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Review: 2004 Honda Civic Hybrid CVT

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Transportation futurists are predicting that the automotive future belongs to electricity, with hydrogen fuel cells providing that power. Perhaps. But even the most optimistic observers don't expect commercial use of fuel cells before 2010. Until then expect to see more internal combustion-electric hybrid vehicles. These combine power from an electric motor with power from a gasoline or diesel engine. The batteries that provide power for the motor are recharged during the vehicle's operation by running the motor as a generator. This dispenses with a major problem of battery-electric vehicles. There is no need to plug a hybrid vehicle into an external power source for a lengthy recharge - it recharges itself.

Honda got a head start in the hybrid field when it introduced the two-seat Insight with the ``Integrated Motor Assist'' (IMA) system in 1999. The Insight was and is an impressive little vehicle, but size is its major drawback. It is strictly a two-seater, with limited luggage space. So Honda took the lessons learned with the Insight and applied them to its ever-popular Civic sedan to create the Civic Hybrid last year. As a four-door sedan, the Civic Hybrid is fully capable of fulfilling the same transportation needs as any other small sedan. I tested a 2003 Civic Hybrid almost a year ago and found it to be as functional, practical, and well-made as any other Civic, and even more economical.

But Honda never stops development, and the Civic Hybrid has some important revisions for its second year. All Civic sedans have freshened exterior and interior styling, and enhanced sound dampening. The Hybrid's electric motor develops more torque, and Hybrids sold in California and the Northeast have minor modifications that give them ``Advanced Technology Partial Zero- Emissions Vehicle'' (AT-PZEV) status. I've been driving a new Civic Hybrid for the past week, and after 250 miles still had half a tank of gas left. There are few compromises necessary with this car. It's as refined and comfortable as any other Civic, and has more than adequate performance for its intended market.

APPEARANCE: The 2004 Civic sedan's restyling is subtle. On all, the front and rear bumpers, headlights, and grille have all been slightly changed for a sleeker look. The headlights are lower and more pointed, with a similarity to those of the latest Accord, and the hood and front fenders are slightly reshaped. All sedan models share a new front bumper fascia that features multiple intake openings and small corner chin spoilers for a sporty look. All `04 Civic sedans have one-bar horizontal grilles, but the Hybrid's bar is thicker. It also has unique badging and standard alloy wheels.

COMFORT: As outside, there are minor but useful changes to the Civic sedan's interior. As always, it's plain but comfortable and functional, and built to a high standard with quality synthetic materials. The Hybrid is a fully-equipped model, with most of the features of the premium EX. A new center console, with an armrest and storage, adds convenience, while adjustable outboard rear headrests enhance both comfort and safety. Additional sound dampening gives a more refined driving experience to all Civic models. The front bucket seats provide good support and comfort; the driver's seat now is manually height-adjustable. Like all other current Civic sedans, the Hybrid's interior holds five real people and features a flat rear floor for better rear-seat passenger comfort. The Hybrid is little different from any other Civic sedan inside until you put the key (a proven-technology key, no futuristic transponder device) in the ignition and the instruments light up to reveal the IMA gauge to the right of the central speedometer. Also, because of the battery pack in the trunk, the rear seat back does not fold. The battery pack is small enough to have a minimal impact on 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: On the road, the Hybrid feels little different from any other Civic sedan. It uses the same MacPherson front, double- wishbone rear suspension as other Civics, but with slightly firmer spring and shock tuning. Unlike other Civics, the Hybrid uses an electric power steering system similar to those found in the Honda Insight and S2000, and the Acura NSX. Light alloy wheels are standard, for lower weight and improved efficiency. They are shod with fuel-efficient low rolling resistance tires, not sticky sport rubber. ``High performance'' in a hybrid context means efficiency, not speed, and there is the Civic EX sedan to cater to the sport market. The Hybrid fulfills its mission well, with the comfort and refinement that have made Honda a success.

PERFORMANCE: As far as most people will notice, the only difference between the regular ULEV Civic Hybrid and the AT- PZEV version is a 1.3-gallon reduction in fuel tank size. Since the Hybrid can easily go over 40 miles on each gallon of regular unleaded, this is not a significant difference - even at ``only'' 40 mpg, range is about 450 miles. Honda's ``Integrated Motor Assist'' hybrid gasoline-electric system is simple and efficient, combining a 1.34-liter gasoline engine with a thin DC motor-generator unit. Unlike more complex hybrid systems, it never operates as a purely electric vehicle. Think of the motor as an electric turbocharger. Like a turbo, it provides extra torque when needed, and feels like a low-pressure turbo in operation. The motor produces more torque this year, 46 lb-ft versus the previous 36 lb-ft at 1000 rpm. An electric motor produces maximum torque as soon as it starts rotating, which gives the Civic Hybrid excellent low-speed acceleration, very useful in city traffic. The engine's 85 horsepower at 5700 rpm and 87 lb-ft of torque at 3300 rpm are augmented by the electric motor for maximum outputs of 93 hp at 5700 rpm and 105 lb-ft at 3000 rpm. The Hybrid can more than hold its own around town or on the highway. The continuously-variable transmission adds to the smooth electric feel of the car, as, like all CVTs, it has no distinct gear ratios or changes. The batteries are recharged by regenerative braking while decelerating, which also significantly improves stopping ability.

CONCLUSIONS: Detail improvements make the 2004 Honda Civic more refined and more efficient.

2004 Honda Civic Hybrid CVT

Base Price $ 20,650
Price As Tested $ 21,140
Engine Type single overhead cam 8-valve aluminum
alloy inline 4-cylinder Motor Type 144-volt permanent magnet DC
Engine Size 1.34 liters / 82 cu. in.
Horsepower (gas/electric/hybrid) 85 @ 5700 rpm / 13.4 @ 4000 rpm / 93 @ 5700 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) (gas/electric/hybrid) 87 @ 3300 rpm / 46 @ 1000 rpm /105 @ 3000 rpm
Transmission continuously-variable
Wheelbase / Length 103.1 in. / 175.4 in.
Curb Weight 2669 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 29
Fuel Capacity 11.9 gal.
Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires P185/70SR14 Bridgestone B381
Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum, with regenerative braking and antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent double wishbone
Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 47 / 48 / 42
0 to 60 mph 13 sec

Destination charge $ 490