Philip Reed, Senior Consumer Advice Editor
It was a brave move to hold the 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid media introduction at the foot of the Santa Rosa Mountains near Palm Springs, Calif. The test route climbed some 15 miles up to an altitude of about 4,000 feet where most cars would be wheezing in the thin air. Honda almost seemed to be taunting lead-footed auto journalists to see just what kind of power this second-generation hybrid could deliver.
It soon became apparent that this new, refined and improved Civic, rolling into showrooms in Apriland priced at about $20,000, was up to the challenge. It's not exactly a performance car, but it gets along briskly. And when you consider that the Civic Hybrid interior is especially attractive, and it gets 47 miles per gallon (with the manual transmission), you have a very appealing package. You could buy one and then shrug when gas prices double.
Yes, we live in an unpredictable world. Gas prices could shoot up. Gas supplies could be cut. Frigid Boston could get Miami's balmy weather, thanks to global warming. The Honda Civic Hybrid is your hedge against disaster scenarios. And you don't have to wear your politics on your sleeve. There are lots of reasons to buy this four-door sedan besides the fact that it's about as environmentally friendly as a modern car gets.
Consider this scenario. A young car buyer strolls onto the lot at the local Honda dealership. The Civic Hybrid's redesigned nose and handsome interior catch the shopper's eye. "Hey, I like that one over there. What is it?" The salesman begins tap dancing, pitching how fun it is to drive, how good it looks, how practical it is. Then he concludes by saying, "Did I mention that it's a hybrid and gets almost 50 miles per gallon?" The buyer's response: Cool.
Cool is right. And Honda was the first to prove in the U.S. just how cool gasoline-electric hybrid technology could be. In 1999, the carmaker released the Honda Insight two-door hatchback, one of which has held a valued place in the Edmunds.com long-term fleet for the past two years. It has been driven 32,000 miles with no major glitches while delivering an average of 52.4 miles per gallon.
The Honda Civic Hybrid has taken the technology pioneered in the Honda Insight Hybird and improved on it. It uses a small 1.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine (85 horsepower) assisted by a 13-horsepower electric motor. When the driver backs off the throttle or hits the brakes, the energy that is usually wasted is captured in a bank of batteries mounted behind the rear passenger seat. The next time extra power is needed, when pulling away from a dead stop, for instance, that captured energy is, in a sense, recycled. Honda calls this give-and-take between the gasoline engine and the battery the Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system.
The i-DSI (Dual and Sequential Ignition) four-cylinder engine is a technological marvel, with two spark plugs per cylinder to promote complete combustion, boost fuel efficiency and cut emissions. The engine burns clean enough to earn it an Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) rating. Additionally, the engine debuts a new "cylinder de-activation system" that cuts fuel flow to three combustion chambers during deceleration. This reduces friction by 30 percent, allowing the batteries to capture energy that would otherwise be lost.
Also improved is the 10-kilowatt electric motor (which also functions as a generator). The Civic Hybrid's electric motor is brushless and ultra-thin. This is important, since the inline gas engine nearly fills the engine bay's available space. The electric motor is positioned between the gas engine and the transmission.
Rating the power of the Honda Civic is a bit confusing, since it isn't a simple matter of adding the horsepower of the gas and electric motors. The gas engine supplies 85 horsepower at 5,700 rpm while the electric motor delivers 13 horsepower from 2,500 to 4,000 rpm. However, according to Honda's specifications, this adds up to a combined maximum rating of 93 hp at 5,700 rpm. (The torque rating for the gas and electric motors combined is 116 pound-feet at 1,500 rpm in the manual transmission and 105 pound-feet at 3,000 rpm.) For purposes of comparison, a fully gas-powered Honda Civic LX sedan delivers 115 horsepower, and the Insight makes 73 ponies with its IMA system.
The Civic Hybrid is offered with either a five-speed manual or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The CVT version includes a feature called "Creeping Aid System" that prevents the car from rolling backwards from a stop on hills.
Now, you'd probably like to know what all this whiz-bang technology adds up to. The short answer is: a very drivable compact four-door sedan.
As we mentioned in the beginning, much of the test loop was a steep climb into the mountains. With a BMW 328i bearing down on us, we were very sensitive to the Civic Hybrid's power. The CVT made the most of its 93 horses, and we were able to climb fast enough to keep a respectable distance between our rear bumper and the Bimmer and you know how pushy those BMW drivers can be.
Since the CVT transmission always seeks the most efficient gear ratio, it feels noticeably different to drive from, say, a four-speed automatic transmission. The car revs to a certain level and stays there, unless you want to go faster or slower. At first, we found ourselves anticipating the slight bump that accompanies a gear change in a conventional automatic transmission. But soon, we grew used to the CVT and enjoyed its efficient delivery of available power.
The five-speed manual made the Civic Hybrid feel like any other conventionally powered compact. The low-end power was modest, but we test-drove the car with three adults onboard at high altitude. For around-town purposes, with a non-enthusiast-type driver at the wheel, the power would be quite adequate.
A gauge on the dash shows when the gas engine is being assisted by the electric motor. It's fun to watch the flickering lights, and it shows when the engine experiences the greatest load. But it's not like this is vital information for driving the car. Contrary to what some people have thought, you never have to plug it in.
Like the Honda Insight, the Civic Hybrid uses an automatic idle stop feature to save gas. When the driver comes to a complete stop at a traffic light, for example, the engine shuts off. Obviously, this saves gas and cuts emissions. To remind the driver that the engine has shut off on purpose, and has not merely stalled, a light on the instrument panel blinks.
The first time the engine stopped on the test drive, it produced a slight panic sensation in us. The feel of a throbbing engine is so basic to the driving experience. But, as with the CVT, we quickly got used to this feature. It even seemed relaxing to be waiting at a light without holding back the engine as it impatiently idled. In fact, as we drove away from the press event in a Ford Focus, and the engine didn't shut off at a traffic light, it suddenly seemed wasteful.
Road feel in the Civic is comparable to that of other Hondas of this ilk a little on the numb side, despite stiffened springs and increased shock-damping rates. On tight mountain curves, there is some body roll not surprising, since the Civic Hybrid is about 200 pounds heavier than the Civic LX. Overall, though, the ride is very comfortable. This Hybrid uses the same control-link MacPherson strut front suspension and reactive-link double wishbone rear suspension as other Civic models. Additionally, the Hybrid is equipped with electronic power steering, antilock brakes and Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD). Front disc brakes and rear drums are standard.
One pleasant surprise when driving the car was how quiet it remained inside the cabin. While sitting in the backseat, it was possible to hear people in the front conversing in normal voices without asking them to turn their heads. The low decibel level is due to additional insulation under the car, along with underside panels that make it more aerodynamic.
The seats are comfortable and exceptionally attractive with beige fabric that resembles suede. The driver seat has a fold-down armrest that is not offered in other Civics. The graphite-colored dash is made of high-grade soft-touch plastics, and there is a generous sprinkling of storage bins and cubbyholes around the cabin. The automatic climate control buttons are large, easy to manipulate and are attractively arranged in a vertical layout.
From the outside, it takes a sharp eye to spot the differences between the Civic Hybrid and other Civic sedans. One tip-off is the standard alloy wheels. The other is the redesigned nose with the enlarged air dam that improves air flow under the car. Other than that, the crisp, inoffensive Honda styling is very much in play.
Buyers interested in the Honda Civic Hybrid will only have a few choices to make. Three colors are available Titanium Metallic, Opal Silver Blue Metallic and Taffeta White and buyers can get the standard CVT transmission or the manual transmission (about $800 less expensive). The Civic Hybrid is sold with Honda's standard 3-year/36,000-mile warranty, except for the battery, which is covered for 8 years or 80,000 miles.
After this glowing description of Honda's 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid, the reader might think we are suggesting that you really can have your cake and eat it or, in this case, get great gas mileage and have a fun-to-drive car. That's exactly what we are saying. However, there is a trade-off that isn't readily apparent: the price. You could get a comparably equipped Civic LX for about $4,000 less. Still, if gas prices shoot up, you'd save money even by buying the more expensive Honda Civic Hybrid. Not only that, but the technology is exciting. And, oh yeah, like all hybrid cars, it's easy on the environment.
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