After being the first automaker to introduce a limited production gas-electric hybrid in the U.S., the 2000 Insight two-seater, Honda made good on its promise to bring to market a hybrid version of its hot-selling Civic sedan for 2003. Where the original Insight's tiny 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine and two-passenger configuration sacrificed performance and practicality for ultimate fuel economy, the Civic Hybrid was an economy champ that could also double as everyday transportation. The compact five-seat Civic boasted the same hybrid technology with a 13-horsepower electric motor backing up a small gas engine, but this time gave the civic a 85-hp 1.3-liter four-cylinder. In the 2003 model year, Honda was the top seller of gas-electric hybrids in the U.S., topping rival Toyota with its first-generation Prius. The "mild" Civic Hybrid was a simpler and less costly system than that in the Prius, operating primarily on its small gas engine and using the electric motor for added boost during acceleration or climbing grades. Additionally, the Honda IMA system shut off the engine at stoplights and when the car was stopped in traffic, restarting it seamlessly the moment the driver lifted off the brake pedal. During deceleration and under braking, a generator recharged the 144-volt battery. Unlike the Prius, the Civic Hybrid could not operate at low speeds on electric power alone for short distances.
Why you want it
First and foremost, it's a Honda, which means it's more fun to drive than most other small cars. This is one hybrid that drives very much like a conventional Civic with good handling, nicely weighted steering, good seats and well laid-out controls. It's also one of a very few hybrids (the two seater Honda Insight being the other) that can be equipped with a manual transmission, should you be interested. With EPA fuel-economy estimates consistently in the mid- to high 40 mpg range (using an older "adjustment" that routinely netted EPA estimates roughly 10 percent higher than 2008 and later models) the 2003-2005 Civic Hybrid was ranked among the top five fuel-stingy cars sold in America. Already a very clean-burning offering among the cars available during that period, Honda also offered a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV) version of the Civic Hybrid in California that reduced smog-forming emissions an additional 90% beyond the then current standards. The 2003-2005 Honda Civic Hybrid was a Consumer Reports Recommended Buy.
Notable features and options
The 2003-2005 Civic Hybrid comes just one way, with a feature level roughly equivalent to the conventional Civic's up-level EX trim. Standards included alloy wheels, keyless entry, anti-lock brakes, aero front grille, rear spoiler, 4-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo, cruise control, automatic climate control, theft-deterrent immobilizer, adjustable steering column, reclining premium cloth-covered front bucket seats, a driver's side armrest and dead pedal, dual front and side impact airbags, and power windows (w/driver side auto down), door locks and mirrors. Hybrid specific content also added an electronic instrument display, battery charge/electric assist gauge, fuel economy computer and shift indicator.
The only "option" Honda offered on the 2003-2005 Civic Hybrid was a choice of transmissions: a standard 5-speed manual gearbox with conventional clutch or a continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission.
2003-2005: No major changes.
Engines and performance
Just one engine is offered, a thrifty 85-HP 1.3-liter 4-cylinder with VTEC controlled cylinder idling that's augmented by a 13-HP permanent magnet electric motor. The idea is that the gas engine is sufficient for leisurely around-town use and cruising on the highway with the immediate low-speed torque of the electric motor available for additional acceleration when needed. The two power sources are blended pretty seamlessly. An idle stop feature shuts off the engine to conserve fuel whenever the car is stopped in traffic and then automatically restarts it when the driver lifts off the brake pedal. Both the standard five-speed manual and optional continuously variable automatic have this feature that requires no driver intervention.
The Civic Hybrid is down 20-30 HP compared to a conventional Civic of the same generation, plus the added weight of the nickel metal hydride battery pack, 13-HP electric motor and related controls tacks on a couple hundred pounds. So, while bristling performance isn't the Civic Hybrid's long suit, Consumer Reports tests of a 2003 CVT model netted a 13.4 second zero to 60 mph time, about three seconds off from a conventional Civic.
Fuel economy is the Civic Hybrid's claim to fame, some 30 percent better than a conventional Civic. EPA estimates of the day ranged about 48 mpg city/48 mpg highway for the CVT model and a whopping 47 mpg city/51 mpg highway for the 5-speed manual. With a 13.2-gallon fuel tank, the stick-shift Civic Hybrid theoretically had a 600+ mile cruising range.
Recalls, safety ratings and warranties
NHTSA has announced the following safety recalls involving the 2003 to 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid:
2003: Some Civic sedans were built with a faulty driver airbag inflator that could activate with excessive force.
2003: The automatic transmission ignition interlock lever may become deformed, allowing the ignition key to be removed without placing the shifter in Park and allowing the car to roll away.
Although no separate tests were conducted for the Hybrid version, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the 2003-2005 Civic Sedan five stars for driver and front passenger frontal impacts. In side-impact testing (with standard side airbags), the car was rated at just four stars for the driver and front passenger. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety did not crash test the 2003-2005 Honda Civic Hybrid specifically, but it did give the Civic Sedan a good rating for front offset impacts.
Honda stood behind the 2003 to 2005 Civic Hybrid with a three-year/36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and more significantly, gave the hybrid eight-year/80,000-mile powertrain coverage that included the very expensive-to-replace 144-volt nickel metal hydride hybrid battery.
Word on the web
The Civic has been one of the top five best selling cars in the U.S. for well over a decade, and it has a huge following of dedicated fans. Ditto for the Civic Hybrid, however, Honda forums indicate more than a few owners have had issues with a premature deterioration in performance from the nickel metal hydride hybrid battery pack, especially in warmer climates. There was a class action lawsuit (True vs. American Honda Motor Co.) regarding the early degradation of the hybrid battery and the resultant loss of performance and fuel economy. A settlement has been reached (www.HCHsettlement.com). Additionally, there are reports of sluggish performance and diminished fuel economy after owners take their Civic Hybrids to Honda dealers for software updates intended to extend the service life of the hybrid battery pack.
CarComplaints.com cites owner issues on continuously variable transmission models with startup judder/vibration when accelerating from a stop and clanging noises during acceleration and deceleration.
ConsumerReports.com gave the 2003-2005 Civic Hybrid good marks for predicted reliability, dinging it only for slow acceleration and a small trunk.
There is just one serious competitor for this vintage Civic Hybrid, the Toyota Prius. The 2000-2003 Prius was cramped, underpowered and a bit dull in the style department. The 2004-and-later Prius set a new design benchmark, picked up both improved acceleration and fuel economy, and its hatchback design gave it midsize sedan interior roominess in a compact package.
The elephant in the room is the condition of the hybrid battery pack. So much of the Civic Hybrid's stellar fuel economy and seamless blending of gas and electric propulsion depends on the good fidelity of this battery pack. If the pack loses, say, 15 percent of its functionality, there can be a noticeable performance degradation. Honda warranted the hybrid battery pack for 8 years/80,000 miles, but even on a low-mileage example the 2003-2005 Civic Hybrid buyer is looking at a warranty that has already or will soon expire. Inasmuch as parts and labor to replace the battery pack with a new unit can run $2500-$3500 (about the same as an economy car engine rebuild), it behooves you to have the hybrid system checked out by a mechanic who specializes in these kinds of systems. There are also companies that offer "rebuilt" hybrid batteries (generally with a 1-year warranty) for a little more than half the cost of a new one.