Friday 23 August 2019

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Motors

Honda’s high-tech hybrid hits the high notes

Wednesday, 22nd May, 2019 4:14pm

Honda hasn’t been in the hybrid game for a long time now, and that’s in spite of it being the first car maker to bring a hybrid car to the market.

Yup, that’s right — just months before Toyota got its first generation Prius on sale in 1999 (outside of Japan at any rate), Honda gave us the ultra-streamlined original Insight, with its half-petrol, half-electric powertrain.

It was futuristic, it was frugal, it was only a two-seater, and so sales never expanded beyond a trickle. Toyota, by contrast, went straight in with a sensible four-door saloon, and (eventually) struck sales gold.

Honda tried again, with a much more useful five-door fastback Insight MkII in 2009, but while that sold better, it didn’t quite set things alight as far as hybrids went, and so it and the mechanically related (and hugely underrated) CR-Z hybrid coupe were dropped in 2014. Since when, Honda has concentrated only on conventional petrol and diesel models.

Well, that all changes here and changes in a big way. Honda is committed to electrifying its fleet of cars by 2025 (that is offering at least a hybrid or a fully-electric version of everything it sells) and is gearing up to start production of its first all-battery model, the dinky Honda E, next year.

To get the plan rolling, Honda is re-committing to hybrids, and this CR-V Hybrid is the first fruit of that process.

A direct rival to the likes of Toyota’s new all-hybrid RAV 4, and Ford’s imminent new Kuga (which will come in petrol, diesel, and plugin hybrid forms) the CR-V Hybrid is a bigger change for Honda, and hybrids in general, than it looks.

That’s because, from the outside, it looks the same as a stock, 1.5 turbo petrol, CR-V. The only giveaway is the relatively subtle smattering of hybrid badges. Other than that, there’s nothing on the outside to tell you that this CR-V is any different to the norm.

Underneath though, it’s all change. Out goes the 1.5 litre 180hp petrol turbo VTEC engine, and in comes a 2.0 litre petrol, with no turbo, running on the Atkinson combustion cycle. That leaves the inlet valves open a fraction longer than a conventional engine, which means that the engine runs on a leaner fuel burn. That’s great for economy and efficiency, but bad for power.

Ah, but that’s where the electric motor, with its 315Nm of torque, kicks in to assist the engine. Combine the two, and you get — theoretically — 184hp of smooth, frugal, power.

It’s normally at this point that we complain that the CVT gearbox allows the engine to rev too high when you’re accelerating, ruining refinement and driver enjoyment. Except we can’t. Because the CR-V doesn’t have a CVT gearbox. In fact, it really doesn’t have any gearbox at all, and instead uses a single fixed ratio transmission, which effectively makes the electric motor the ‘gearing’ for the car, speeding up and slowing down as needed.

In fact, most of the time the petrol engine is essentially a generator to keep the batteries charged and the electric motor turning, although of course there’s a bypass clutch to allow it to directly drive the wheels for maximum acceleration.

Honda does this because, so it says, the single-gear idea is smaller and lighter than a CVT, and it allows for smoother switching between electric and petrol power. That’s something that the CR-V does a lot.

Honda estimates that in most urban driving situations, you’ll be running on silent electric-only power for around half the time, dropping to one third of the time when you’re on bigger, faster roads.

As a package, it works pretty well. There is still a bit of that hybrid high-revving effect when you want maximum acceleration, but the engine’s inherent smoothness and good sound isolation means that it’s never much of a chore.

Fuel economy is decent, but perhaps not exceptional. We squeezed an average 6.7 litres per 100km from the CR-V Hybrid — not bad, considering that most of our mileage was on motorways (never the best place to drive a hybrid) and commendably close to Honda’s claimed figure. If we’d been mostly driving around town we’d probably have done a lot better.

To drive, the CR-V Hybrid is an exemplary cruiser — quiet, refined, comfortable, capable. The cabin is exceptionally roomy and beautifully built. Not everyone’s going to love the (obviously fake) wood trim in the cabin, but it adds a touch of visual warmth so I’m okay with it.

The seats are great, and there’s stretching room in the back (no seven-seat option though, as the hybrid batteries take up too much space under the boot floor).

If there’s a flaw, it’s that the CR-V Hybrid doesn’t live up to Honda’s usual sporting credentials when the road gets truly challenging and twisty. It’s a little too softly-sprung for that and doesn’t like being hustled around corners. A shame, but perhaps not that many of us will really notice.

We’ll be more concerned with things like cabin space, and economy, and on those fronts the CR-V Hybrid scores well.

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