Sean O'Grady: Honda hybrid passes test with flying colours

We've just had to say goodbye to The Independent's long-term Honda Civic Hybrid test car. It has been with us for a year, done 9,000 miles, and nothing has gone wrong with it. Which isn't that surprising - it's a Honda, after all. They always were reliable, and nowadays, I reckon that Hondas have caught up with the German brands on build quality, too. I would also guess that the likes of Honda and Toyota are ahead of BMW and Mercedes-Benz when it comes to integrating electronics in their cars, but I can't prove that.

In any case, the Civic, as well as being a rather larger vehicle than its predecessor models with the same nameplate, is a very tough car indeed. Tough as old boots, as VW used to say about its Golf. Just look at the number of older Civics and Accords you see running around, as well as the Rover 200s and 600s that were based on them, all giving loyal service long after other contemporaries have given up.

The long-term test car, as relied upon for copy by generations of motoring hacks, is a strange thing. Many years ago, it must have been great fun. Sort of. In 1963, for example, the Rootes Group gave one of the British motoring magazines a Hillman Imp to play with for a few months. It was the Rootes Group's new baby car, built to take on the Mini, and underdeveloped.

Whatever the reasons, the test car was a lemon: it needed two new gearboxes, and various other major mechanical items failed. Even in the 1970s and 1980s, you'd find long-term test cars that corroded so quickly that rust spots would appear within months. The motorist may be harassed today, but when it comes to the quality of cars, we've never had it so good.

Which brings me back to the Honda Civic, I suppose. Despite what I just wrote about modern cars, I have had the misfortune of driving test cars that have conked out. On the roll-call of shame: the Hyundai Elantra, Range Rover and Nissan Cube. Others have had niggling little faults, such as eccentric sat nav or warning lights for nonexistent problems, or windows that wouldn't wind up fully. Yet not even these minor distractions have been a feature of the Civic Hybrid.

I suppose the main point of running one of these is to see whether its " new" hybrid technology works. To recap, "hybrid" cars have an electric motor running in parallel with the petrol engine, and store energy otherwise wasted, eg in braking, in batteries, which then help to power the car under, for example, hard acceleration. So it saves fuel, cuts emissions and is, thus, green. You don't plug it in.

Actually the technology isn't that new, having first seen the light of day in the oddball two-seater Insight model in the 1990s. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Honda Civic Hybrids, as well as hybrid Toyota Priuses and Lexuses, have been sold and gone round the clock with no ill-effects. But still consumers seem to be suspicious of them.

The remarkable thing about the Civic Hybrid is what an unremarkable car it is. It looks fairly normal, though it's no oil painting. It has a decent-sized boot, can accommodate four in comfort, five at a squeeze, and runs as smoothly as any of its conventional peers. Except, that is, when pressed fairly hard: then the whining, variable automatic transmission makes a bit of a row.

What is a bit too ordinary is the Civic Hybrid's fuel economy, which I found hovered about the 40mpg mark, far short of the 60-plus mpg that the Honda is supposed to deliver. Government fuel-consumption data is usually optimistic, but that seems a big discrepancy.

So, if you want a reliable piece of new technology with lower emissions and better fuel consumption, you don't have to go Civic Hybrid. A small diesel might serve as well. But if you do, be assured, your Honda won't go wrong.

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