Honda Civic Hybrid 1.4 IMA ES CVT
Michael Booth has seen the car of the future - but it's not the Civic Hybrid
Sunday 11 June 2006
Would suit: Uma Thurman
Maximum speed: 115mph, 0-60mph in 11.5 seconds
Combined fuel economy: 53mpg (or so they say)
Further information: 0845 200 8000
One film I can watch again and again - and not just because we get to see Jude Law hurl himself into an incinerator - is Gattaca. It's the cars I love. Though the film is set in the future, the characters drive 1960s Rovers and Citroëns powered, not by wheezy push-rod petrol engines, but by some mysterious energy source that makes a futuristic whirring noise. The film fills me with hope that: a) one day a clean power source will be discovered; b) car manufacturers will return to the golden age of automotive design: 1955-1976; and c) in the future Uma Thurman will swan around enigmatically in tight black tops.
One company striding towards a Gattaca future, though not quite in the way I had envisaged, is Honda. It has just released its latest petrol-electric hybrid version of the Civic, which uses a 1.4-litre petrol engine mated to a battery pack hidden beneath the back seat. We've seen this kind of thing before, of course, most famously with the Toyota Prius. It must be an abiding source of irritation to Honda that, even though it has been making hybrid cars just as long as Toyota, and the Civic is around £1,500 cheaper, the Prius gets to ferry glamorous passengers such as Cameron Diaz to red carpets, while the Civic must resign itself to being driven by, well... the only people I know who ever drive them are car journos. But the harsh truth is that the Civic was never quite as good as the Prius, and the new one still isn't.
Firstly, it looks dreadful. The new petrol-engined Civic hatchback is a little too Jetsons for my taste, but it is a brave attempt and at least it stands out in a car park. Unfortunately, it hasn't room for the hybrid's batteries so they've had to use the dumpy saloon version of the Civic which they usually sell to elderly folk in the States.
Then there's the way it drives: slow and ponderous, with controls that feel only hypothetically associated to concepts such as steering and stopping. And constantly variable transmission (CVT), as fitted to my test car, is the work of the devil, if you ask me. These so-called "stepless" automatic gearboxes always make a car feel like its clutch is slipping, thus summoning chilling flashbacks to numerous breakdowns. The engine, meanwhile, mimics the plaintive moo of a cow with its head stuck in a five-bar gate.
And it's not as if the Civic Hybrid is especially frugal. Honda claims it will eke out a gallon of fuel for 53 miles but, as with Toyota's claims for the Prius, these official figures are only possible if the car is lapping an oval circuit at 53mph on cruise control, with a naked jockey at the wheel. Several diesels can do better in real-life situations.
But what worries me most about these often silent hybrid cars are the iPod users: young men and women slouching around with the latest release by their favourite popular beat combo - Gnarls Barkley James Harvest, or whoever - blaring into their ears at tinnitus-inducing volume. I have an iPod myself, but thankfully only use it to listen to spoken-word recordings, so I should be OK. But how on earth are the Asbo-chavs supposed to hear the Civic approaching above the cretinous hollering of 50 Cent? Clearly what is called for is some kind of futuristic whine to alert the young, and while we're at it, is it too much to ask for an Uma Thurman clone at the wheel for the rest of us?
It's a classic Cisitalia 202
In the future, when I rule the world, all cars will look like this: the Cisitalia 202 Gran Sport coupé. Clean, simple lines drawn by Pininfarina at his peak; a light, glassy cabin; and a curvy, pert rump: what more could you want from the car of the future?
Famously, the Cisitalia of 1947 was the first car to be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But beneath its divine bodywork - which wouldn't have been out of place in Gattaca, come to think of it - there lurked the humble running gear and engine of a Fiat 1100.
The car was originally built by Italian magnate Piero Dusio to compete in the Mille Miglia road race and the 202 Gran Sport was the roadgoing version.
For me, it has to be one of the most gorgeous cars ever made, and it was a hugely influential design (Lancias and Alfas of the 1950s and 1960s owed it a great deal). You have to wonder why they don't make a modern version.
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