Every office has one.
You know, the employee who has seemingly done no wrong since coming onboard. Every decision he makes turns into profits and every review comes with a healthy raise or promotion attached.
At first, the Golden Boy is loved by all. But after a few years, the mountains of praise start to annoy coworkers. Soon resentment sets in. His nicer attributes fade into the past while his flaws start to irritate you.
So when a worthy challenger emerges from the ranks, it's no surprise people are pulling for the new guy.
And so it is with our latest matchup between front-wheel-drive four-door sedan hybrids. It's the reigning champ, the 2005 Toyota Prius, versus the all-new 2006 Honda Civic. (The 2006 Prius was not available for testing, according to Toyota. But the 2005 version is virtually the same vehicle.)
The Prius was the old stand-by. The Civic hybrid was the upstart. The Prius seemed old. The Civic seemed exciting and fresh. But who was the best?
History repeats itself
Among hybrids, the second-generation Toyota Prius has had an inspired run since its introduction in 2004. It's not an overstatement to say that the eras of hybrid cars in North America could be described as "Before Prius" and "After Prius": B.P. and A.P.
B.P. hybrid buyers faced huge compromises in driving performance and comfort for better mileage. They got smirks from others on the highway for the strange look of their car. In short, they got no respect.
A.P. hybrid buyers could top 50 miles per gallon in comfort, accelerate to highway speeds without causing a backup, see their car make appearances on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm and pull limo duty at the Academy Awards.
The Inside Line staff logged thousands of miles in its long-term Prius since 2004. And dependable Toyota performance, incredible mileage and surprising high-end features became just another part of daily life. Keyless entry? Of course. Electric-only mode up to 20 mph? Sure. Just another day in our hybrid. The Prius had lapped its predecessor, which suffered from a lack of acceleration and a conventional design. The A.P. era had begun.
With the new era upon us, Honda had its work cut out for it with the new 2006 Civic hybrid. With gas prices well over $2 per gallon, the company now had the immediate interest of a large pool of curious consumers who expected nothing less than perfection from their hybrid.
After the conventional 2006 Civic passed through our garage, we had high hopes that this new Civic hybrid would leapfrog its first generation just as the Prius had done to its predecessor.
Close, but no (eco-friendly) cigar
At first blush, it appeared the 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid would not only jump past the 2005 model, it would win our hearts away from the champ Prius — keyless entry and all.
From the moment we climbed in and turned the key, the Civic helped us forget about how great a leap the Prius was only two years ago. And it reminded us of all you didn't get with the Toyota: world-class handling from a tighter overall suspension and, more than anything, a design that left people knowing you were driving a new car — not an escape pod.
Scuttlebutt around the office was that the Prius was about to get its walking papers. But just as any office rumor, this one was eventually proven false. After "upper management" got its hands on the facts — the Prius was 2 seconds quicker from zero to 60, got better overall fuel economy, and offered a plethora of cool features not available on the Civic — the gossip mill was shut down and the Civic was passed over for promotion while the Prius kept its corner office and parking space.
First Place: 2005 Toyota Prius
The king is
While we were stymied in our attempt to snag a 2006 Prius for our comparison test (heck, we couldn't even get one at a dealership without a few weeks' wait), the virtually identical 2005 model came out just fine, handing the all-new 2006 Honda Civic hybrid a loss on the scorecard, if not in our hearts.
But the victory by the Prius reminded us of how tough a competitor it was to begin with, and why it has earned its popularity.
Power to spare
When you say power with a hybrid, you're not necessarily talking about horses under the hood. In a typical hybrid, regenerative coasting and braking create an excess of electricity that is siphoned off and stored in batteries. This power is then called upon from time to time to run a clean electric motor, decreasing reliance on the gasoline engine.
The Prius' system — dubbed Synergy Drive — remained the standard in technology after our test. And while the latest Integrated Motor Assist system from Honda is an improvement over past efforts, it fails to provide smooth transitions from electric-only mode to gas operation. This was particularly true in the city, where the Prius happily hummed along up to 25 miles per hour on battery power alone, while the Civic kicked its gas engine on seemingly every time the car went above 5 mph.
The Synergy Drive system, linked to the wheels by a continuously variable transmission, offers up 76 horsepower from the 1.5-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine and 67 hp from the electric motor pushing the Prius from zero to 60 in 10.9 seconds, a significant advantage over the 12.4-second times recorded by our Civic hybrid.
The key to the Prius' performance advantages are in its electric motor, which dwarfs Honda's 20-hp motor. This allowed our Prius to achieve better mileage in the city by staying in electric mode longer. The Prius averaged 48.3 miles per gallon on our 1,000-mile test compared with 42.8 for the Civic hybrid. The Civic did average better mileage during the highway portion of our test, however, which would indicate that the Prius may be the better city car, while the Honda might work better for those driving more miles at highway speeds.
The star of the show on the Prius — beyond its wonderful gas-electric drivetrain — is the availability of options. And we're not talking about lame options like a tape deck — these are premium offerings like Bluetooth connectivity and keyless entry/start taken straight from the Lexus line. While the Civic hybrid offers one option — navigation or no navigation — the Toyota offers as much customization as any normal sedan.
This allows buyers a great deal of price flexibility. While our loaded model — stability control, six-CD changer, navigation and more — ran $26,600, a stripped-down model would cost only $21,800. The base Civic hybrid costs $22,400 without navigation.
The Prius also offers a huge amount of passenger space, with the cabin measuring 96.2 cubic feet compared with 90.9 for the Civic hybrid. (A Toyota Camry, for example, has 101.7 cubic feet.) This gives the Prius interior a feeling of airy openness, compared with the conventional pilot-in-cockpit feeling of the Civic. It's a matter of which you prefer.
The Prius can also fold its backseats down to accommodate additional cargo by cannibalizing the rear-passenger compartment. But the process is extremely simple on the Prius because there is no rear dash to contend with.
One of the biggest unique features in this segment is the fuel-economy display that comes with the Prius. Whether you get one with navigation or not, the screen in the center console gives you an in-depth look at the kind of mileage you've gotten in the past half-hour along with a diagram of how the car is working between electric and gasoline modes.
Using this feature, it's easy to maximize your mileage by adjusting driving habits. Not to mention, it gives the passengers a feeling like they aren't in a normal car — a major point for many hybrid enthusiasts.
The Civic hybrid offers a few gauges on the instrument panel that demonstrate how the car is working, but not with nearly the same ease of use or detail. The average-miles-per-gallon gauge seemed to guess at your efficiency based on current consumption. This number often turned out to be inflated in our test. The Prius average-miles-per-gallon gauge was generally quite accurate.
Incredibly, neither car offered a "miles-until-empty" gauge which often comes standard on cars these days. This would be an easy and necessary fix for both models in coming years.
In the end, we felt the Prius won out on points in our traditional comparison format. Its flexibility, superb electric-gas hybrid system and generally luxurious option packages make this the kind of car anyone could like.
But there are certainly those who might like the Honda Civic hybrid better. While the Prius is smoother and a bit quicker, the Civic provides more comfort and efficiency at highway speeds.
The Civic also offers a more conventional — but not boring — look. The Prius' styling can come off as a bit antiseptic on the interior or even annoying from the exterior to many looking to blend in.
At first, it seemed the Civic had everything we wanted and more. And it was through the strength of the challenge posed by the Honda that we came to realize what a truly wonderful champion the Prius remains.
Second Place: 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid
Maybe you've heard a coach in your past say, "There are no good losses." Well, let's put that myth to bed right now.
While our Civic came up behind the Prius on the scorecard, this mighty competitor in the hybrid segment is sure to win a distinct share of the marketplace with its superior handling, styling and overall comfort. While the company is prepared to sell some 25,000 Civic hybrids compared with Toyota's goal of 100,000 Priuses in 2006, Honda has said publicly it is capable of expanding production to meet demand.
It might come up short when measured pound for pound against the Prius, but it whips up on Toyota's hybrid icon in a host of extremely critical areas that might just tip a good number of consumers to its side.
Still a bit slow
One of the major drawbacks of the old Civic hybrid, and the full Civic line, was a lack of memorable acceleration. The 2005 Civic Hybrid boasted only 93 horsepower. Honda addressed this by adding some oomph under the hood with the edition of a 1.3-liter, i-VTEC, four-cylinder, single-cammed gasoline engine paired with a 20-hp direct-current brushless electric motor for a combined total of 110 horses at peak output.
Honda's Integrated Motor Assist helps manage the power while a continuously variable transmission delivers it to the wheels. The system is a step up from previous versions on the Civic hybrid and the Accord hybrid, but did stick a bit while zipping around in the stop-and-start conditions of San Francisco.
Worse yet, the Civic hybrid was easily outsprinted at the track by the Prius. From zero to 60, the Civic's best was a dismal 12.4 — bumping up to the limit where merging on the highway becomes uncomfortable. Most runs put the Civic in the 13-second range. The Prius, meanwhile, was consistently in the 11-second range, topping out at 10.9 seconds.
Tighter handling allowed the Civic to claim victory in the slalom, posting a 64.2-mph average through the cones compared with 61 mph for the looser Prius.
It might follow that with less acceleration speed the Civic owner would enjoy better mpg than Prius owners. But during our 1,000-mile test-drive to San Francisco, the Civic averaged 42.9 miles per gallon while the Prius notched an average of 48.3 mpg, thanks to a stronger performance than the Honda in city conditions. And in a test of hybrids, that might just push the Prius over the top anyway.
But the whole story is that the Civic might just work better for the average commuter with lots of highway miles thanks to some crucial advantages over the Prius.
Enjoy the ride
and the style
At the top of the list of Civic positives is the ride. The Civic hybrid benefits from the enormous amount of effort Honda's engineers put into the 2006 redesign of the model line. And just as the conventional Civic makes a solid case for best-handling-compact-sedan honors, the Civic hybrid sets the standard in the compact hybrid sedan segment.
The company calls it "Advanced Emotional Design," an effort to reduce eyestrain by keeping gauges large and within range of the driver's view, making the passenger space more ergonomically correct and adding several advancements in body and suspension to improve the in-cabin experience.
Let's just say the effort worked. Far from a tree-hugging wobbly jalopy, the new Civic hybrid grips corners and absorbs bumps with ease. Honda gives the new Civic a high-tension body structure that increases rigidity by 35 percent over the previous model combined with a forward cabin design giving a quiet ride with exceptional viewing position. Tack on new advances to reduce "toe-out" wobbles during braking, MacPherson struts in front and a trailing-arm double-wishbone setup in back and the Civic easily outmatches the Prius in handling.
The Civic also laps its predecessor (and the Prius, for that matter) in style. From the outside, the car appears modern without the alienating "pod" look of the Prius or the Honda Insight. Designers added a new chrome grille, shorter front hood and a sleeker aerodynamic sweep from front to back — a "crouching form" as Honda designers call it. The hybrid comes with two unique cues: solid wheel covers and a triangular turn signal assembly on the side mirrors.
Inside, the materials look and feel a cut above the competition. Whereas the Prius' faux suede tends to look dingy after a few uses, the plush fabric of the Civic is durable and pleasing to the touch. Body-conforming front-row seats seal the deal for Civic civility.
The instrument panel is the centerpiece of the Honda redesign, with a digital speedometer resting just below the windshield in a dark cavernous slot making for easy reading even in direct sunlight. Farther down is the tachometer, which sets the modern tone of the interior while occupying an abnormally large space considering this is a hybrid with a CVT automatic transmission.
The optional navigation system is superb, with easy-to-follow driving directions and clear markings of roads on maps. Heating and cooling controls are easy to operate, as you would expect in any Honda.
Perhaps the final nudge pushing the Civic down to nail-biting, barn-burning, just-by-the-skin-of-your-teeth 2nd-place finish was the lack of options. That is, there is one option: navigation. While ours had the wonderful $1,500 nav system, there isn't a single other option available to buyers. You have to take what they give you. The Prius offers a host of premium features — stability control, premium sound, SmartKey entry and more — that helps transform its small interior space into a safer, more convenient and more enjoyable experience.
While these features aren't for everyone, Toyota's larger production run — 100,000 Priuses set for sale this year compared with only 25,000 Civic hybrids — allows Prius customers to find a vehicle that best suits their needs.
This will likely balance out in the future as Honda increases production.
A winner for many
While the Civic got edged out in our scoring, the editors strongly feel it may be a superior vehicle for a large number of drivers. Those who drive a majority of daily miles at highway speeds may see higher gas mileage with the Civic and will certainly feel more comfortable.
The Civic also makes a case for those who say, "I'd like a hybrid, but not one that looks weird." The Prius styling is unique, but not for everyone. The 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid's styling matches the fresh and up-to-date look of the entire Civic line, which has stood as a commonplace vehicle on North American roads for more than a decade.
2006 Honda Civic Hybrid
2005 Toyota Prius Hybrid
2005 Toyota Prius Hybrid
System Score: 7.0
Components: Our tester was equipped with the optional JBL sound system, which gives you a six-disc CD changer and nine speakers. Most of the functions must be accessed through the center touchscreen menu, but there is a round volume knob and AM/FM/tape/CD buttons that do not require going into the touchscreen menu. Most of those features are also duplicated on the steering wheel. Although it requires pushing a conventional button, the center-mounted screen, and then a touchscreen button on the audio page, there are a good number of adjustments available. Thankfully, a midrange adjustment is included.
There are lighted indicators for the six CDs the changer can hold and those numbers, with corresponding lights, are displayed on the dash and separate from the main menu screen. This is a bit confusing because they look like radio station presets or CD changer selectors, but really they're just letting you know a CD is already occupying a certain disc position. Also, the power switch is somewhat puzzling. For some reason, the volume knob can be depressed, but that does not turn the stereo on or off. Just below the volume knob is a separate "PWR" switch. It's not very intuitive.
Performance: The JBL system sounds OK, but not great. The speakers are simply overwhelmed, resulting in a somewhat muddy-sounding stereo. Dropping the midrange and bumping the treble up two or three clicks really improves the sound quality. Unfortunately, the side effect is that highs will sometimes sound shrill or squeak as the volume is raised. Bass reproduction is fine; in fact if anything, the system is too bass-heavy — a complaint that seems valid on many factory audio systems.
Best Feature: Bass reproduction.
Worst Feature: Lack of physical buttons on the head unit to control radio presets and CD changer.
Conclusion: An OK system considering the price of the car. Frankly, I doubt anyone is buying a Prius because it has a killer sound system. (Insert joke about Prius drivers only listening to NPR here.) But should you want to listen to music while not wasting precious resources, the optional JBL stereo is perfect for everyday use by non-audiophiles. — Mike Hudson
2006 Honda Civic Hybrid
System Score: 6.0
Components: The Civic hybrid we tested came with a stereo that functioned through the optional navigation screen. It was a six-speaker, AM/FM, single-CD, XM-ready, 160-watt system with two tweeters on the dash, two 6.7-inch rounds in the front doors and two more 6.7-inch rounds in the rear deck. The system featured MP3 playback via CD or auxiliary jack, speed-sensitive volume control and steering-mounted audio controls.
The controls are mounted on the flip-out navigation screen, which moves to allow you loading and unloading access to the CD player. This feature looks cool, but as with most navigation-based stereos, is a bit confusing because most drivers are used to conventional controls.
Performance: Honda included a CD of songs with our test car ranging from R&B to rock, theoretically to promote the sound of the system. While this might be a good idea with the Civic Si and EX coupe models — which boast a 350-watt, seven-speaker with 8-inch woofer systems — the company would have been better off sticking the controls on talk radio. Bass performance, not surprisingly, is lacking. But treble performance, surprisingly, is lacking as well. Equalizer options are modest for such an attractive and modern-looking deck. And perhaps the look of the system does it a disservice by building up unfair expectations for an economy hybrid. Still, this system's speakers and amplification stand out as being years behind.
Best Feature: The flip screen and modern look help the entire appearance of the vehicle.
Worst Feature: The speakers either need more power or more ability. A bit of both wouldn't hurt.
Conclusion: Honda obviously expects people who care about stereos to either buy an Si or EX coupe or install their own system. But with this navigation-based system, you're pretty much stuck. — Mike Hudson