Covering 370 odd kilometres on public roads in an assortment of Honda Sport Hybrid i-DCD models can hardly be deemed as groundbreaking, given that the technology is already a known quantity and that more ground has been managed on local drives with two of the models in the assembled line-up. But it was, and for reasons beyond the ordinary.

It was where it was accomplished that made this one a pioneering affair. If you’ve been following things closely here, you’ll have noticed no shortage of evaluations carried out in Japan, but all have been through sampling done on tech days and field events in closed circuit conditions, whether it be a course in a car park or on some well-laid tarmac at a R&D centre.

Road-going drives, however, have been unicorns, and it has been that way for a rather long time. Like all yarns, how it came to be is vague, but legend has it that some on-road mishaps made by the foreign motoring press (yes, Malaysians included, so it goes) decades ago led Japanese automakers to work their way towards omitting public road tests in Japan for non-local media, presumably to avoid any untoward embarassment as well as mayhem and injury being inflicted on the local populace.

And like all good myths, this one has continued to run. Anoraks will likely point out there was at least one occasion where a drive did occur, this being the CR-Z road test that colleague Danny Tan was on back in late 2011, but the cars were all rentals and not sourced from official channels. This one was fully sanctioned, with all the vehicles provided by Honda Japan, though not without plenty of work by Honda Malaysia in arguing the case and assuaging expected fears from the head office.

That tenacity didn’t just finally bring to an end that long-standing tale, but also resulted in a drive that served some insightful observations and, more importantly, provided pointers to something that is set to come our way.

The alloted cast consisted of five hybrid models from the automaker’s JDM line-up, with familiar faces coming in the form of the Fit (or the Jazz Sport Hybrid here), Grace (City Sport Hybrid) and Vezel (HR-V). The Freed is also a known nameplate, but only through the first-gen that was sold here – the compact MPV is now in its second-generation guise and feels a more refined offering, but more on this later. Completing the line-up was the Jade, a low-slung six-seater that never made it here.

All feature the same Sport Hybrid i-DCD (intelligent dual-clutch drive) powertrain, which combines an Atkinson-cycle 1.5 litre twin-cam i-VTEC engine and a 22 kW (29.5 PS)/160 Nm electric motor juiced by a Blue Energy lithium-ion traction battery, which in the Fit, Grace and Freed offer a 0.86 kWh output.

Dedicated output from the petrol mill itself varies, being 108 hp (or 110 PS)/134 Nm on the Fit, Grace and Freed examples and 130 hp (or 132 PS)/155 Nm on the Vezel and Jade. The hybrid combo is paired with a common transmission, in this case a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox.

A brief recap of the i-DCD system, of which you can read about in greater detail here. The full-hybrid system has made significant progress from the company’s previous Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) mild-hybrid system. Unlike IMA, which has the engine operating 100% of the time except when idling, the i-DCD system can run on electric power alone, and at speeds of up to 80 km/h. The air-conditioning system also continues to work with the engine off, courtesy of an electric-driven compressor, unlike with IMA.

The two-day drive began with a run from Tokyo to Mount Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station and then on to Lake Yamanaka, and co-driver Izwaashura Sadali (from paultan.org’s BM editorial team) and I were assigned a Freed Hybrid (we decided to skip trying out the Fit and Grace because of their availability here). Torrential rain brought about by the presence of a passing typhoon made for slow progress – mindful of not wanting to add to legend, running speeds on the motorway hung around 70 km/h for extended periods.

It sounds pedestrian, and it was, but it also allowed the Freed Hybrid to be properly depicted in its proper habitat. Here, in unhurried fashion, the MPV was in its element, happy to move along when there was no urgency to push. Coaxed gently along, progress was smooth, the delivery of the powertrain clean and polished. Out on the highway, transitions between engine and motor were largely imperceptible, and the dual-clutch transmission showed good refinement out on the open road.

The unit we were in was equipped with Honda Sensing, which is available locally on the fifth-gen CR-V Turbo and the Accord. With speeds being consistent and the rain easing off somewhat at that point, we decided to try it out – the adaptive cruise control ably maintained distance and speed, with very tidy progressive braking and acceleration.

Notably, it ran without a hitch, the weather not impacting its performance. The CR-V managed pretty much the same in light to medium levels of rain on the local media drive to Johor last year, so the system, while said to be not totally foolproof in bad weather, looks to be able to cope with rain, or at least when there isn’t copious amounts of it.

Likewise the low-speed follow function, which was totally organic and seamless running under Japanese traffic conditions. The organisation and consistency displayed by Japanese drivers meant both ACC and the LSF had the chance to display a far higher level of coherency than possible back home.

The lack of sudden braking brought about by late lane changes aided clean running of the first, and polite, orderly driving behaviour meant no abuse of LSF’s rather spaced out stopping distances from the car ahead, a far cry from that experienced here on the CR-V drive, where we had to disengage the system when a jam occured on the North-South highway. In more civilised surroundings, it’s easy to see how the movement-assist part of Sensing would work like a charm.

By the time we arrived at the base to Fuji, the rain had reappeared, this time in full gale glory. The second-gen Freed coped surprisingly well with the adverse conditions from a driving dynamic viewpoint, but the load brought about by the inclines brought about a drastic change in the refinement and sonic levels coming off the system, which was working overtime to haul the mass along with three people and luggage up the hill.

The switch in gearing and the resulting higher rpm rate meant heading up to the 5th station ended up being a very loud and strenuous affair, the engine note cutting audibly through everything coming down outside. Also, the Freed’s ability for pace also fell sharply when battery levels fell below being able to offer assist, leaving the engine to handle propulsion by itself.

So, definitely not a hill-climb champ, but away from such challenges, the Freed performed quite admirably – the compact MPV has plenty of practicality, space and comfort, and it drives as you’d expect it to, eminently suited to a relaxed pace and totally at home in an environment such as its domestic market. Shame it didn’t work out here past the first iteration.

The next day, it was the turn of the Vezel Hybrid to go under the microscope. The pre-facelift JDM example looks identical to the current HR-V on sale here, save that the front fog lamps are of the LED variety and the LED tail lights are different to that of the local car, but similar to the Thai-spec model. Inside, the centre console of the hybrid has a different layout – the move to a shift-by-wire gear knob means there’s more usable space to be had. Paddle shifters are also standard fit on the car.

There were a few Vezel Hybrids on call – the red one in the photos was a RS grade variant, which with its black leather trim interior looks quite the trick. We ended up with the white example, an AWD version with an interior featuring tan contrast trim.

Speaking of AWD, the SUV is the first of all the automaker’s hybrid offerings to feature the Real Time system, which distributes torque to the front/rear wheels through electronic control. The system on the Vezel also gets an exclusive setting, which distributes more torque to the rear wheels during cornering to enhance driving dynamics.

The weather had by now lifted, which was good because the chosen route was particularly interesting, with part of the day’s movement traversing the Ashinoko Skyline and Mazda Turnpike Hakone. Working the famed ‘touge’ route with a motley cast of hybrids may sound a bit underwhelming, but aside from a huge moment of irony at a road works diversion when our convoy came to a standstill across a group of S2000, NSX, BR-Z and AE86s in the opposite lane, it turned out to be a decent run.

This was certainly so in the Vezel. Aside from the one non-hybrid car in the convoy that was perfectly suited for the terrain, the all-wheel drive offering was arguably the best pick of the lot for the course. Traffic and road works meant that there were only a few areas where any significant push could be made, but the SUV was definitely game for a go when asked.

The AWD form has a keener disposition than the FWD HR-V from a dynamic viewpoint, at least in its approach to twistier terrain. There’s no escaping the roll of an SUV, but it tracks in tauter fashion and feels more composed doing so, allowing faster progress to be made. On the drive, thresholds were approached with better predictability, as was response to input. The steering is light and fast, but is expectedly devoid of outright feel, essentially leaving the real work to the rest of the running setup.

The hybrid powertrain does its bit to add to the engagement. It’s actually not that far ahead of the normally-aspirated 1.8 litre mill in terms of outright performance, but it’s the manner in how the power is out across that is of note. The delivery feels more organic, and it has greater immediacy thanks to the assist provided by the electric motor. Full on, the system does have a rougher feel to it than the 1.8 litre NA unit, but the improved response makes up for it.

The long motorway drive back to Tokyo provided a neat assessment of ride compliance and comfort levels, with the consensus – among those who were in the Vezels – being that the JDM model was ahead on both counts. The HR-V’s ride, though primarily soft, can come across as brittle on patchier surfaces, which was not the case in Japan – the secondary didn’t exhibit peculiarities or crashiness even at low speeds, though this might also be a case of better resolved surfaces at work.

Some observations about the DCT. As mentioned earlier, the ‘box has good intermediate response and displays clean movement across the gear range when on the move. However, its behaviour at low speeds can sometimes give its DCT leanings away – while not clunky, its performance can sometimes be lazy, especially with initial take-up in stop-start conditions, something that was again noted on the Jazz Hybrid here. Still, as far as DCT report cards go, this has to be one of the better ones.

Finally, a hint of what to expect next from a local perspective. Though Honda Malaysia hasn’t officially confirmed that the upcoming HR-V facelift will introduce a hybrid variant to the model line-up, there’s every reason to believe that the i-DCD system will find its way on to the refreshed SUV when it arrives, with enough indicators from internal sources suggesting so.

It’ll be interesting to see how it would be outfitted equipment-wise against the NA grades and how much would be omitted to ensure price parity, as is currently the case with the Jazz Hybrid.

So, plenty of novelty in getting to grips with i-DCD on its home ground, not least of which how a not-so-pleasant tradition has effectively been put to rest. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another two decades for the next drive.

GALLERY: Honda Vezel RS Hybrid

GALLERY: Honda Vezel AWD Hybrid

GALLERY: Honda Freed Hybrid

GALLERY: Honda Jade Hybrid