If Toyota's Prius is the Ferrari of hybrids, then the Honda Civic Hybrid is the Plymouth Road Runner. Where the Prius wears its politically correct, environmentally concerned heart in its distinct sheetmetal the way, say, a 360 Modena announces its performance capabilities in every fender swoop, the Civic Hybrid looks just like any old Civic in much the same way that the Road Runner still looked like a Belvedere even if there was a 426 Hemi under its hood. Want the world to know that you care? Buy a Prius. Want to underplay your own virtuousness? Here's the Civic.

Civic to the marrow

There are a few external visual clues so that the cognescenti can distinguish the Hybrid from other Civics at a glance, but except for the drivetrain this is just as much a Civic as any other. Every piece of external sheetmetal is shared with the regular Civic four-door sedan (the only body style in which the Hybrid is offered) and every dimension (the 103.1-inch wheelbase and 175.4-inch overall length for example) carries over unchanged.

It also means that the MacPherson strut front and double-wishbone rear suspension is identical to other Civics and so are the 10.3-inch front disc and 7.8-inch rear drum brakes. However ABS is standard with the Hybrid and the rack-and-pinion steering gets an electric power-assist rather than a mechanical one. It's all conventional stuff.

Except for front headrests that have a hole in their center and instrumentation that glows blue in a fairly high-tech way, the interior is pretty much indistinguishable from that of other Civic sedans. There is exactly as much room in the Hybrid's interior as that of other Civics, but the trunk space is squeezed down from 12.9 to 10.1 cubic feet and the rear seat can't be folded down to extend items into the seating area. Adjustable rear headrests, a new center console and new fabric patterns come aboard for 2004 but don't expect to be startled. That is unless your startle threshold is down there with field mice and fruit bats.

Oh yeah, the external differences? For 2004 those include a new front grille with a thick center bar, a revised rear fascia and special 14-inch alloy wheels and side view mirrors that are slightly different than those on other Civic sedans. Just different enough so that the valet at the next Sierra Club meeting won't sneer when you hand him the keys.

But it's hybrid marrow

Honda calls its gas-electric hybrid drivetrain system "Integrated Motor Assist" (IMA) which is a fine name, but not quite as straightforward if they had used the word "hybrid" in there somehow. In the Civic the IMA drivetrain consists of a 1.4-liter, SOHC, eight-valve, VTEC four making a pretty pokey 85 horsepower at 5700 rpm and maxing out at 87 pound-feet of torque at 3300 rpm. That's wed to an electric motor that produces ten kilowatts of power, the equivalent of 13 horsepower at 3000 rpm. Put the two together and the result is 93 horsepower at 5700 rpm and 116 pound-feet of peak torque at just 1500 rpm to channel through either a five-speed manual or, in the test car's case, a continuously variable automatic transmission.

Not only does this drivetrain produce great fuel mileage (48 city/47 highway according to the EPA for the CVT), it's also stingy in its emissions with the Civic Hybrids sold in California and some northeastern states qualifying as a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV). Geez, even comic books dare not mix Super and Ultra together. Let it be known that in practical applications, TCC's drivers have averaged between 33 and 38 mpg in Civic Hybrids.

The hybrid system and its Nickel Metal Hydride batter help bring the total weight of the Civic Hybrid to 2669 pounds which is only about 17 pounds more than a Civic EX automatic four-door and 220 pounds heftier than the base Civic DX sedan. In fact the Hybrid is actually 34 pounds lighter than the natural gas-fueled Civic GX sedan that Honda sells to fleet customers. All the other Civics have more total horsepower (between 100 and 127 horsepower) but the Hybrid has the most peak torque.

The IMA system isn't as radical as the "Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive" in the 2004 Prius. Left alone the Prius" 1.5-liter DOHC gas-fueled, variable valve-timed four makes 76 horsepower but the electric engine makes a hearty 50 kilowatts. The Prius, uncompromised by being based on a conventional car, has more battery storage, more total power, will run solely on its battery at times, and ultimately delivers better mileage than the Civic Hybrid (though neither regularly returns the extravagant stinginess indicated by the EPA ratings).

Screwing with its mind

For the most part the Civic Hybrid operates like any other Civic, though a slow one with no surplus of power. It goes around corners, stops and rides like any modestly shod (the P185/70R14 tires are built for low-rolling resistance, not ultimate grip) Civic. The Hybrid's performance limits and abilities aren't expansive, but driven within them it's a comfortable car whose every piece and part seems to be of high quality and impeccable design. In other words, the best thing this car has going for it is that it's a Honda.

Driven normally the combination of the IMA system and the CVT transmission operates unobtrusively. The engine whirs up to its power peak and stays there during acceleration as the CVT's belts work their infinitely variable magic and the car builds speed with an anonymous push from the virtually silent electric motor. The engine shuts down at stop signs or lights (at least when the air conditioning is turned off) and that silence takes some getting used to, but there's logic to how everything works and that itself is satisfying.

The instrumentation provides the driver with a constantly updated report on which part of the drivetrain is working at anyone time and the quantity of charge left in the batteries. Now with this instrumentation the driver can do one of three things: pay attention to it and maximize fuel economy; ignore it and drive the car like it's a regular Civic; or pay attention to it and participate in a sort of psychological warfare. The first two are reasonable ways to treat the Hybrid, the third one is wicked fun.

Basically the challenge is to drain the battery while the computer tries to save its charge. Find a hill long enough or shift the car into neutral regularly during glides to avoid the regenerative braking effect and it's possible to completely wipe the charge out of the battery. At that point the Hybrid becomes an absolute slug as it relies solely on the dinky gas motor alone. It's agonizing.

It takes some evil intent to drain the battery on flat land, but it will also drop perilously going up a long hill like California's Route 154, the San Marcos Pass up out of Santa Barbara over the Santa Ynez Mountains on the way to the Santa Ynez Valley. In one trip up the Pass during the Hybrid's stay with me the battery was exhausted just before reaching the summit. Draining the battery won't be an every day event with the Civic Hybrid, but it's possible.

Not quite pure bred

Like all Hondas, the Civic Hybrid is a fundamentally sound, neatly detailed and impregnable automobile. But the fact that it's a Civic indicates that it's a compromise as a hybrid vehicle. However Honda's purpose-built hybrid, the Insight, is a two-seater of limited utility so anyone wanting a Honda hybrid with regular sedan ability will wind up in a Civic Hybrid.

As both a hybrid and as a regular old car, the current Civic Hybrid is a good step behind Toyota's more powerful, more miserly, and roomier Prius. And the Civic Hybrid CVT's $20,800 price (in California PZEV trim) is $805 more than the Prius $19,995 base. Plus the Prius has a look-at-me cachet the Civic can't match - if that's something you care about. Yeah, I'm talking about you, Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Civic Hybrid isn't Honda's first hybrid and it won't be its last. This is a company obsessed with engine development and determined to be on the cutting edge of it. What comes next should be awesome.

2004 Honda Civic Hybrid (CVT PZEV)
Base Price: $20,800
Engine: 1.4-liter in-line four, 85 hp, plus 13.4-horsepower electric motor
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 175.4 x 67.5 x 56.3 in
Wheelbase: 103.1 in
Curb weight: 2669 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 47/48 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: Cruise control, power windows and door locks, remote keyless entry, automatic air conditioning
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles basic, 96 months/80,000 miles battery pack

 

 

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