Hybrid Honda Helps Do Civic Duty
Gas Sipper A Great Day Tripper
by Jim Bray
The Hybrid automobile has definitely arrived, if you dont mind paying
Hondas Insight was the first mainstream hybrid car to hit
the market, a technological tour de force that blended the gas internal combustion
engine with an electric motor to provide extra oomph. Unfortunately, the Insight
was mostly impractical except as a novelty or as a commuter car, thanks to
its two seat configuration and lack of storage space.
That was Generation One. Generation Two is a real, practical four
door sedan thats basically a standard Honda Civic enhanced with new technology
to make it more miserly. The new Civic Hybrid joins Toyotas Prius in
the hybrid real car field, but without the Prius unusual
looks: the Civic Hybrid looks virtually the same as the garden variety Civic,
except for some subtle changes such as a new grille, a cute little spoiler
on the trunk lid, and an antenna mounted in the middle of the roofs front
section like a single eyebrow.
Inside, it looks like a regular Civic (click here for our Civic review), too,
except for the dashboard and the fact that the rear seat doesnt fold
down (the battery packs stored between the seat and the smaller - but
still spacious - trunk). The seats are comfortable for four, okay for five
(thanks in great part to the flat floor that gets rid of the traditional hump
down the center of the floor) and youre treated to all the creature comforts
you need - from a decent (though not outstanding) AM/FM/CD stereo, power everything,
automatic climate control, cruise control, and manually adjustable seats that
are easy on the bum. You also get remote keyless entry, tilt steering wheel,
and a good assortment of storage bins - though for some reason there are no
cup holders in the rear.
And thats about it for nits at which to pick: no rear cupholders! Okay,
the vent control knob should be reversed so the driver can see its labels more
easily, but thats also extremely minor.
But its the performance that makes this Civic unique, from its hybrid
configuration to its brand new CVT (continuously variable transmission) that
takes what could be considered a rather anemic package and pushes it into the
realm of eminently practical.
The Hybrid is powered by Hondas second generation Integrated Motor Assist
(IMA) system that includes a new 1.3 liter i-DSI inline 4-cylinder gasoline
engine, intelligent i-DSI (Dual & Sequential Ignition) lean
burn combustion technology with two spark plugs per cylinder and Hondas
VTEC controlled Cylinder Idling System. The system is rated as ULEV (ultra
low emissions vehicle), which is acceptable even to the tree huggers in California
(or, at least, as acceptable to them as ANY car not powered by sunlight or
The 1.3 liter gas engine (as opposed to the 1.7 liter of the
real Civic) is rated at a mere 85 horsepower @ 5700 and 87 lb.-ft
of torque @ 3300 rpm. Add the little permanent magnet electric motor thats
attached to the engine, however, and those figures jump 93 to horses @ 5700
and 105 torquey things @ only 3000 rpm. While still modest, in the real world
- and coupled to the CVT transmission it creates a car that can easily
keep up with city traffic, even on the freeway. And that isnt the end
of the story.
We had the Hybrid for a week and took the opportunity to put it through a torture
test that included rural driving on every type of highway short of gravel
and dirt. We began in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, went right into
the mountains themselves (including a couple of passes and summits that could
have been designed to test cars mettle), and back on hilly multilane
freeway. The Hybrid performed beautifully; even in cruise control it held its
speed well, including on fairly steep uphill sections of the highway.
When not in cruise the care glides along beautifully, and there's enough poop
to propel you along with no problems at all, even (as mentioned) when going
uphill. In fact, despite its modest specs the Hybrid will still accelerate
At the risk of being accused of whatever you might want to accuse me of: I
am in awe. This Civic Hybrid is an amazing vehicle, wonderfully designed and
The first thing you notice upon starting the vehicle is that its so
quiet you almost want to start it again. Sure, there are other cars like that,
but I cant think of any in the econobox
And the quiet extends to driving. This car glides along the road so smoothly
and silently it almost feels frictionless except for the telltale sound of
the tires on the road. Theres little wind noise unless the wind is really
a-howlin and the only time you hear engine noise is when you prod those
tiny horses onward and upward - at which time youre treated to an unusual
kind of whining thats unlike anything Ive heard in a vehicle before.
It isnt an unpleasant whine (and perhaps
whine isnt the best term, but it certainly isnt a growl
or a howl) but its definitely noticeable when the Civic Hybrid is being
hustled along in I think I can, I think I can mode.
To be fair, this little car is so slick a performer I should probably refer
to the above as I know I can mode
Anyway, the second thing you notice is that, thanks to the CVT transmission,
there are no shifts. None. Even with a conventional automatic transmission,
even in luxury cars, you can always sense the shifts no matter how subtle or
controlled they are. But the CVT doesnt shift. Its almost as if
theres only one gear (the correct one), and regardless of how hard you
mash the gas pedal into the floor there are no changes to the gear. Instead,
you get changes in engine rpm: step hard on the gas and the revs jump accordingly
until you ease off again.
This takes getting used to, but now that Ive messed around with it for
a week Im convinced that - technology and pricing willing - all automatic
transmissions should work like this. It isnt quite enough to change me
from a manual transmission maniac to an auto-maton, but I never thought Id
ever rave about an automatic transmission before the CVT.
Heres how Honda describes the CVT: The CVT system works by varying
the position of a high-strength steel belt between two metal cones under high
pressure one cone connects to the power input of the transmission and
one cone connects to the power output side of the transmission. Through various
guides within the transmission, the belt can occupy any position between the
two cones to create the most suitable gear ratio for any vehicle speed and
The CVT is completely automatic and virtually provides an infinite range of
gear ratios for smooth, stepless shifting, combined with maximum efficiency
and performance. The CVT also works in conjunction with the unique
"idle stop" feature, avoid using gas while at red lights or idling
in traffic. The engine automatically re-starts when the brake pedal is released.
Speaking of Idle Stop, this feature is activated or bypassed by a button labeled ECON on
the dash, beside the air conditioning button. It works very well, but if you
have the climate control system set to automatic it shuts it off, too, which
on a really hot day can lead to the alternate baking and cooling of the passengers.
If you have the fan set to manual the air conditioning shuts off when the idle
stop is working, but the fan keeps going.
Another minor complaint: as with some other Hondas, when you put the window
defoggers on the air conditioning comes on to help it, but when you shut off
the defoggers the A/C doesnt shut off. Honda, of all people, should fix
When driving the Hybrid you have to learn a new style. For example, if youre
used to downshifting an automatic to take advantage of engine braking on hills
or when decelerating, forget it: theres no downshifting with a transmission
that never shifts, so youll have to use the brakes.
In use, the electric motor feels kind of like a little turbocharger, in that
it provides extra kick when its needed. On our mountain trip it was needed
a lot, yet we never, ever ran the battery down even on long, long uphill sections
- and the cars built in intelligence seems to start that battery pack
a-chargin before it reaches bottom and panic sets in on the part of the
You can watch the process via the digital instrument on the dashboard; when
the electricity is being called upon a little blue gauge shows how much its
being strained (with the battery charge gauge dropping appropriately) and when
you ease off the gas or start braking a green gauge shows the amount of charging
being performed. This is a nifty display; so nifty you can forget to keep your
eyes on the road ahead of you youre so engrossed in the gee whiz aspect
of the Hybrid.
The rest of the instrument panel is pretty conventional and mostly analog,
except for a graph below the odometer whose purpose I couldnt fathom
(my tester had no owners manual), though it may have something to do
with tracking fuel economy. The instruments are colored in a pretty blue (my
wife says its Periwinkle) thats easy to read and easy on the eyes.
All the controls fall easily to hand, though I would have liked to see the
stereo about a quarter of an inch closer to the driver (hows that for
picking nits?), and the layout is classic Honda efficiency and simplicity.
The driver also gets a large and well placed left foot rest, something every
car needs, and the steering wheel is very comfortable for all day driving.
Oh, my tester came with a lovely Flourite Silver Metallic paint
job that, depending on how the light hit it, looked either silver or a pretty
blue. Nicely done.
The US specs rate the Honda Civic Hybrid at 48 MPG city and 47 highway with
the CVT (a 5 speed manual transmission is also available, EPA rated at 46 mpg
city 51 mpg highway).
So is this a perfect car, just right for this
environmentally enlightened age? Well
As much as I fell in love with this little car and as much as its technology
blew me away, I wonder if the price is worth the premium.
According to Hondas US Web site, a regular 2002 Honda Civic LX with
automatic transmission and mostly comparable features lists for $17,239.00
US and EPA rated at 30/38 mpg. Compare that with the Hybrids
as tested price of approximately $21,221.00 US to get that extra
10-18 mpg and youll have to decide if its worth the premium youll
pay over the life of the car.
It probably is if youre a tree hugger or just get off on nifty technology.
But from a strict economics standpoint, well, Im just not sure.
But it sure is a terrific car and I take my hat off to Honda for pulling it