Steve Schaefer, Fri, 20 Jun 2008 08:00:00 PDT
After testing sprawling sedans and lumbering SUVs, it was nice to slip into my Honda Civic Hybrid test car. Wearing a somber Magnetic Pearl, it called no attention to itself as I slithered in and out of traffic on my daily commute. And, despite its smaller size and lower profile, I felt comfortable peering through the stretched-out windshield and over the Civic's unique and colorful two-level instrument panel.
The original Civic was born in the early 1970s during the gas crises of that era (Oh my god gas is up to 60 cents a gallon!). Over the years, the Civic has grown from a tiny hatchback to a compact sedan today big enough for a family of four. With a spacious and futuristic redesign in 2006, it became the ideal car for a large proportion of the population. Any Civic, from the basic DX to the upper-level EX to the sporty Si, is already a responsible ride.
However, while the standard Civic now has a 1.8-liter, 140-horsepower four under its hood, Honda tucked its Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) technology into its Hybrid. The IMA system mates a 1.3-liter gas engine with a 20-horsepower electric motor sandwiched in between the engine and transmission for a total of 110 horsepower and 123 lb.-ft. of torque.
The gas engine does the lion's share of the work, with assistance from the electric motor during acceleration and whenever it's needed. The electric motor also works to regenerate electricity for the car's compact nickel-metal hydride battery pack during braking. The continuously-variable automatic transmission used only in the Hybrid selects the best ratio for economy or power as needed.
The Hybrid drives much like any other Civic. You will notice that the gas engine shuts off at most stops, immediately jumping back to life when you take your foot off the brake. Also, the IMA system can shut down the four cylinders of the gas engine when cruising or while the motor is regenerating electricity.
Per the EPA, the Civic Hybrid is the second best green car just below the Toyota Prius. Official fuel mileage is 40 City, 45 Highway to the Prius' 48/45. This variation is likely due to the Prius' greater ability to drive with the gas engine off, but in real life, it's not a significant difference. I averaged 35.1 mpg during my test week far better than any other car I've tested, except for the Prius.
Interestingly, I earned an even 38.0 mpg two years ago in a 2006 model under similar conditions. There is significant variability depending on road type and whether the way is hilly or flat. I took a trip to Monterey during both the 2006 and 2008 tests. I got 41.6 mpg on this year's trip but 43.0 mpg last time. I think I drove at a higher speed this year.
With a hybrid car you learn that everything you do makes a difference in your mileage. The IMA gauges let you see if you're using electric power or generating it and you can check your current and accumulated miles per gallon. Careful monitoring and reasonable driving no quick starts or excessive speed can up your fuel economy score.
Being a Civic, the Hybrid contains all the built-in goodness of the line. That includes the Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure, a plethora of airbags, and active front seat head restraints for safety. You get anti-lock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake distribution. This means the braking system gives you more control and more braking power when and where you need it.
It's hard to find fault with a Honda. The plastic steering wheel feels a little sticky and the hard sun visor doesn't cover much of the side window, but that's really trivial considering the benefits of Civic ownership.
The Hybrid model is well equipped, much like the EX Civic line, so a price comparison is reasonable. The EX sedan, with a navigation system and XM Satellite Radio and automatic transmission, costs $21,895. The Hybrid runs $24,985. For reference, the most basic Civic DX sedan with manual transmission starts at $15,645.
You do get big advantages with the Hybrid for that $3,090 price premium. EPA fuel economy numbers of 40/45 beat the 25/36 of other automatic-equipped Civics. And the EPA Green Vehicle scores of 9.5 for Air Pollution and a perfect 10.0 for Greenhouse Gases are significantly better than the otherwise good 7 and 8 earned by the rest of the Civic family. With gas prices at $4.00 a gallon and likely rising, it might not take that long to make up the initial cost difference. And you can feel good that your car has a tiny carbon footprint.