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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.
|0 to 60mph acceleration||30mph to 50mph lane-pass test||Braking distance||Noise||Fuel economy|
How we test performance
To gauge how well the car performs in real-world situations, we put it through a battery of instrumented tests that simulate actual road maneuvers. With an Escort's GT2 Vehicle Performance Computer monitoring the action, we start from a level stopped position, calibrate the device before each run, repeat each test at least three times, and average the results.
0 to 60mph
From a dead stop, we smoothly press on the accelerator to the floor as we lift off of the brake pedal to accelerate as quickly as possible. While moving, we take note as to whether the car veers right or left or loses traction.
30mph to 50mph lane pass
To simulate the car's ability to accelerate at speed, we time how long it takes to go from 30mph to 50mph.
From a steady speed of at least 65mph, we firmly press on the brake pedal to slow the car down to a complete halt while noting if the car veers either way, the level of ABS shutter, and if there is any fading. The computer starts recording the braking distance at 60mph.
Starting with a full tank of 87 octane or greater fuel, we drive on a variety of roads for at least 350 miles and compute the vehicle's gas mileage based on what's consumed and the odometer reading. While duplicating the driving route and conditions is impossible, we strive for a real-world mix of city (frequent stop and go), suburban (midrange speeds with occasional stops), and rural driving (steady highway speeds).
Driving at a steady speed of 60mph, we set a RadioShack sound-level meter on the passenger seat. We record an average the measurement over a 15-second period.