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2003 Car Review: Honda Civic 4-Door Hybrid

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SEE ALSO: Honda Buyer's Guide


    At this point in the evolution of the automobile, gasoline-electric 
hybrids are the cutting edge of mass-production high-mileage, low-
emissions technology. Power from both an internal-combustion 
engine and an electric motor is combined to give better fuel 
efficiency and lower emissions levels than would be available from 
an equivalently-powerful internal combustion engine, and greater 
range than with a purely electric vehicle.

    There are many ways to combine internal combustion and electric 
power, with varying degrees of complexity. Some hybrids are more 
electric than internal combustion, with the engine primarily existing 
to charge a battery pack, which powers the electric motor. The 
engine assists the motor when more power is needed. Honda chose a 
simpler method when it introduced its first hybrid, the Insight, in 
1999. The Insight was and is an ultra-lightweight two-seat car 
powered by Honda's patented ``Integrated Motor Assist'' (IMA) 
system, which combines a small gasoline engine and a thin, 
lightweight electric motor to provide extra torque for acceleration 
and climbing grades. It is an elegantly simple little car, with very 
good gas mileage -- 50+ mpg easily in the real world -- but the 
Insight's small size and two-person capacity limits its use.

    Consider the Insight as a proof-of-concept vehicle for the 
immediate future. And that immediate future is here in the form of 
the 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid. The Civic Hybrid grafts a second 
generation of the IMA system into a Civic sedan. It combines an all-
new 1.34-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine with the newest version 
of the electric motor/generator and nickel metal-hydride (NiMH) 
battery pack from the Insight. If the engine is a little larger, in power 
and physically, the motor and battery pack are smaller, and more 
powerful, too.

    The Civic Hybrid, like the Insight, is offered with a five-speed 
manual transmission or a continuously-variable transmission (CVT). 
The manual gearbox offers the best fuel economy, but the CVT is 
not far behind. I've been driving a CVT-equipped example for the 
past week, and it's been fascinating. As with other CVT cars, the 
Civic Hybrid is smooth and refined in operation. It seems quieter 
inside than a regular Civic, largely because of the drive train, and has 
no major penalty in acceleration. Braking is even better than in other 
Civics because of the IMA's regenerative braking ability. While I 
found that fuel economy, at over 40 mpg in real-world, mostly-city 
use, with the heater, lights, and stereo running most of the time, 
didn't quite live up to the EPA estimate, I wouldn't exactly call it a 
gas guzzler. At 40mpg, its range is over 500 miles, and probably 
considerably further in highway driving. Be careful not to run out of 
gas because you forgot when you last filled up!

APPEARANCE: At a quick glance, the Civic Hybrid is just another 
Honda Civic sedan. But there are differences. The Hybrid has a 
unique front bumper fascia, and a small trunk lid spoiler. The front 
bumper is flatter than that of other Civics, and looks quite sporty. 
But there is more to it than style, as it and covers underneath the 
engine and rear of the car lower aerodynamic drag to help improve 
efficiency. The grille, with a thick single horizontal crossbar and 
prominent ``H'' logo, is also unique to the Hybrid, as are the 
taillights and wheels. The signature color is Opal Silver Blue 

COMFORT: As outside, the Hybrid's interior is Civic-plus. It's a 
very functional real-world car, not a bare-bones economy special, 
with a standard equipment level that places it at the top of the Civic 
lineup for comfort and features. So it has premium seat fabric, 
power windows and mirrors, automatic climate control with a dust 
and pollen filter, the same high-grade audio system as the Civic EX, 
and remote keyless entry. Like all other current Civic sedans, the 
interior holds five real people and features a flat rear floor for better 
rear-seat passenger comfort. The Hybrid's instrument panel is similar 
in design to that of other Civic sedans, but features an upscale two-
tone design, silvery trim around the center stack, and a unique 
analog and digital instrument cluster with IMA system display. The 
IMA system's battery pack and control electronics reside in the trunk 
area, but are 42 percent smaller than their Insight counterparts, and 
so have a minimal impact on useful trunk space.

SAFETY: The Civic Hybrid scores well in collision tests, and has 
the full modern complement of safety features. The battery pack and 
fuel tank are well-protected. 

ROADABILITY: There are a few significant differences between 
the Hybrid and other Civic sedans in the chassis department. While 
it uses the same modified MacPherson strut front, double-wishbone 
rear suspension as other Civics, the Hybrid has slightly stiffer spring 
and shock damping rates, lightweight alloy wheels, low rolling 
resistance tires, and an electric power steering system similar to 
those found in the Insight, S2000, and Acura NSX. If it sounds like 
a sport set-up, it really isn't. The ride quality is still very 
comfortable, and the low rolling resistance tires are the diametric 
opposite of what you would want for maximum cornering ability. 
The Hybrid definition of high performance, after all, is ``maximum 
efficiency,'' but not at the sacrifice of comfort.

PERFORMANCE: It actually takes relatively little power to enable 
a car to cruise at a steady speed, even at highway speeds. But it 
does take power, or, more accurately, torque, for a vehicle to 
accelerate to its cruising speed. The Civic Hybrid's ``Integrated 
Motor Assist'' (IMA) power train takes advantage of this, with its 
four-cylinder, 1.34-liter gasoline engine assisted by an electric 
motor during acceleration. The gas engine makes a maximum of 85 
horsepower at 5700 rpm, with 87 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm. The 
electric motor adds a maximum torque boost of 36 lb-ft at 1000 
rpm, and is very noticeable under acceleration. It feels like a 
turbocharger, but with no lag. While slowing or braking, the 
electric motor acts as a generator, recharging the battery pack and, 
just as importantly, adding magnetic drag to the drive system to 
help slow the car. The system is the same in general specification as 
that used in the Honda Insight, but benefits from detail 
improvements. There are smooth-shifting normal automatics 
available, but no transmission shifts more smoothly than a CVT that 
doesn't shift at all. It imparts an electric motor feeling to the Hybrid, 
without electric motor range problems. 500 or more miles on the 
regular Civic 13.2-gallon tank is no problem.

CONCLUSIONS: The Honda Civic Hybrid sedan combines 
efficiency, practicality, and ability.

2003 Honda Civic 4-Door Hybrid CVT

Base Price			$ 19,550
Price As Tested		        $ 20,010
Engine Type			single overhead cam inline 4-cylinder 
                                gasoline engine with electric motor assist
Engine Size			1.34 liters / 82 cu. in.
Electric Motor			144 volt permanent magnet DC
Horsepower (gas/electric/hybrid) 85 @ 5700 rpm / 13 @ 3000 / 93 @ 5700
Torque (lb-ft) (gas/electric/hybrid)
                                 87 @ 3300 rpm / 36 @ 1000 / 105 @ 3000
Batteries			120 1.2-volt NiMH, 144 volt, 6.0 amp-hours
Transmission			continuously-variable 
Wheelbase / Length		103.1 in. / 174.8 in.
Curb Weight			2732 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	        29.4
Fuel Capacity			13.2 gal.
Fuel Requirement		unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P185/70 SIR Dunlop SAP FE
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / drum, antilock and 
regenerative braking standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent modified MacPherson strut /
                                 independent double wishbone
Drive train			front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		48 / 47 / 41
0 to 60 mph				13  sec

Destination charge			$ 460