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Bright Spark

Honda is back in the hybrid market. The vehicle for that return, if you will forgive the pun, is the new hybrid version of the companyís successful mid-sized CR-V SUV, and very good it is too.

Honda launched its first hybrid twenty years ago, but the path from there to here has been quite tortuous, especially compared with that taken by the companyís great rival in the hybrid market, Toyota.

Toyota introduced the first Prius, a four-door saloon, in 1997. A programme of constant refinement followed and in time, three further generations of the Prius ñ hatchbacks rather than saloons ñ have followed. At the same time, the company has carried out a steady, well-planned programme of extending its hybrid technology to other Toyota models and also to its premium Lexus range. Variants, such as plug-in hybrids, have been added to the mix too. Any Toyota customer who caught the hybrid bug with that first Prius will have been well served by the company since.

Over at Honda, the story has, to put it mildly, been a bit more complicated. The first Honda hybrid, the 1999 Insight, couldnít have been more different to that earliest Prius. Instead of coming up with a mainstream model, Honda went on a bit of a ìreinvent the carî exercise with a small, high-tech, super-streamlined two-door, two-seat hatchback coupÈ, which, thanks to the low volumes involved and exotic build methods, was made alongside Hondaís legendary NSX supercar.

But the next Honda hybrid, at least as far as the UK was concerned, was completely different: an orthodox four-door Honda Civic saloon. Whatever its virtues, I doubt it was the sort of thing that buyers of the advanced 1999 Insight were looking for as their next car, and so it didn’t do so well. There was a bit of continuity when Honda introduced a second generation of Honda Civic hybrid saloon in 2006, this time with a CVT automatic gearbox, but in 2010 it all got a bit confusing again when Honda suddenly started offering quite a choice of hybrids, rather than a single model.

One was the sporty little three-door coupÈ CR-Z, which, with its manual gearbox, was clearly designed to tap the spirit of the successful high-performance CR-X models from the 1980s and 90s. That was a pleasure to drive, with the electric element of the powertrain providing a nice boost to performance. Alongside that, there was the second-generation Insight, which followed a completely different recipe to the first ñ this one was a five-door hatchback and was similar in size, shape and pricing to the contemporary Prius. That had a fairly lukewarm reception from the motoring press, but I was always a fan. Finally, there was a hybrid version of the Jazz supermini.

Then, for a while, there were no Honda hybrids in the UK at all until the NSX supercar arrived, and then the petrol-electric CR-V turned up this year. There was a more coherent picture in the US, for example, which got several Honda hybrids that never came here, but any UK Honda hybrid fan trying to stick with the brand would have had a hard job navigating the changes and staying loyal. The engineering has usually been great, but the product planning has been harder to understand.

The good news is that the hybrid CR-V is excellent; smooth, comfortable, refined and well made. And hybrids now look like theyíre here to stay as far as the Honda range is concerned, partly because of the declining role of diesel. Not that Honda has been big on diesel power anyway, even if its oil-burning engines have usually been among the best.

And Honda isnít just renewing its commitment to hybrids ñ it wants to extend its electrification programme to pure EVs as well. In fact, few electric vehicles have attracted as much interest as Hondaís Urban EV concept, which, if it retains its charming design as it matures to full production status, should be very popular indeed.

But the possibilities presented by Hondaís electrification programme also have their sad side. The need to concentrate the major new investments required on the plants close to Hondaís big markets in Japan, China and the USA is one of the reasons that has been given for the decision to close down the companyís Swindon plant. So while Honda may have an exciting electric and hybrid future, we now know that the UK factory wonít play a part in it.

David Wilkins 

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