Honda's multiple award-winning Civic was available in a hybrid version right from the start, which turned out to be fortunate timing as gas prices continued to rise. If you can overlook the cost differential when purchasing the Civic Hybrid, you'll be getting some very advanced technology, including an aluminum 1.3 liter engine, powerful DC motor, and CVT transmission. Price: $22,150 fully-equipped, EPA mileage: 49 city /51 highway, 8-year/80,000-mile limited battery warranty.
First Glance: No longer a novelty
Hybrid powertrains are no longer a novelty and even some skeptics are beginning to accept that they're here to stay, or at least until fuel cell power is widely available. (Actually, they haven't been a novelty for a very long time. Diesel locomotives are a form of hybrid in which diesel engines create power for the electric motors that drive the wheels. Automobiles do it differently, adding batteries to increase engine performance.) The 2006 Civic uses the next-generation of Honda's IMA system, combining a 1.3-liter i-VTEC 4-cylinder engine with a 20 hp electric motor for a total 110 hp. That may not seem much but 123 lb./ft. of torque, available from 1000 rpm, is more than adequate.
As I told my amazed pals when I gave them a lift, the transmission has no gears in the conventional sense. A CVT (continuously-variable transmission) is used, the perfect partner for a hybrid system. No power is lost compared to a conventional automatic, while the engine is able to spin at ideal speed for best fuel economy. The total package operates with exceptional smoothness and this, added to the new Civic's outstanding interior layout, makes for a quiet, comfortable car that puts more miles between visits to the gas pump.Continued below...
In the Driver's Seat: A perfect package
The first thing anyone notices when driving the 2006 Civic Hybrid is its two-level dashboard design in which a primary instrument panel is placed up top, just below the driver's forward line of vision. It contains the speedometer, fuel gauge, and engine temperature gauge in bar-graph formats, a less expensive setup than a windshield projection display. The lower panel includes a tachometer, battery-assist display, and gear position indicator. Unusual, but effective.
It's easy to get comfortable behind the wheel, for the seats are supportive and the small steering wheel is perfectly placed. Sightlines are typically Honda though you'll need to guess where the front end ends, and that takes practise because of the cab-forward body design.
The fit and quality of interior plastics is outstanding; overall the styling is as tasteful as it is progressive. Little things like the design of the map pockets and the sliding cover over the two cupholders help make a distinctive-looking interior. The Hybrid comes well-equipped, with power-assisted doors, windows, and mirrors, plus a sound system that met my personal tough-test: picking up KPLU, the Seattle jazz station, from south Vancouver Island. Seats must be adjusted manually, though.
On the Road: 50 MPG with a heavy foot
It was the driving dynamics that won many critics over to the new Civic and these are no different in the Hybrid except for the power and the way it's applied. Steering response is particularly pleasing, very reminiscent of a sports car, with a quick 2.71 turns lock-to-lock and a tight turning circle. The hybrid engine performance is, of course, what stimulates most people's curiosity, so I can assure you that I never had any sense of being short on power. Responsible for that is a lightweight, low-friction 4-cylinder engine combined with a 20 hp DC electric motor that's less than 2.5" wide.
Having first driven a CVT transmission-equipped car 35 years ago, I've long been impressed with this "gearless" system that uses belts and pulleys to keep engine power at its optimum level. Unfortunately it took that many years before stronger, long-lasting materials plus computer electronics could make CVT as reliable as it is efficient. An ideal match for a hybrid power system that also needs precise applications of gas engine and electric motor for best efficiency. In my time with the car, I was hugely impressed with the fuel economy, averaging over 50 mpg while driving vigorously in both urban and country surroundings.
Journey's End: Worth the extra cost
The Civic set new standards in design and packaging, but is the Hybrid worth the extra bucks? In my opinion it is, based on fuel economy and environmental benefits. True, a low-mileage driver may take years to start saving on fuel but if gas prices continue to rise, and they most certainly will, that time may come sooner than later. As for the reduction in emissions, it depends on the cost of your conscience. By the way, mileage is not what the gauge first led me to believe. For several days of hard driving the needle remained at the "full" level. I was amazed! And then I realised that, contrary to any fuel gauge I'd ever seen, full is located on the left and empty on the right. Well, they do drive on the left in Japan!
The Civic's fully-independent suspension contributes to roadholding worthy of a sports coupe, though a few hours on less than smooth roads revealed ride compromises. "Firm" is how my companion described and firm it is, so if your roads are rough and you or your companion have sensitive bottoms be sure to test before buying. Still, the Civic Hybrid's efficiency and environmental benefits are undeniable. Add in spaciousness, fun factor, and equipment level, and there's your value, folks. High, as in Hybrid.