The new Civic Hybrid may not get an exciting shell, but give it a chance, says John Simister - it drives just fine

Radical car, radical powertrain - so what's wrong with this picture? Honda's forthcoming new Civic is a revolutionary-looking hatchback, but it's designed for and will be built in Europe.

Elsewhere in the new Civic family there exists the much less radical saloon body shape you see here, the shape favoured in Japan and the US. And as Japan is where Honda builds its hybrid drive systems, the saloon is the car that gets the hybrid.

Still, even the new Civic Hybrid saloon - which we'll get here in the UK next summer, likely cost around £15,000 - is a lot less dull than the old Civic IMA. It has a short nose and MPV-like quarter windows ahead of the front doors, and the cabin has a version of the double-layer dashboard that looks so striking in the hatchback.

It's significant that the name is now Hybrid rather than IMA, which stood for "integrated motor assist". Honda now trusts people to know what a hybrid is, and the new car can run, like a Toyota Prius, on the electric motor alone, which wasn't possible before. But the way the Civic achieves this is very different from Toyota's approach, even though Honda, too, is now using a CVT (continuously variable transmission).

In Honda's system, the 1.3-litre, 95bhp engine and the 20bhp (and 76lb per foot of torque) electric motor are always connected because the motor forms part of the flywheel. That means the engine's crankshaft is always turning, even when the Hybrid is moving under electricity alone - a mode that can happen under light loads and speeds of up to 30mph.

But this doesn't create the mechanical resistance you would expect, because in this mode all the inlet and exhaust valves are shut. So there are no compressions and no pumping losses; the residual air in two of the cylinders is compressed while the air in the other two expands, so it all evens out.

All this, plus Prius-like regenerative braking, which recovers energy when you touch the brake pedal by using the electric motor more intensively as a generator, helps the Hybrid to a typical average fuel consumption of about 58mpg.

There's a stop-start system as before, but previously it didn't work when the air-con was on because the air-con pump was driven by the engine. Now, the pump has its own electric motor to use when the Civic is stationary so the engine can switch off. It restarts as soon as the brake pedal is released, to minimise delay in moving off.

Driving the Hybrid, which I did at Honda's Takasu test track in Hokkaido just before the Tokyo motor show, is a curious experience at first. There's always the sound of an engine running because the crankshaft is turning, so the only way you can tell if it's actually producing power, other than by leaning out of the boot and feeling for warm exhaust gases, is to watch the instant mpg read-out.

If there's no reading, the engine is using no fuel. If you accelerate away gently, you can feel and hear a subtle change in activity somewhere between 1,100rpm and 1,400rpm; the electric motor doesn't operate alone above these speeds.

So that's the hybrid part, its only other visible sign a small hump in the rear bulkhead where the slender battery pack lives (it means you can't fold the rear seats).

Driving this Civic is just as you might imagine a Civic CVT to feel, except that it has a brisk, keen step-off from rest (the 0-60mph time is about 10 seconds), and the engine gets quite vocal when you accelerate hard, because it whips up to high revs. It's quiet in gentler driving, though, when the electric motor's low-speed torque proves its worth.

It all works very convincingly, and the Hybrid's tidy handling and smooth ride bode well for Europe's Civic hatchback. It looks like Toyota's Prius has a viable rival at last.

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