A Mean Green Machine

The Civic Hybrid drives like a regular car

It's not what you'd call fun to drive. And it's way too conservatively styled for my tastes. But with Honda's (HMC ) new $20,010 hybrid gasoline-electric Civic, the payoff comes at the pump.

I spent a week and 350 miles in the 2003 Civic Hybrid, and I logged 46.5 miles per gallon with plenty of stop-and-go driving. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the version I drove, with optional $1,000 automatic transmission, at 48 mpg for city and 47 mpg for highway driving. That's more than twice the fuel economy of the average new vehicle sold in the U.S. With gas going for $1.60 a gallon in my neighborhood, that's a savings of $671 a year. Plus, with a 13-gallon tank, pit stops come every 600 miles.

This car makes it easy to be green. The Civic Hybrid, which hit showrooms on Apr. 1, looks and drives like a Civic, and except for the faint whine of the electric motor, it sounds like a Civic. Unlike electrics, you don't have to plug it in to recharge it every night, and you won't be stranded if you can't find an electric charging station. The batteries automatically recharge when you're coasting or braking. What's remarkable is that Honda has been able to make the leap this soon from the quirky, two-seat hybrid Insight that it introduced in late 1999 to a car whose hybrid underpinnings are virtually invisible.

Hybrids couple a gasoline engine to an electric motor, which allows them to get by with a smaller engine. Honda uses a 1.3-liter, 85-horsepower gasoline engine instead of the 1.7-liter, 115-hp one in conventional Civics. The battery-run, 13-hp electric motor comes on to boost the power when you need it, for better acceleration, say.

A Mean Green Machine
For the most part, you'll never notice that you're driving something different. The electric motor kicks in and out seamlessly; the only way you can tell is by glancing at a gauge on the instrument panel that shows whether the batteries are assisting the engine or recharging. What you will notice is the eerie silence that occurs when you're stopped. Then, the gasoline engine shuts off entirely. The electric motor starts it up again as soon as you hit the accelerator.

Besides that, and the word "hybrid" on the rear, this car offers few clues to its true identity. To make it aerodynamically smoother, Honda removed the front grille found on the conventional Civic, redesigned the bumper, and added a small spoiler on the rear deck. The trunk is 10 cubic feet instead of 12 to make room for the battery pack. The drawback: The seats don't fold down for more cargo space in the trunk.

Honda is positioning the car as a new top-of-the-line model in the Civic family. It lists at about $2,000 more than today's Civic EX model but comes with side air bags, antilock brakes, and alloy wheels as standard equipment. Honda also dressed up the interior with premium fabric upholstery, a brushed-aluminum console, and faux wood trim on the dash. All told, the premium for the hybrid power plant works out to $1,000.

For that, you get the best fuel economy of any mass-produced five-passenger, gasoline-engine car. Only the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius (TM ) can top it--and they're designed for the green crowd. The geeky-looking Insight has a lightweight aluminum shell. The Prius is more conventionally styled, but its hybrid system feels primitive, with grabby brakes and lots of drag on the car when it's coasting.

Honda plans to sell 24,000 Civic Hybrids a year, a small fraction of the Civic's total annual sales of 330,000. More important, the new Civic promises to propel hybrid cars into the real world--while Honda's competitors are still tinkering with hybrid vehicles as science projects.

By Larry Armstrong

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