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Update: We drove the new Toyota Prius for three months. Read our experience with the car:Prius Review Long Term

I often get criticised by some of my ‘greenie’ friends about polluting the environment with my day job. So I’ve thrown my lead-foot towel in for a fortnight to figure out what the deal is with this Hybrid malarky.

The Australian small car segment only features two eco-friendly green machines; there’s the widely known Toyota Prius and the somewhat less known Honda Civic Hybrid. Both vehicles have their advantages and disadvantages and one is a clear winner in terms of its frugal fuel use. But the overall competition is much closer than expected.

Anyway, enough of the pillow-talk, let the battle begin!

The inner –

When it comes to interiors, Honda has dared to be different with very futuristic styling. Although the Civic Hybrid’s interior is the same shape as other Civic models, Honda has opted for a beige treatment that makes the interior look and feel roomier.

 

In the other corner, the Toyota Prius is very simple in comparison. All the gauges and controls are either confined to the steering wheel or to the touch-screen LCD monitor. In a change from the norm, the steering wheel allows the driver to not only control the audio, telephone and cruise control, but also the climate and demister controls. It’s the first vehicle I have driven that allows the driver to control these aspects via the steering wheel, and I must say that it’s fantastic in terms of its functionality and ease of use. The driver never has to reach over and fiddle with knobs, it should be a feature built into all new vehicles.

When it comes to gizmos and gadgets, the Prius i-Tech takes the cake. It’s a given though, the Prius i-Tech costs thousands of dollars more than the Civic Hybrid (almost $16,000 more to be exact). Nevertheless, your cash gets you a very impressive centre console LCD that controls the DVD satellite navigation, along with reverse camera and vehicle statistics. A screen with live power sampling can be selected, whereby the driver can see where power is being obtained at any given time (engine or electric, or both).

Toyota Prius i-Tech Interior

The Prius i-Tech also includes a Lexus-esque keyless entry and keyless start system. The driver simply approaches the vehicle with the key fob in their pocket, then simply grabs the handle and the doors unlock. From there it’s simply a case of hitting the starter button when the key is anywhere within the vehicle.

Interior room on the other hand proves that both vehicles are certainly not short of space. It’s amazing just how much room is on offer in the Prius and Civic Hybrid. Four people can quite comfortably fit inside either vehicle. Boot space in both vehicles is somewhat compromised due to the battery packs fitted to both vehicles, but is still very reasonable. The Prius has a flat battery pack that sits beneath the floor of the boot, whereas the Civic Hybrid has a battery pack that sits parallel to the rear seat and boot divider. The Prius carries a 456L boot capacity, whilst the Civic Hybrid can hold 376L worth of cargo.

Honda Civic Hybrid Interior

The outer –

In terms of exterior viewing pleasure, the Honda Civic Hybrid can’t help but look the best. The Hybrid Civic features very eco-friendly looking alloy wheels, along with chrome highlights and Hybrid badges. Unlike the Prius, the Civic Hybrid uses carryover styling from the rest of the Civic range, whereas the Prius uses a totally unique style (which in my opinion is far less appealing).

 

The Civic also uses Peugeot style inverted windscreen wipers, which could have been a little bit better in terms of their ability and functionality. You can also expect to see indicator lights built into wing mirrors on the Civic Hybrid, adding to the ‘luxurious’ touch conveyed by the new Civic.

Prius has an entirely unique design that makes its presence more known, there isn’t a need to check twice to see if it’s the Hybrid model or not. In a way, this is good but in my opinion the styling could have been more adventurous and less Hybrid stereotypical.

Toyota Prius i-Tech Exterior

Both vehicles feature alloy wheels, but when parked next to each other, it’s quite clear that the Honda looks easier on the eye in comparison to the Toyota.

On the tarmac –

When it came to driving these Hybrids, I wasn’t expecting any revolutionary handling characteristics or supercar-like acceleration.

The Honda Civic Hybrid is generally ahead when it comes to turning corners and general enthusiastic handling. As it’s based on the new Civic chassis, there is more room for further development of the chassis and handling dynamics. The Civic sits more flat through bends and feels more composed and features little body roll. The steering in the Civic is very sharp and responsive, allowing more confident cornering and general driving.

Honda Civic Hybrid Exterior

Toyota’s Prius on the other hand is more of a laid back vehicle in terms of its handling. There are abysmal amounts of body roll and the chassis simply feels like it can’t handle taking corners at any great pace. The steering also felt far too power assisted and generally less in touch with the road. It’s obvious that the Prius is at home in metropolitan areas, opposed to the twisty roads.

Both vehicles feature a CVT (Continually Variable Transmission). Without going into too much detail, a CVT is kind of like an infinite-speed gearbox – generally speaking. A CVT uses a pulley system to variably adjust the gear ratio in order to suit the driving style. For example, if the driver plants the right foot, the CVT adjusts the ratios continuously, allowing the revs to stay at the maximum power zone, thus allowing constant and variable power. There are no ‘gear changes’ as such, it’s quite eerie. For a full explanation, check out http://www.howstuffworks.com .

Toyota Prius i-Tech Rear Interior

The Toyota Prius is most at home in stop-start city driving. At speeds of below 32km/h, the Prius can drive entirely on battery power. At a complete stop, the engine is switched off to save petrol. When you take off, the vehicle seamlessly changes between battery and engine power, or both when full power is required. The driver can also elect to operate entirely on battery power (providing enough battery charge is present) by pushing a button on the dashboard.

The best part about the Prius’s low-speed driving style is that it’s so incredibly seamless. You really need to concentrate to feel when the engine switches on and off. Surely you would think there are no downsides to a battery-only running mode? Funnily enough, there is one. Before leaving Toyota’s Port Melbourne complex, the head of the Press Fleet joked around and told me to be careful of pedestrians. I lost count at the amount of times I came close to running over stupid pedestrians. One particular lady with a pram decided to cross the road at a car park without looking both ways. She received the fright of her life when your’s truly slammed on the brakes and jumped on the horn. The Prius literally makes no noise when running on battery mode, allowing pedestrian idiocy to glow without hesitation. Moral of the story: Look left and right before crossing the road, it will limit the chance of you being run over by an environmentally friendly Prius!

Honda Civic Hybrid Rear Interior

Such problems are not encountered with the Hybrid Civic. The Civic only switches off its engine when the vehicle comes to a complete stop and the driver has their foot on the brake pedal. The second the brake pedal is released, the engine comes back to life and powers the vehicle. In fact, there were only rare occasions that I witnessed the battery level decrease in the Civic. Not because the battery had a massive capacity, more so because the battery only ever came into use when the driver had a heavy right foot. The battery didn’t seem to power the vehicle unless the driver required a bucket load of power in a hurry.

 

Highway driving on the other hand seemed to favour the Civic. The battery assisted the vehicle far more during highway driving and seemed to assist fuel use. I recorded an average fuel use of 5.4L/100KM on the highway, opposed to a combined highway and city cycle value of 6.2L/100KM. The Prius shone in both scenarios. I managed to travel around 900KM on a single 45L tank of fuel. The fuel use average was 4.9L/100KM, with a 40/60 split of city/highway driving. In both instances, the fuel use I recorded was higher than the manufacturer’s claims. Toyota claimed a fuel use average of 4.4L/100KM, whilst Honda claims a miraculous figure of 4.6L/100KM, I’d love to know how they achieved such a fuel economy figure. Despite trying my absolute hardest, I couldn’t get anywhere near such a figure.

Toyota Prius i-Tech FrontToyota Prius i-Tech Front

I was caught out on a few occasions where I needed that instant jolt of power to move me off the line. If you caught the car in a situation where the engine was off, it took a moment to switch the engine on and divert the power as required. Although both vehicles experienced this trait, it was more evident in the Civic over the Prius. But, interestingly enough, even though the Prius is only 3kW short of the Civic, the Civic was able to complete the dash from 0-100km/h in just over 12-seconds, whereas the Prius took just over 13-seconds. Obviously the 100KG weight difference between the vehicles made a very noticeable 1-second difference.

Both vehicles use regenerative braking. This system generates power through the energy that would generally be dissipated through regular braking. Power is also generated whilst the vehicle is coasting. Both methods were very efficient and even through an exhaustive mountain climb; both vehicles had ample battery power left for regular operation. My knowledge with regards to the technical aspects of this technology is limited, for further information, check out Google or HowStuffWorks.

It was quite evident that the Prius was the ‘true’ fuel economy warrior of the two Hybrids. It was able to produce very impressive fuel economy figures without fail. Although the Civic Hybrid’s fuel economy was still impressive, it wasn’t anything ground breaking.

Honda Civic Hybrid FrontHonda Civic Hybrid Front

Under the hood –

These Hybrid vehicles are different to your run of the mill type vehicle. Under the bonnet you will find two motors. You will find a regular petrol motor (in these small Hybrids, it’s usually a small capacity motor) and an electric motor.

Toyota Prius i-Tech Engine

The Toyota Prius produces 57kW at 5000RPM and 115Nm of torque at 4000RPM from its petrol engine. The electric motor produces 50kW at 1200RPM and 400Nm of torque from 0RPM. When both engines are put to use, they produce a combined power figure of 82kW.

The Honda Civic Hybrid on the other hand produces 85kW at 6000RPM (combined) from its 1.3-litre, inline 4-cylinder engine. This equates to a combined torque rating of 170Nm at 2500RPM.

Both engines are far from spectacular, but if you give them a flat foot worth of input, they give you a pretty decent push in the back, which is impressive from such a small package.

Honda Civic Hybrid Engine

Price, safety and features –

The Honda Civic Hybrid is currently the cheapest way to get into the greenie club. The Civic only comes in one variant and is priced at $31,990 (same price as the automatic Honda Civic Sport).

Standard features you can expect to see with the Civic Hybrid include: Climate controlled air-conditioning; cruise control; central locking; electric windows; leather bound steering wheel; driver and passenger front SRS airbags; driver and passenger side SRS airbags; front and rear curtain airbags; alloy wheels; ABS brakes; immobiliser and 6-stack CD player with MP3 compatibility.

The Toyota Prius on the other hand comes in two variants, the Prius and the Prius i-Tech (vehicle being tested); they are priced at $37,000 and $46,500 respectively.

Toyota Prius i-Tech Side-on

Standard features on the base model Prius include: Push button start; power windows; electric power steering (EPS); climate controlled air-conditioning; ABS brakes with brake assist (BA) and electronic brake distribution (EBD); dual front SRS airbags; motor traction control; 6-speaker CD system; cruise control; front fog lights; alloy wheels; immobiliser; central locking; reverse warning and drive by wire.

In comparison to the Honda Civic Hybrid, the base model Toyota Prius is roughly on par in terms of features, making the Honda Civic better value in terms of pricing.

If you opt for the i-Tech model Toyota Prius, you can expect to see all the standard features of the base model Prius, plus: Rear view camera; smart entry and keyless start; premium MP3 compatible JBL audio system; Bluetooth capability; DVD satellite navigation system; dual side curtain shield airbags; dual front seat mounted side airbags; vehicle stability/swerve control (VSC); leather interior and mini audio jack in floor console compartment.

Along with the added advantage of owning an eco-friendly vehicle, Honda pledges to plant 18 trees for every Honda Civic Hybrid sold. These trees are enough to absorb the vehicle’s greenhouse gas emissions for three years. At the end of the three year program, the owner has the option of continuing the Green Fleet tree planting program.

Honda Civic Hybrid Side-on

Conclusion –

At first I was quite sceptical about Hybrids and Hybrid technology. I was also a little bit concerned about being seen in a Hybrid. Funnily enough, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with both Hybrids. In the Prius I was plastered to the LCD screen, watching with baited breath as the engine would kick in and take over from the battery system. Whilst in the Civic Hybrid I would marvel at its ability to manoeuvre just like a regular Civic, without the Prius style price-tag.

But, at the end of the day you are buying a Hybrid because you want to help the environment by using less fuel. On an ironic (yet totally off-topic) side-note, I wonder how helpful it is to the environment when the time comes to discard of the vehicles batteries? Anyway, if you are buying either the Civic Hybrid or Prius because you want to help the environment with a better fuel economy figure, you would obviously buy the Prius. It was proven on test (and by other motoring journalists) that the Civic Hybrid doesn’t return the claimed fuel efficiency figure stated by Honda. But, if you look at the ‘big’ picture, you are saving money by purchasing the Honda Civic Hybrid, along with further helping the environment with the planting of trees by Honda.

Honda Civic Hybrid Rear

As much as I have to choose a definitive winner here in terms of the overall picture, it’s quite difficult. On one hand, the Honda makes driving quite enjoyable, despite the higher fuel economy. It carries Civic styling and also helps the environment at the same time in terms of low fuel emissions and tree planting undertaken by Honda and Green Fleet Australia, all whilst keeping a very realistic and affordable price tag.

The Toyota on the other hand has very acceptable and commendable fuel efficiency figures, along with having a decent amount of features and enough room to realistically haul around five people.

So, if I was left with the task of buying either of the vehicles, I would firstly rule out the i-Tech model. It’s overpriced in my opinion. Although it carries a commendable set of features, I can’t see people paying almost $50,000 for a vehicle like the Prius, there are other Diesel vehicles out there with more room and similar efficiency.

Toyota Prius i-Tech vs Honda Civic Hybrid

But, when the Civic Hybrid and base model Prius are thrown into the ring, it’s a much fairer battle. With a price difference of $6,000, you have to ask yourself if you are willing to spend the extra $6,000 to obtain the better fuel efficiency featured in the Prius. At the end of the day though, if it were me, and I had to choose between the Prius and the Civic Hybrid, I’d go for the Civic. The value for money is brilliant and I’m sure I could find environmentally friendly ways of spending the $6,000 price difference between the Civic Hybrid and the Prius.

– by Paul Maric

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