear legroom and it is similar in size to, say, a Volkswagen Passat. Business users love them for their hybrid qualities and low tax levels, and companies like them on their fleets because of the fuel and road tax savings.

The Civic Hybrid is less unconventional in its styling compared to its only real rival, the Toyota Prius, which may be visually unattractive but it drives and handles very well. From many angles the Civic IMA could be passed off as a VW Passat or even a BMW saloon from the rear with its rear-quarter pillar design and rear boot lid spoiler.

Honda's latest IMA system produces more power — 113bhp — than a
typical 1.6-litre engine but only uses the same amount of fuel as a 1.1-litre car: officially that's 61.4mpg on the combined cycle and 49.8mpg in real life during my week-long road test. CO2 output is 109g/km. The 1.4-litre i-DSI petrol engine works with an electric motor system and its 113bhp power output is made up of 93bhp from the petrol engine and 20bhp from the electric motor-generator unit. Maximum torque is 166lb ft at 4,600rpm.

The Civic IMA drives, sounds and behaves just like a conventional petrol-engined car. Happily, there's no strange starting procedure or complicated operating system and it's no slouch either, with a top speed of 115mph and 0-62mph acceleration of 12.1 seconds.

The i-DSI engine uses three-stage i-VTEC valve control to achieve a combination of responsive driving and fuel economy. The valves are controlled by three hydraulic pathways, which couple/uncouple five rocker arm assemblies. During deceleration idle time, combustion in all four cylinders is stopped and each pot is sealed shut. This means the engine is not working as hard to pump fuel or air, so it's immediately more efficient. When the car comes to a halt, the engine stops. Take your foot off the brake — the engine starts, and away you go.

Also, while the car is slowing down the Civic Hybrid's electric motor recovers energy generated through braking and uses it to charge the on-board battery.

The technology used to shut the cylinders, VCM (which stands for Variable Cylinder Management), is also used to shut all four cylinders when only little torque is required — during low speed cruising, for example. In this mode power comes from the electric motor only, with the pistons running idle.

The engine features Honda's i-DSI (intelligent Dual and Sequential Ignition) system that uses two spark plugs per cylinder and allows for more complete combustion of the fuel by firing the two spark plugs either at the same time or sequentially, depending on the driving conditions.

A continuously variable transmission (CVT) is standard equipment on the Civic Hybrid. The unit provide a wide range between the maximum and minimum gear ratios to enhance acceleration and minimise engine rpm at high speeds, and gearchanges are seamless.

Inside the Civic IMA, the instantaneous fuel economy can be displayed in the upper level of the instrument panel, while the lower level displays battery charge level along with of the moment IMA 'charge' and 'assist' displays; and 'AUTO STOP' to indicate when the engine is in idle/stop mode.

The standard automatic climate control system is operated by means of two large and easy to use dials, and there is the usual high level of safety and specification. The Civic IMA Hybrid can accommodate up
to five adults in comfort and in ES specification is priced at 16,300,
or with leather upholstery, 17,100. The new and additional EX model with added DVD navigation and hands-free 'phone connectivity costs 19,300.

Overall, the Civic Hybrid is an easy car to drive — perhaps unrewarding except for the amount of money it is saving the driver. The combin-ation of the petrol engine and electric motor gives a relatively strong power delivery and high low-speed torque for driving in traffic, around town and cruising on open roads. If pushed hard during rapid acceler-ation the rpm of the petrol engine rises rapidly and sounds harsh. The stop-start system works well but some may find it pretty wearing and even annoying in long queues of commuter traffic. However, this is a feature we need to get used to because many other manufacturers now also use it for conventionally-powered cars — and more will be doing so soon.

The overall handling of the Japanese-built Civic saloon is reasonable — although not as sharp or responsive as the hatchbacks, and the steer-ing lacks the level of feedback we associate with European-manufac-tured models. That said, the suspension provides good body control but does not absorb potholes that well, and delivers a firm-ish ride. But then you do get low emissions and cheap fuel and taxes. Plus there's good interior space, it's easy to drive and the styling is non-quirky. The biggest issue in my mind is not that the saloon body style is not as popular as a hatchback in this sector but, given the 'carbon footprint' needed to design and develop it, is the car really 'green'? — David Miles

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Honda Civic Hybrid EX
| £17,100
Maximum speed: 115mph | 0-62mph: 12.1 seconds
Overall test MPG: 49.8mpg | Power: 113bhp | Torque: 166lb ft
CO2 109g/km

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