The Honda City e:HEV is a unique proposition with no rivals
The Honda City e:HEV is a unique proposition with no rivals Shot by Rohit G Mane

Honda City e:HEV Hybrid Driven

With the current heat wave leading to an electricity deficit should we be looking at hybrids as the bridge between ICE and EVs?

Brace yourselves for a wave of hybrid cars and SUVs as the Japanese manufacturers, lagging behind in the EV race, prepare their 2022 onslaught. And first off the blocks is the Honda City hybrid. Based on the fifth-generation Honda City, the e:HEV as it’s officially called, is a proper hybrid or ‘Strong Hybrid’ as everybody will be compelled to label proper hybrids. In fact India is possibly the only country where terms such as ‘Self Charging Hybrid’, ‘Strong Hybrid Electric Vehicle’, ’e-hybrid’ and the likes are used, to differentiate them from the micro-hybrids that the big players once used to exploit government loopholes and claim tax benefits. The bureaucrats eventually caught on with the result being that hybrids now have zero incentives, thrown into the same 43 per cent GST slab as ICE vehicles, while EVs enjoy a 5 per cent tax slab along with additional state subsidies including waving off registration taxes. Which is clearly not a level playing field considering the massive gains in fuel efficiency and reduction in emissions that hybrids provide, as exemplified by the City e:HEV.

Honda City e-hybrid technology

Honda's e:Technology is paired to the City's 1.5-litre nat-asp petrol unit
Honda's e:Technology is paired to the City's 1.5-litre nat-asp petrol unit Shot by Rohit G Mane

It has been a while since I geeked out on a car as much I did with this Honda City e:HEV. Honda’s e:Technology first seen on bigger cars like the Accord features a two-motor setup that is unique among all the hybrids sold in India. At the core is the ICE powertrain, the City’s 1.5-litre i-VTEC naturally-aspirated petrol which now runs the more efficient Atkinson cycle and thus delivering an excellent thermal efficiency of 40.5 per cent. The engine is not connected to a gearbox of any kind, instead it is coupled to an e-motor which works as a generator converting the ICE output to electrical energy that is stored in the Lithium-Ion batteries. The batteries then supply power to the traction motor which powers the front wheels.

Provided there’s enough charge in the batteries the City e:HEV starts off in ‘Electric Drive’ mode with the engine kicking it when the batteries get depleted. The engine kicks in not to power the wheels but to work the generator and send charge to the batteries — this is what Honda calls the ‘Hybrid Drive’ mode. The main purpose of the ICE is as a range extender to charge the batteries.

Cross 80-100kmph and the ‘Engine Drive’ mode kicks in where a clutch locks up sending the engine power to the wheels via a single-speed reduction. This is in addition to the e-motor and the total system output is 124bhp, 5bhp more than the i-VTEC City. The bigger improvement though is the 253Nm of torque, and since this torque is provided by the electric motor it’s available from 0 to 3000rpm for immediate response.

Brake energy recuperation is enhanced with the electric-servo brake system and discs at the rear. Get off the accelerator and no matter what mode you are in, the system immediately jumps into recuperation mode. The paddles on the steering wheel, like in an EV, are used to adjust the level of recuperation, to an extent where you get heavy-regen (up to 0.25g) and getting off the accelerator is enough to slow down the car for most conditions. Stick the gear lever in the B mode (where in the regular City CVT you’d find the Sport mode) and the system remembers the level of regeneration you want, for instance while driving downhill and you want to simulate the sense of engine braking. In D mode it defaults to the minimum regen mode, so that the City feels as natural to drive as the conventional ICE.

Driving the Honda City e:HEV

The City e:HEV hybrid remains silent in EV mode
The City e:HEV hybrid remains silent in EV modeShot by Rohit G Mane

With the theory lesson done, we head out on the road, the City e:HEV starting off in pure EV mode. Now the City’s i-VTEC engine was always super-refined, we’ve even said that at idle you have to look down at the rev-counter to confirm that the engine is actually ticking over. But here, in the EV mode, the silence is next level. It’s strange and very cool. It also means little things, like the click-clack of the indicators sound way too loud, now that there are no frequencies from the ICE to cancel out some of the noises.

A few minutes later, as the battery depletes or you build up speed, the ICE kicks in. The transition is very smooth, though now you do get a hum — you could even call it a drone — from the engine bay indicating the motor is active. Since the engine is not connected to the wheels it work at its most efficient range, I suspect around 4000rpm, which gives you a strange sensation of the engine idling at a surprisingly high rev-band when you are stationary at a traffic light. This only happens on rare occasions since auto stop-start will ensure the engine switches off completely when stopped at the lights, provided the batteries have enough juice to power the air-conditioning (working overtime in the heat wave we are going through).

Mash the throttle when the traffic lights turn green and the engine jumps in, and this time it is quite audible. This is where things are a bit strange. Play with more than 50 per cent of the travel of the throttle pedal and the engine revs rise and falls like they would in a conventional automatic, as if it is going through the years. But this is all artificial. The so-called ‘Step-Shift’ is a pure simulation so that, in the words of the engineers, “You get a good feeling.”

To be honest it does make you feel like you’re driving a normal automatic, the simulation is done so well. I’d even go so far as saying that it feels even better than the regular i-VTEC City where the CVT does exhibit a rubber-band effect. It’s only because we know the engine is not connected to the wheels that I had to ask the engineers why the engine revs are rising and falling, because there’s no need for it to spin higher than its optimum (for fuel-efficiency) rev band. “[Driver has] unity with the car,” was what the engineers re-emphasised, and come to think of it if the revs didn’t rise and fall, if the revs remain at the same level no matter how hard you pressed the accelerator, this City e:HEV would feel very strange to drive. Definitely a smart solution on the part of Honda’s engineers.

Performance of the Honda City e:HEV

The handling of the e:HEV will feel familiar to anyone who's driven a regular City
The handling of the e:HEV will feel familiar to anyone who's driven a regular CityShot by Rohit G Mane

Let’s start with the figures. The drive motor makes 107bhp and 253Nm, the latter from 0-3000rpm. The second motor makes 94bhp but that figure has no bearing on performance as this is the generator that is used to charge the batteries. The petrol engine uses the same block as the i-VTEC but the top-end is completely new and is imported from Japan. The motor makes 94bhp and 127Nm of torque from 4500-5000rpm. Engines running the Atkinson cycle have an inherent weakness of low torque at low revs compared to the normal Otto cycle but this is compensated by the torque of the electric motor.

Max output is 124bhp and I assumed all the horses would get deployed when you do a full-throttle launch from stand still. Except the City e:HEV activates its parallel hybrid mode, where the engine and e-motor are together powering the front wheels, only after 80-100kmph. The (claimed) 0-100kmph time of 10 seconds is thus achieved in series hybrid mode using only the 107bhp of the e-motor. This is still 0.4 seconds faster than the i-VTEC City with the CVT, and the e-motor’s 253Nm can be credited for it. That torque figure is on par with the direct-injection 1.5 turbo-petrol motor in the Slavia and Virtus. And the electric torque can be credited for masking the 127kg weight gain of the hybrid over the regular i-VTEC

On the road, particularly in stop-go city traffic, the City e:HEV feels very different from the regular City, primarily due to the silence in the EV mode. Drive a little enthusiastically and the e:HEV feels more like the regular City, the simulation of the revs rising and falling doing a very good impression of a conventional powertrain. It’s only when you deploy a particularly sharp ear that you notice a bit of mis-match between revs and the build up of speed but I wouldn’t worry too much about it. In fact so cool is the working of the powertrain that you are focused on the energy monitor on the digital cockpit, and it goads you into driving to maximise fuel economy. It just feels like the right thing to do!

As for the responsiveness, there is barely any lag or delay when you are in the electric drive mode at low speeds but above 60kmph, when you floor the throttle, there is a noticeable and significant lag as everything takes a second or two to wake up and then deliver a strong surge of acceleration.

The handling will be familiar to anybody who has driven a City with a responsive front end, very light steering, and the 185-section 16-inch tyres does wash into understeer slightly earlier than its rivals. The strength always was the ease with which you could drive it in the city, the effortlessness and relaxed nature, and on that front the e:HEV moves the game on a further notch.

Styling of the Honda City e:HEV

The new red paint scheme and boot spoiler are among the subtle differentiators between the e:HEV and regular City
The new red paint scheme and boot spoiler are among the subtle differentiators between the e:HEV and regular CityShot by Rohit G Mane

Visually there’s not much to differentiate the e:HEV from the regular City. The most noticeable upgrade is the small boot spoiler and of course this new shade of red that looks smashing. Other small tweaks include the blue outline on the Honda badge to signify some electric business is going on, some additional trim bits at the extreme edges of the front bumpers, and a mock diffuser on the rear bumper. One would have expected a different wheel design but that’s not to be.

The interiors of the e:HEV are identical as well
The interiors of the e:HEV are identical as wellShot by Rohit G Mane

On the interiors the only difference is the rev-counter on the digital cluster is replaced by a graphic that shows the drive modes, power deployment and the absurdly high fuel efficiency. The conventional handbrake is replaced by the e-brake. And to make room for the 48 Lithium-Ion battery cells, the boot space has shrunk by 200 litres, from 506 to 306 litres. To optimise boot space the spare is super-narrow, almost looking like a motorcycle tyre, but which will of course take the weight of the car.

Honda Sense ADAS on the Honda City e:HEV

ADAS makes its debut on the City e:HEV
ADAS makes its debut on the City e:HEVShot by Rohit G Mane

The City e:HEV debuts the Honda Sense suite of active safety features. Collision warning includes autonomous braking where the system slams the brakes when it feels you haven’t appropriately responded to the warning alarms of an imminent collision. Road departure mitigation and lane keep assist works well on highways with proper lane markings, nudging you back in your lane if you wander. The best part is these systems can be fully turned off in case you find them too intrusive. There’s also adaptive cruise control and high beam assist that prevents you from blinding oncoming traffic.

Fuel efficiency of the Honda City e:HEV

This is the big, big benefit of the hybrid system. 26.5kmpl as tested by the ARAI makes this the most fuel efficient car in this segment, and the third most fuel efficient car in India. (For perspective the regular City, a very efficient car in its own right, delivers 18.4kmpl). And it’s not just the test-cycle fuel efficiency; in the real world too it gives some crazy efficiency. On this drive, a mixed cycle that included congestion around Bengaluru airport, a fast run on the highway, enthusiastic driving up the Nandi Hills, and pure EV mode on the way down the hills (the engine never had to chip in because the batteries kept charging on the brakes) we got nearly 18.5kmpl. That’s brilliant.

Of course the question to ask is whether this fuel efficiency gain, as well as all the ADAS features, are worth the Rs 5-6 lakh premium Honda is expected ask over the regular City. I suspect it’ll not merely be the fuel economy — though that will be a welcome relief in these days of crazy petrol prices — but the genuinely sophisticated technology that will get buyers interested in the City e:HEV. No matter what premium Honda prices the City e:HEV at, it will be the most affordable hybrid car, next in line being the Camry Hybrid at nearly double the price. And no matter what anybody says, fact is that hybrids are the immediate bridge between ICE and the eventual switch to EVs — addressing the pressing need to cut down on fuel consumption as well as emissions, while not being dependent on a charging network that is far from extensive. We must also point out that the current heat wave ravaging the country has led to an electricity deficit, putting question marks over the aggressive push towards EVs.

The City e:HEV then is Honda doing what they do best. Cutting-edge, sophisticated engineering that works brilliantly in the real world. Being a Honda reliability questions of this admittedly complicated powertrain doesn’t even crop up, and for peace of mind Honda are offering an 8-year, 160,000km warranty on the batteries while the car itself has a 3-year, unlimited mileage warranty.

One can only hope then that the benefits of proper hybrids will reach the ears of the policy makers. The industry has been penalised enough for past indiscretions and it’s time to revisit the GST slabs, incentivise hybrids, and make this fuel- and emission-reducing tech main stream before we eventually switch to full EVs.

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