Honda Civic Hybrid (2003)

"This car may bring a lot of people to hybrids. Why? It asks for no compromises from you."
Good: great gas mileage, low emissions, storage
Bad: a little pricey, a bit less power.


With the Civic Hybrid, Honda finally has a real competitor to the market-leading Toyota Prius hybrid. Honda was first to market in the U.S. with a gasoline/electric hybrid, but it was really an experimental vehicle called the Insight. It was so limited in many ways that it could never appeal to the mass market. The Civic Hybrid can.

The Civic Hybrid is, for all intents and purposes, a Civic, which is one of the best-selling cars in the country. With good reason. And now Honda has added, as an option, a hybrid power plant that increases mileage, lowers emissions, and gets you dates with anyone with a Sierra Club window decal.

The Civic hybrid has a target price of $20,300, or almost $3,000 more than the regular version. So you'll pay a premium for your green-ness.

For those of you confounded by hybrid technology, you can get a thorough rundown in our hybrid area. In essence, a hybrid car combines a battery-powered electric motor with a small gasoline engine. And the battery is charged by the gasoline engine. So what you get is a car that you never have to plug in, that gets 46 mph in the city and 51 mpg on the highway.

From the driver's point of view, the car seems just like a normal Civic -- which, by the way, is a good thing. The Civic hybrid drives very much like a normal, old Civic, except there's a display on the dashboard that shows when the electric motor is being used to boost the engine power, and when the battery is being recharged by the engine or by regenerative braking.

Perceptive drivers will notice that the Civic often shuts itself off when stopped at a traffic light. Push in the clutch and move the shifter towards first gear, though, and the Civic restarts instantly and unnoticably -- you can hardly feel or hear it. By the time you're ready to let the clutch out, it's already running. That's a nice feature, and one we wish more cars had. We bet it would really cut down on the amount of air pollution in congested areas. Next time you're in a traffic jam, imagine how nice it would be if all of the cars around you shut off whenever they were stopped.

If you're driving an economy car like the Civic, you shouldn't expect to have lots of power on demand at every speed in every gear at every instant. And, that's the case with the Civic Hybrid. While we couldn't compare the hybrid and non-hybrid Civic back to back, our impression was that there was a bit less power in the hybrid, especially in high demand situations, like hills on a highway.

This is even more pronounced when, from time to time, the battery charge gets very low, since power is then siphoned off to recharge the batteries. Fortunately, this isn't very common, and only occurs after extended driving under heavy demands, such as climbing a series of hills.

On the other hand, it's certainly got enough power to get you where you're going. And who says you have to be able to fly from 60 to 80 in a few seconds? Maybe you'd rather take a few extra seconds and do your part to save the world instead?

With the exception of the dashboard, the interior in the Civic Hybrid is identical to the regular Civic, which is perfectly adequate.


The Civic Hybrid dashboard display is quite different from the regular Civic, with its indicators for the Integrated Motor Assists or "IMA," as Honda calls it. The instruments have an interesting electronic look, which come to life when the car is turned on.

Unfortunately, in bright sunlight, it can be hard to read the display. So, what do you do? Turn the intensity on the lighting up. That's fine -- until you head out in the evening, notice the dashboard lights glowing like Las Vegas...and naturally assume that you've got your headlights on...when you don't. It took us some getting used to, and there may be a better way to do it.

As with the Civic, Honda has adorned the Civic Hybrid with nooks and crannies and storage compartments galore. Nobody does nooks and crannies better than Honda.

Honda practically invented good ergonomics. So as you might expect, everything is where it's supposed to be and simple to understand. The only exception is that Honda still insists on putting the sunroof control on the dashboard, which is counter-intuitive.

On the outside, Honda made some very minor tweaks to the grille in front. Otherwise, the Civic Hybrid looks very much like a conventional Civic -- which is to say, not bad, for an inexpensive, economy car. Certainly, it's inoffensive and practical.

We don't know anything about servicing the hybrid aspects of this car. We are, of course, intimately familiar with all of the other, more conventional components in this car, all of which are exceptionally well built and should prove extremely reliable.

On the upside, Honda is offering an eight-year or 80,000 mile warranty on the batteries in the hybrid. The rest of the vehicle has the standard 3 year or 36,000 miles warranty.

This car may bring a whole lot of people over to hybrids. Why? Basically, it asks for no compromises from you. You can have your practical, reliable Honda Civic, and your 50MPG, and your Sierra Club dates, and not pay any penalty as a driver. The only penalty you pay is a few thousand dollars up front. In terms of economics, you'll probably never save enough on gas to cover the extra $4,000 it costs to buy the car, though you will get a partial tax deduction. But we suspect that people who buy this car are just as interested in doing their bit to conserve, as they are in the economics. These are people looking for ways to "walk the walk." And, for those folks, the Civic hybrid is going to be an excellent choice.

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