Pardon me for asking this really non-concrete question, considering we live in times that are overshadowed by major question marks, but is there really a future for hybrid-electric vehicles?
You’re probably sarcastically talking to your screen right about now saying; “that’s for you to figure out” – but bear with me, please. See, hybrids have never really had a warm reception. In small part this wasn’t exactly helped by a former TopGear host, you know the tall one, he-who-shall-not-be-named, who essentially relegated this approach to electrification as a Scalextric version of a Dinky toy.
Then there are the performance car-makers that, under the pretence of fuel economy and looking after the planet, utilised hybrid systems to make their cars go even faster. Having driven some of these I can attest to the fact that they still err on the side of petrol-craves but the payoff in terms of go is undeniable – until the battery is flat and you’re a regular-ol’ Bob trying to corner with a lawnmower.
Back to the topic at hand, though, namely, the new Honda Fit (yes, I'll address the elephant in the room in a bit) and it's hard to really place its new Hybrid derivative into any of the conventional boxes. It still looks like a B-segment hatchback and if it wasn’t for the quiet start and slow-speed battery power and all the geeky displays; I’d have said it drives like one too.
ON THE INSIDE
Breathe a sigh of relief right about now since, while it’s called the Fit, this new Honda isn’t unfamiliar to our market. In its former life, it was called the Jazz and if you've ever owned one of the three generations that have come before what is now the Fit, you'll know all about its ergonomic competence and inherently good build quality. So yes, that is still very much present but in a much more futuristic and, naturally, minimalistic way.
Of the four-model range line-up, the base Comfort, Elegance, Executive and Hybrid it's the Elegance and Executive that mostly benefits from the noteworthy interior upgrades and yes, the Hybrid is based on the Elegance spec with the addition of extra informational screens. Speaking of screens, a 7" TFT screen is offered across the range that not only replaces the conventional needles-in-a-binnacle but entirely eliminates the concept of a visor. As far as the infotainment system is concerned its, yes you guessed it, only the Elegance and Executive (and Hybrid) that benefits from the new 9” display that Honda says is built with distraction-less operation in mind, with a 58% reduced process time and well, it’s very easy to operate as I’ve found.
Then there are new A-pillars that help distribute force in the event of an accident yet a more everyday benefit is that it increases the field of view from the previous gen's 69-degrees to 90-degrees. Combined with the horizontally-oriented dash and overall very minimal-looking interior this creates an airy feeling bar none in this segment. I did find the proportions to create a bit of a distracting glare stemming from the screen that was projected onto the passenger-side window, though.
Driving the new Fit around the outskirts of the Western Cape, I couldn't help but feel almost conflicted. The Executive derivative felt familiar on the driving front and while that is not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, it also had the same, let’s call it quirks, that trickled over from the previous generation. It now sports 89 kW of power and 145 Nm of twisty torques. That’s all very good. What isn’t so great, though, is that yes, it again has a CVT. I know, I know – it’s what the market demands; nobody likes too much clutch action while they’re sitting in traffic watching the guy next to them singing Mama Mia at full tilt.
The CVT still drones and moans as it’s executing its simulated gear changes. It feels uncertain about what its next assignment is, even when you give a clear command with your right foot planted into the eco-responsible carpet. I think by now Nylon is probably eco-responsibly sourced?
In any case, I don't see the need to waste much more ink on the matter of CVTs since it's rare for makers of low-torque cars to really get it right but it has been done. Other than that, though, the steering was responsive, the ride quality good and the NVH levels proved superb.
On to the e: HEV and I was impressed, at least with the amount of technology that's gone into creating a seamless driving experience from so many different components. In short, it has three different driving modes with EV Drive, Hybrid Drive and Engine Drive. The EV process happens when the battery supplies power directly to the electric propulsion motor, while in Hybrid the internal combustion engine supplies power to the electric generator motor that supplies it to the electric drive motor. Engine Drive on the other hand is relatively straightforward with the conventional drive that is generated from the engine, no electrical engineering degrees necessary for that one.
On the power front, it boasts a modest 80 kW of which the petrol engine produces 72 kW while the 253 Nm of available torque sets it apart from its siblings in nearly all driving aspects, especially incline settings.
About town, the silent electric drive still takes some getting used to with the best comparison being that it’s like driving a normal car downhill in neutral with the engine switched off.
At least the fuel consumption of the HEV speaks volumes with the lowest average I managed on the launch being 4.2-litres / 100 km while utilising both the petrol and electric motors. So yes, the hybrid makes some sense if you're looking for a city hopper.
Then there's the price: the range starts at R319,900 for the entry-level Comfort, while the hybrid will set you back R469,900. That's a sizable financial outlay for what is still a B-segment car, even if it's one of the more technologically advanced ones on the block. As for the argument if you will make up that money over say three years due to reduced fuel consumption, well there are too many variables but you'll have to do a delivery-vehicle-quantity of driving if you were to at least try and recuperate some of that outlay. So probably not.
So, the big overhanging question mark around whether there's a future for the hybrid? It's a tricky conundrum if I'm honest… I love what the Fit Hybrid represents from a technological point of view and naturally the fact that it’s kinder to the environment; the place where we live, the air we breathe.
But (insert asterisked four-letter verb here), it's a lot of money – money that, mathematically speaking, you won't recover if you drive less than 30,000 km per year.
There then lies the answer, I think. There is a future for hybrids in SA when carmakers can, by some miracle of persuasion, convince our government to reward and not penalise car buyers looking to transition to EV-based vehicles. Hybrid vehicles don't need the infrastructure battery-electric vehicles do and yet it's more efficient than conventional petrol- and diesel-powered cars. It should be the perfect solution, wasn't it for your wallet that was taking one for the team. Therefore, if I was in the market for a Fit, I'll opt for the petrol. Unfortunately, I won't get a manual with that.
Words: Deon van der Walt
Images: Honda SA