Pioneers of hybrid technology such as Honda and Toyota tell us that one day petrol-electric powertrains will be part of the mainstream - common enough to hardly warrant a mention.

Given time, I'm sure that will prove correct. Even now, "hybridisation" of conventional cars - stop-start, energy recuperation and the like - is remarkably common.

But bespoke petrol-electric hybrids are still niche, comprising less than five per cent of new passenger-car sales.

While that remains the case, and while there are still ultra-efficient diesel engines that are just as (or more) economical, the fact remains that hybrids are purchased by people who really want a hybrid. For whatever reason.


That means hybrid vehicles will inevitably be compared with other hybrids, even when they are vehicles from different size and/or price segments. Unfair, perhaps, but I really do think that's the case.

So the problem I see for the new Honda Civic IMA (which stands for Integrated Motor Assist, or "hybrid' to you and I): is another hybrid Honda, the rather excellent Insight.

It's true that Civic has a larger engine and more power (82kW/172Nm versus 72kW/167Nm) and it is also a slightly larger car, with an extra 120mm in the wheelbase.
But the Insight still provides spacious family transportation in combination with a hybrid powertrain, not to mention remarkably similar economy: 4.6 litres per 100km versus the Civic IMA's 4.4 litres.

For Civic IMA money you can have a top-spec Insight N with absolutely everything and $3500 change.

Surely there's a case for this hybrid Civic? If you want the very latest technology from Honda, then yes.

The 1.5-litre engine has more torque and reduced friction compared with the previous model, and the electric motor is now powered by lithium-ion batteries - absolutely the future for hybrids, most of which use nickel metal hydride.

Lithium-ion (like the batteries in your laptop or camera) are more expensive but more powerful, which means fewer are required.

The previous Civic IMA had 132 cylindrical NMH cells; the new one has 40 Lithium cells in a box shape that make 33 per cent more power and weigh 9kg less.

Overall the Civic is just 65kg heavier than the Insight, which means it's both more sprightly and more efficient.

It definitely moves the hybrid cause along in terms of technology. But in practical terms, for the hybrid enthusiast, the character and capabilities of the Civic are not that different form the Insight.

Especially when you consider that hybrids really only deliver anything close to their laboratory fuel efficiency figures when you become a truly timid wheelsmith, in order to minimise fuel burn and maximise use of the battery pack.

I don't have a problem with that - if you're going to drive a hybrid with a CVT transmission, that's what you should be doing. But it does undermine any extra driver appeal that the Civic might have over the Insight.

The Civic IMA is a significantly evolved execution of a familiar concept. But the fact remains that smaller, cheaper hybrids make much more sense in New Zealand for the average-mileage buyer, because they make a better value argument and capitalise on the crippling blow that Road User Charges (RUC) deal to small diesels.

There's a little insight for you.

Honda Civic IMA $43,500
Honda Insight N $40,000
Toyota Camry hybrid $50,990
Toyota Prius C s-tech $34,990
Toyota Prius $49,990
The bottom line:
A definite advance for Honda's IMA hybrid technology. But a relatively expensive one, too, and ultimately hard to justify over the maker's (slightly) smaller petrol-electric Insight