Sean O'Grady: The ugly side of going green

The hybrid could have been made in the style of the Civic hatchback, but Americans like cars with a boot
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I blame the Americans. No, not for the crisis in the Middle East, not for global warming, not even for fast food. However, I do hold the Americans responsible for making my car ugly. The Honda Civic Hybrid I've been lent does many things admirably. It's a smooth, reasonably well equipped cruiser that is doing its little bit to save the planet by using less fuel than it otherwise would. This is because its hybrid motor uses power that would otherwise be wasted, for example during braking. It stores it in batteries in the boot of the car. Then, for example during hard acceleration, the batteries power an electric motor that helps out the relatively small petrol engine. Despite using electric power to move along, the Honda is not a plug-in electric car. It generates all its electricity itself. Fuel economy is around 40mpg, not that outstanding, I know, and rather less than the official figures suggest, but better than if it was running on petrol alone, and arguably better than a diesel equivalent.

All well and good, then, but it comes packaged in a shape that I still can't learn to love; a very slab-sided four-door saloon with wheels that look too small. It could, I feel sure, have been made in the funky style of the latest generation Civic hatchback, which you may have seen brightening up the roads. However that futuristic version of the Civic is produced (in Swindon) only for the European market, because we in this corner of the globe like our cars that way.

The Japanese and, most crucially, the Americans, like cars with a proper boot, and they are the customers that the hybrid is really aimed at, so that is why the Civic Hybrid looks the way it does when it comes out of the factory in Japan. It gets a boring, normal grille in place of the hatch's transparent plastic one. The Civic Hybrid even has a more conservative dashboard design. So the most technologically adventurous member of the Civic family still looks the least interesting.

Should we judge this veggie sausage by its skin? No. But, judged on its merits as a hybrid it isn't as good as the Toyota Prius, which I drove immediately before the Civic as a long-termer. The Civic is a "mild" hybrid. That means that its electric motor isn't as powerful as the Toyota's, so the Honda runs more of the time like any other petrol-engined car. The Toyota has some other points in its favour: it's a hatchback, which means it's a bit more practical; the dash features graphics that show you what's going on in the electrics and it has better fuel economy. Against that it's more expensive, by about £1,000.

But the real question is whether a hybrid is really that much better than one of the many small, efficient, diesels on the market now. It very much depends on your type of driving; the more long-distance or motorway work your car does, the less useful the hybrid technology, because of the effort the car has to make to lug heavy batteries around at speed. The more urban your auto-lifestyle the better, so its petrol engine doesn't have to burn so much fuel.

The Honda Civic Hybrid, according to Government figures is supposed to return 61mpg, although my experience is much worse than that. That compares with the diesel Civic's 55mpg - not much difference. On emissions, though, the picture is a lot starker; the Hybrid generates 109g of carbon dioxide per kilometre against the diesel's 135g. So it's green, but it's still ugly.

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