2007 Honda Civic Hybrid
The 2007 Honda Civic Hybrid may have relinquished its title as the World Green Car of the Year to the Mercedes E320 Bluetec diesel, but the previous winner hasn't changed much since we reviewed a 2006 Civic Hybrid last year. As then, our 2007 test car was equipped with the main option: voice-controlled touch screen navigation, which remains one of the best such systems we've used (it also appears in Acura models).
The combination of a miserly hybrid power configuration and a welcome dose of interior tech make the Civic Hybrid a formidable rival to its only real competition, the Toyota Prius. The redesign of the Civic line for 2006 seemed to take some cues from the futuristic shape of the Prius, notably in the extreme rake of the windshield, but the latest Civics have been as well-received as earlier versions and are comfortable inside.
Test the tech: Welcome to L.A.
For our test of the 2007 Civic Hybrid, we gave it a chance to stretch its legs a bit with a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles and back. Hybrids are generally acknowledged to realize their best mileage gains in city driving, where frequent regenerative braking and low-speed electric-only operation can be exploited (the Civic Hybrid can operate electric-only under very specific circumstances, which we never encountered). We wanted to see what sort of efficiency we could get for an extended highway trip if we kept cruising speeds relatively low and--as we assumed upon reaching the 405 freeway near L.A.--mixed in some stop-and-go traffic to see what it would do to fuel economy.
When we topped up the tank before leaving San Francisco, it didn't occur to us that we would reach Huntington Beach before needing to refuel again, but that's exactly what happened. Having traveled 466.3 miles, it took almost exactly 10 gallons to refill the Civic, for an overall average of 46.6mpg for the trip. This also meant that there was a fair amount of fuel left in the 12.3 gallon tank, and that under the right circumstances a cruising range of over 500 miles should be possible.
Los Angeles freeway traffic puts our Civic Hybrid mileage to the test.
Interestingly, the average mpg gauge--which resets with the trip odometer and updates every 10 minutes--didn't show an appreciable move either way between extended steady-state cruising around 75mph and the inevitable clogged freeways we encountered on nearing Los Angeles. Also of note, the gauge read low compared to our calculated average over the trip south: 42.6mpg compared to the true 46.6.
Our choice of the coastal Highway 101 route over the shorter but monotonous Interstate 5 option may have been beneficial to the mileage recorded. Mostly flat and curvier than the arrow-straight I-5, the 101 is usually taken at around 70-75mph, which is in the Civic Hybrid's sweet spot. This longer route foiled editor Kevin Massy's attempt to get the E320 Bluetec to Beverly Hills and back on one tank of gas, but allowed the Civic Hybrid to make the most of its particular strengths.
On our return trip, we struggled through morning traffic back north on the 405 but took the I-5 route from there, and our mileage wasn't nearly as good. The long climb through the Grapevine had the small gas engine revving mightily to maintain momentum, and the increased cruising speeds once on flat ground meant that the northbound trip wasn't as efficient an affair (although travel time was, naturally, shorter). We calculated 42.3mpg while the odometer gauge figured it at 36.2.
In the cabin
Inside the Civic Hybrid, there is the impression of forward thinking thanks to some unconventional split-level gauge placement and the two-spoke steering wheel. The layout works well, with the tachometer, battery-assist indicator, odometer, and various warning lights viewed through the steering wheel; the digital speedometer, fuel gauge, and toggling mpg/temperature gauge are set in a row above the rim of the wheel. The steering wheel has a nice, grippy covering and thumb rests at 9 and 3 o'clock, and the spokes have controls for the audio system, cruise control, and voice-recognition activation.
The Civic has a unique bi-level instrument cluster.
The optional voice-controlled navigation system is the highlight of the cabin tech in the Civic (Bluetooth cell phone integration is unfortunately not available), and we continue to enjoy using it. We've seen better graphics and resolution (generally in much more expensive cars), but the voice recognition system and the overall ease of use are excellent. Using either the 7-inch touch screen or spoken commands works well for destination inputs, although we again noticed that using the voice system took longer, as each step requires confirmation. Map display is configurable with a split-screen look and audible route instructions have speed-sensitive volume adjustments.
Our test car was equipped with XM satellite radio, always a welcome companion for a full day's driving. We actually found ourselves listening to our iPod more this time around, which was easily connected to the audio system's auxiliary input. We also played a few tracks off our Sony Ericsson k790, with similar ease. Sound quality from the base 160-watt stereo was, as we noted previously, somewhat underwhelming but clear enough. MP3 and WMA discs can be played in the single-CD player behind the tilt-out nav screen, with ID3 info displayed for MP3s. Also present is a PC card slot, a feature Honda has been offering for some time but which we've seen little of elsewhere.
The CD slot and a PC card slot live behind the LCD.
The front seats proved comfortable and supportive, if slightly firm, over the course of the trip. Adjustment is all manual, but effective, and a tilting and telescoping steering wheel is a nice touch in a car at this price. 12V power outlets are placed next to the aux input low in the middle of the dash and in the center console, which is topped with a sliding armrest. We were surprised that the rear seats didn't fold down for trunk access at all, but otherwise the interior is a nice no-nonsense environment.
Under the hood
When it comes to the performance of a hybrid, considerations like acceleration times and lateral g's are secondary to the goals of efficiency and conservation. The Civic Hybrid uses a 1.3-liter four-cylinder gas engine with iVTEC valve timing working eight valves, a continuously variable transmission, and an electric motor mounted between them. The gas engine is good for 110hp and 123 pound-feet of torque, and the electric motor can add up to 20hp and 76 pound-feet.
This doesn't sound like a whole lot of power, and on the road the Civic can struggle up grades, especially extended ones where the battery's assist capabilities diminish. The CVT does help by keeping the engine around its low-rpm torque peak until more revs are needed. But under most conditions, the dual nature of the power train is transparent.
The Civic Hybrid's small engine gets very good fuel economy, but the electric assist doesn't give it enough boost for the hills.
One exception to this is the auto-idle stop feature which shuts off the engine at a stop, and refires it when the brake pedal is released. The cycling produces noticeable vibrations through the car and can produce some bucking when restarting following a brief pause, but worse is the flashing notification light below the tachometer. We still don't understand flashing dashboard "warnings" of normal operation, and hope this "feature" disappears from Honda hybrids in the future.
As we noted in the "test the tech" section, the Civic Hybrid returned mpg numbers in the mid-40s over the course of our week with the car. This isn't quite up to the EPA's ratings of 49mpg in the city and 51mpg highway, but is still quite respectable. With fuel prices nosing skyward once again as summer approaches, a hybrid looks more and more compelling as a commuter ride, and the ability to ride solo in less-congested carpool lanes is an added bonus. The Civic Hybrid also scores on the emissions front, with an AT-PZEV rating with zero evaporative emissions.
The 2007 Honda Civic Hybrid and the Toyota Prius are still the only compact hybrid sedans on the market, with other manufacturers preferring to make their larger sedans and SUVs more efficient via hybrid technology. The Civic line has long been regarded as the star of the compact economy segment, and the presence of the Civic Hybrid is in keeping with Honda's ballyhooed image as "the most fuel-efficient car company in America."
Our test car--with the navigation system and XM radio options--stickers at $25,234 including destination charges, according to Honda's Web site. A nonhybrid Civic EX with navigation and automatic transmission starts at $21,260, so there is still a premium to pay for the extra tech hardware of the Hybrid. The efficiency gains might not make up the difference in price over a normal ownership period, but the eco-friendly performance and real-world advantages of hybrid ownership, like carpool access and tax breaks, can help swing the deal in the hybrid's favor.