You don't buy a hybrid for its high horsepower or because it's fun to drive in any of the ways a traditional all-gas all-the-time car can be. You buy a hybrid to get better fuel economy than everything short of a golf cart. You buy a hybrid to use less gas in your everyday driving and to fill the air with fewer emissions every year. Those are all great reasons to consider the 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid. It's not fast, it isn't a world-class handling car and it won't break any speed records. But it's a solid contender in the compact hybrid sedan market, an arena that is becoming increasingly crowded with vehicles worth considering.
The current Civic Hybrid was fully redesigned for 2006, but got a refresh for 2009 that includes styling changes to the nose and tail, and additional features like Bluetooth and leather upholstery. Our test car was the highest trim level Civic Hybrid available, with leather and a navigation system, giving it a slightly more upscale feel for a hybrid compact sedan. It also featured Bluetooth and satellite radio, all for a sticker price of $27,420 including destination charge, a couple thousand dollars less than a comparably equipped Toyota Prius.
Unlike the Prius, the 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid is one of several hybrid vehicles that looks just like its non-hybrid sibling. While that may appeal to a buyer who likes to fly under the radar, many hybrid buyers are looking for something that looks a little different. For them, the 2010 Honda Insight will essentially share the Civic's hybrid technology, but will be more affordable and have that futuristic space-pod look that Prius buyers have flocked to. The non-hybrid Honda Fit should also be considered, with its spacious interior, fun-to-drive demeanor and still-impressive fuel economy, if you're not dead set on a hybrid.
Our 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid featured the 110-horsepower 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine (the only option for the hybrid sedan) coupled with an electric motor that kicks in 20 more hp, and a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The Civic Hybrid is a little different from hybrids from other manufacturers in that the electric motor assists the gasoline engine when it needs it, but can't power the vehicle on its own (as Toyota's system can). Honda calls it Integrated Motor Assist.
From a stop, the Civic Hybrid can only be described as powerless. During performance testing, our Civic Hybrid test car took a painful 13.5 seconds to reach 60 mph, which makes it one of the slowest cars you can buy in this country. When the car finally starts moving, it's a bit jerky and halting. However, we found that passing on the highway was just fine, which isn't surprising given Honda's reputation for building engines that excel at tapping into available power at high rpm. During our time with the car, we achieved a combined fuel economy of 36.1 mpg (EPA estimates for the Civic Hybrid are 40 city/45 highway/40 combined), but during a fuel consumption test under controlled conditions we managed to get 45.7 mpg in combined driving.
Brake performance on our 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid test car was unimpressive. At our test track, the hybrid came to a stop from 60 mph in a longish 140 feet (the Prius stopped in 128), while the regenerative braking feature produces an odd pedal feel. Our drivers eventually got used to the pedal feel, and we'd expect most owners would, too. But there's no getting around the longer distances.
In terms of handling, we also observed a surprising amount of body roll around corners — this isn't a car that responds eagerly to aggressive driving. But in general, the Civic's handling and steering are perfectly appropriate for the kind of driving you'd be doing in a fuel-sipping compact sedan.
Our top-of-the-line Civic Hybrid test car was decked out with heated leather front seats with manual seat-height adjustment, and a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel. The front seat cushion was firm (but not hard) with some minor side support. The more aggressive side bolstering on the seatback could feel a bit tight for a broad body type. Headroom and hiproom were better than expected for a compact. In back, the fairly flat rear bench seat offers very little lateral support, but the center seating position is softer and more comfortable than most in the class. Overall, it's an impressive level of comfort for a compact sedan in the under-$30,000 price range.
If only Honda could do the same thing about road noise. Enough tire rumble made its way into the cabin to remind us that this is a Honda (cars known for substantial road noise), with the most noisy moments occurring on highways and rougher road surfaces. Wind noise wasn't terribly obtrusive, but overall this is not a particularly quiet car.
Though the Civic Hybrid's compact size allows for decent overall visibility, its high rear deck and wide rearmost roof pillars make it a little difficult to see while reversing. No extra parking aids (sensors, rearview camera) are available to remedy the situation.
As is typically the case with any Civic, the hybrid's climate controls are very simple, intuitive and easy to use. Unfortunately, the audio-navigation system controls drew mixed reviews. The small knobs, rocker switches and buttons all look and feel too similar to each other, and they seem flimsy. But we appreciated the logically arranged menus and the detailed audio graphics of the touchscreen navigation system. Voice activation makes programming the navigation system a breeze — unlike other systems, you can enter a destination while driving.
Interior storage in the 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid is varied and useful, for the most part, though there are no large storage areas. Small nooks and medium-size bins are plentiful and scattered throughout the front-seat area, but rear-seat storage is limited to seatback pockets and shallow door bins. Two adjustable cupholders by the front seat work well and can be hidden completely by a sliding door, but there are no rear cupholders or rear armrest.
The Civic Hybrid's trunk measures only 10 cubic feet (due to the battery pack), which is almost 50 percent smaller than that of the Toyota Prius (the Prius can also expand further thanks to its hatchback body style and flip-down seats). Honda's Fit hatchback is also much roomier (max cargo is 20.6 cubes, while most other dimensions are comparable). Nevertheless, the Civic's trunk easily swallowed two sets of golf clubs, and one or two small luggage pieces will also fit at the same time. Our child safety seat fit just fine in the rear seat, though, as can be expected in a compact sedan, it reduced the range of seat travel for the front passenger when installed facing the rear.
Design/Fit and Finish
Thanks to the recent benchmark of hybridtude, the Toyota Prius, the space pod look has become synonymous with the term "hybrid." The Civic Hybrid is a stealth hybrid, as it has the same newly updated exterior design as the non-hybrid Civic. The future Prius-look Honda Insight would seem to indicate people haven't exactly warmed to this philosophy, though.
Inside, the swoopy dash looks more design-y than previous-generation Civics. Our tester featured the new-for-2009 leather seating, which had a fine, light texture and a snazzy navy blue hue. Other interior materials are made from perfectly acceptable plastics, some with a pleasant sheen, some with a pebbly look to them. The leather-trimmed steering wheel is moderately grippy. Our test vehicle seemed well put together and we noticed no squeaks or rattles in our time behind the wheel.
Who should consider this vehicle
If you're simply looking for an ultra-efficient reliable sedan with some available luxury goodies, the 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid with leather and navigation may be a good choice for you. But we think most buyers will be better off waiting for a 2010 Honda Insight or buying a Toyota Prius, which offers more efficiency, performance and interior space.
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