2005 Honda Civic Hybrid
Rather than start from scratch to create an all-new hybrid vehicle as Toyota did with the , Honda took a more conservative route by hybridizing its popular Civic. The company added an electric motor to a downsized version of the Civic's drivetrain to create a mild hybrid that's kinder to the environment. But after putting hundreds of miles on a Civic Hybrid, we think Honda would have done better by starting with a blank slate. True, the Civic Hybrid goes farther on a gallon of gas than its nonhybrid version, but it's slow and, in most areas, comes in a distant second to the Toyota Prius. With a price of $19,900 ($20,415 delivered), the Civic Hybrid with a five-speed manual transmission costs $6,000 more than an entry-level Civic but comes in at about $1,000 less than the Toyota Prius's base price.
The driving force behind Honda's hybrids--Civic, Accord, and Insight--is a technology called integrated motor assist (IMA), wherein a small electric motor gives the car's 1.3-liter gasoline engine a little help. It's different from a full hybrid power train; unlike the Prius--which has two power plants (gas and electric) that work alone or together--the Civic's gas engine is the star, and the electric motor is a supporting actor who occasionally takes the stage. In other words, the motor is as an electric turbocharger that boosts the Civic's gas engine from 85 horsepower to 93 horsepower when needed.
When you take the car out of gear at a stoplight, the engine shuts itself off to save gas. As soon as you press the clutch, it calmly comes back to life, and you're ready to go. On hills or when accelerating, the electric assist smoothly comes online to give the engine a little boost, and the drivetrain acts like a generator to charge the battery pack during braking. The whole IMA process is seamless and barely perceptible to the driver. Plus, the nice mix of analog and digital gauges that reside behind the steering wheel shows you not only the basics but how much battery assist you're getting, whether the battery is charging, and its charge level. This superb blue-backlit instrument panel is much better for a quick glance than the Prius's video-game-like screen.
The IMA concept seems straightforward and sensible on paper, but on the road, the Civic's gas engine doesn't produce enough torque at low engine speeds, even with the assistance of the electric motor. As a result, to get going, you have to gun the engine and gingerly slip the clutch pedal of the five-speed transmission out so as not to stall it. The Civic's engine freely revs to its 6,000rpm redline and has a throaty exhaust note that will thrill car buffs, especially compared to the Prius's quiet efficiency. The Civic Hybrid can get to 60 miles per hour with a little wheel spin in a leisurely 12.1 seconds--1.8 seconds slower than the Prius--but compensates by being able to go from 30mph to 50mph in 4.9 seconds (the Prius took 7 seconds). Its MacPherson strut front and double wishbone rear suspension hug the road, but at 60mph, the car registers an annoyingly loud 75dBA (decibels adjusted), with a lot of road noise transferred into the cabin. Equipped with rear drum brakes, the Civic stops in just 135 feet from 60mph, a good 20 feet shorter than the Prius, which can be the difference between an accident and driving away. Our real-world fuel economy test yielded 41.6mpg, much better than the standard Civic, which is rated for 36mpg and 44mpg (city and highway, respectively) by the Environmental Protection Agency, but well off the pace set by the Prius; the Prius can go for a 550-mile journey on a tank of fuel. Honda also makes a model with an electronically controlled continuous variable automatic transmission that better uses the engine's available torque, but it's even slower and eats up 4mpg of the hybrid fuel economy advantage.
The 2,750-pound Civic is rated as a compact car by the EPA, and despite weighing 100 pounds less than the Prius, the Civic Hybrid is actually slightly longer than its Toyota counterpart. Since the Civic sedan has a trunk, it can't hold as much as the Prius hatchback, particularly because the hybrid batteries reside in the back--thus, you can't fold the rear seats flat. Still, there's room for five adults to ride in moderate comfort. The car's upright design can't touch the Prius's sleek aerodynamics, but it doesn't look out of place among traditional cars and has a better line of sight than the Prius, which makes for more confident driving and parking. In spite of a nice cruise-control system with handy steering wheel adjustments, the Civic is greatly lacking in creature comforts and expansion options. There's an optional six-disc CD player, but the stock radio and single-CD player in our test model sounded tinny and harsh. If this is your car of choice, our advice is to have a car tuner graft on custom entertainment and navigation equipment. That said, there aren't too many more options--no satellite radio, DVD player, or emergency communications system, such as OnStar. Honda doesn't even offer a GPS navigation computer or a Bluetooth cell phone kit, both of which you can get with Toyota.
The Civic Hybrid is tops in the safety department. It has air bags stashed in the steering wheel, the dashboard, and the sides of the front seats. They are smart enough to inflate based on the severity of the accident, and the side-impact bags use sensors in the seats to monitor the size and position of the occupant; they won't deploy for a child or a small adult who could be injured by the inflating bag. The car's front and rear have been designed to crumple on impact, and the car has achieved five-star ratings for both the driver and passenger on frontal impact as well as four stars on side impact and rollover protection.
The Honda Civic Hybrid is covered by a three-year/36,000-mile warranty, augmented by an eight-year/80,000-mile extension on the hybrid parts, two years longer than Prius's extended warranty. Honda's Web site provides all the basic information such as specs, FAQs, and explanations on how the hybrid works, but it goes a step further with Owner Link. This secure minisite can tell you about the car's maintenance requirements, how to keep it running like new, and how to get parts, and it provides a link to the nearest dealer for extra help. Honda also has a 24-hour toll-free support line; in our tests, a technician was available in less than a minute and correctly answered our question about the car.