Hybrid cars have always held great promise but they’ve often been a niche choice. The new Honda CR-V may be the model that brings this technology to the mainstream, writes Chris Pickering

It’s been said that 2019 will go down as the year of the hybrid. While the concept of hybridisation has been around for more than two decades, it’s only relatively recently that this technology has truly begun to make an impact on the mainstream car market. And you won’t find a much more mainstream model than the Honda CR-V. Underneath the skin of this new Hybrid version, however, there’s an innovative drivetrain that’s packed with interesting technology.

The Honda CR-V hybrid responds crisply to driver’s inputs

Conceptually, you could almost say that the CR-V Hybrid’s powertrain is closer to that of a diesel electric locomotive than that found in a traditional passenger car. For much of the time it runs as a series hybrid, with the 2-litre Atkinson cycle petrol driving a generator, which in turn supplies power to a propulsion motor connected to the front wheels. Any excess power is used to top up a compact lithium ion battery pack located underneath the boot. At high loads, an automatic clutch kicks in to connect the engine to the front wheels via a single-speed transmission. The rest of the time, however, there is no physical connection between the engine and the wheels.

When there’s sufficient charge, the combustion engine can shut down altogether, allowing the CR-V Hybrid to waft along on electricity alone. The battery’s modest capacity is enough to give the Honda an electric-only range of around 1.2 miles, which might not sound like much but is bang on the money for a conventional ‘full hybrid’ (as opposed to a car with a plug-in option).

Compact and refined

The functionality offered by Honda’s clever transmission design is not dissimilar to the eCVT setup found on cars like the Toyota Prius – it still basically provides a three-way connection between the engine, the generator and the wheels. However, because it uses a fixed-ratio transmission in place of the usual planetary gear setup, Honda claims its solution is both more compact and more refined. It seems likely the mechanical losses could be lower too, although that’s purely supposition on our part.

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Both two-wheel and four-wheel drive variants are offered but the battery and motor set-up is identical between the two. Instead, the four-wheel drive system features a ‘hang-on’ unit, which uses a multi-plate clutch operated by an electric motor and a hydraulic pump to connect the propshaft to the transmission at the front.

When the four-wheel drive capability is not required – such as during high-speed cruising – the propshaft is decoupled to reduce losses. The weight difference between the two variants is a modest 58kg, with the lightest two-wheel drive version tipping the scales at 1,614kg. That’s only around 100kg more than the equivalent petrol-only model.

Even by electric vehicle standards the initial pullaway is impressively smooth, allowing you to glide away with the sort of finesse that only the very best conventional cars can match. It’s quiet too, with just the faintest whine from the 135kW electric motor. Progress is fairly sedate if you stick to electric power alone but the CR-V has never really been about performance.

The Honda CR-V hybrid’s stereo enhances engine noise frequencies

That said, the Hybrid is actually the quickest model in the current CR-V range and, with the petrol engine on song, the two-wheel drive version will dispatch the 0-62 mph sprint in a pretty respectable 8.8 seconds. It handles neatly too, although you can sense the extra mass compared to the standard model.

What strikes you first of all is just how often the CR-V Hybrid seems to get by without calling upon its combustion engine. Despite the absence of a plug-in option it genuinely does feel more like an electric drivetrain assisted by a combustion engine rather than the other way around. And when the 2-litre inline four does wake up it’s a relatively seamless transition.

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Honda has worked hard to make the CR-V Hybrid feel linear and responsive. There’s none of the ‘rubber band’ sensation that you can sometimes get with CVT-type transmissions. Instead, the hybrid drivetrain responds crisply to your inputs. It also sounds refreshingly conventional, thanks in part to Honda’s Active Sound Control (ASC) system, which uses the stereo to boost certain frequencies in the engine noise. The idea is to create a more natural, proportional link between the engine speed and the rate of acceleration.

On a similar note, all CR-V models now come with Honda’s Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) system. This uses a pair of microphones placed in the cabin to pick up low-frequency engine noise, which it then cancels out with signals played in antiphase on the stereo. As with the Active Sound Control system, this works whenever the car is running, regardless of whether the audio system is on or off. What’s more, there are no tell-tale signs to betray the presence of either system – you don’t get the slight hiss that’s sometimes detectable with noise cancellation systems, nor the rather synthetic sound that sometimes comes with stereo enhancement.

The Honda CR-V Hybrid’s set-up under the bonnet

The rest of the package is equally refined too, aided by a stiffer body shell than the old CR-V, which improves its NVH characteristics. In total, torsional rigidity is up by 25 per cent, thanks to increased use of high-strength steel, the introduction of a new hot-stamp ultra-high strength steel material in other areas and improved joining techniques. Unlike the old car, here the inner frame is assembled first, followed by the outer frame and finally the joints. A short-pitch welding places spot welds 20mm apart in critical areas of the monocoque (compared to traditional spacing of up to 45mm).

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Of course, the big question with any hybrid is whether or not the efficiency benefits are worth the additional outlay. Our four-wheel drive test car recorded 49mpg in real world use, impressively close to its official combined figure of 51.4mpg (with 53.3mpg claimed for the two-wheel drive version). That’s not a transformative difference compared to the regular petrol version at 39.8mpg but it does represent a worthwhile improvement.

At £29,105 the entry-level Hybrid is a little over £3,100 more than the equivalent petrol-only model. You’d have to cover a lot of miles to recoup that in fuel savings alone but throw in higher residual values and preferential first-year road tax rates and it’s certainly possible that you could break even.

Factor in the Hybrid’s far superior refinement, its increased performance and the fact that you effectively get an automatic gearbox as standard (which adds upwards of £1,500 to the price of the standard car) and suddenly it starts to make a lot of sense.

In fact, as far as the CR-V is concerned, it looks like we have genuinely reached the point where the hybrid is now the better all-round proposition.

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