2003 Honda Civic Hybrid
A Non-Scientific, Subjective Review
(or, I Never Thought I'd Be This Green)
Even as of this writing, Hybrid cars are few and far between in the United
The test vehicle was acquired for the express purpose of making a daily round
trip of about 100 miles, each half of which takes between 45 minutes and an hour and a half to
complete, dependent upon traffic density. The secondary purpose was that it was
a spare vehicle for the people from which it was purchased - and taking it off
their hands for a bit over what it'd go for at a dealership got some (much
needed) cash into their pockets and made us feel good about helping them out.
The car's attractive (for a subcompact). From the rear, some observers have
mistaken it for a baby Benz. Perched on the trunk-lid is a factory-installed
ersatz airfoil. Suffice it to say that this car will never go fast enough to
necessitate such a device. Additionally, isn't it rather queer that
for appearance's sake, extra weight was added to a car intended to be the model
of efficiency. What's so attractive about the car is that some attention was
paid to aerodynamics - yet it doesn't resemble the futuristic, "alien"-looking
Toyota hybrid offering, the Prius. (Why on earth, I ask you, would someone want to buy a car named quite similarly to the Greek
or Roman God with the enormous phallus - look at priapism?!) Honda decided to go
mainstream, not overboard. The alloy wheels (standard) could have been a
little more attractive, especially given the sticker price. There're big holes
in them; as if one would ever need the brake-disc cooling that they seem to be
Front styling includes a generous dollop of chrome trim and ground effects.
The ground effects, while esthetically pleasing, get hung up on steep driveways,
the cement "logs" in parking lots, and other embarrassing places, making an
unsettling crunching noise. Side trim is kept to a minimum. Door handles are
attractively painted the same color as the car.
The car is small, but intelligently laid out, making it rather comfortable to
drive. When in low position, however, the tilting steering wheel plants itself
right over the most important part of the speedometer crescent - a minor
annoyance. The vehicle lacks power seats (not an option in this model year) and
the adjustment is limited. Now, most people don't choose to sit straight-backed
with the seat at a 90° angle. This driver misses
the extra "upright" detent in the seat adjustment. The controls are all really easy to
find and well within reach. The "smoking" option was not ordered, leaving this
smoker to keep a butane lighter handy in the car. A glass with a small amount of
water, soda, etc. in the right-hand cupholder serves as an ashtray most of the
Putting the key in and turning the ignition to
"start" is the first thing that amazes people about this vehicle. Instead of the
chirping of a DC starter motor, the car powers up with a slight whirring sound.
Even the gasoline engine, at idle, is quite quiet for a small four-cylinder.
Engine noise is further attenuated by Honda's liberal use of sound insulation of
some sort. Apparently, the electric motor powers up the gasoline engine.
Engage the "CVT" (Continuously Variable Transmission) and off you go.
The pep of this little car with its minuscule engine is quite remarkable. To
steer it is to love it; the tightness and accuracy of the steering, combined
with the delightfully "heavy" feel of the car despite its low curb weight, makes
curves fun. More fun than on some sports cars I've driven that cost more than twice the price. Maneuverability is
great due to the small size combined with a very, very tight turning radius.
This would be a great car for New York City trips, were it not for this writer's
fear that a wayward truck would crush the car and driver. Airbags and seatbelts
are fine; I just like a lot of steel around me should the worst happen.2
Deceleration without braking gives one the feel
of a Tiptronic transmission; the clutch is engaged all the time; the charging
effect of deceleration slows the car. This adds to the overall feeling of
control and performance without the hassle of clutch and shifter. A good driver
should not need to use the brakes at all on the highway but for sudden maneuvers
or sudden stops. Encounter a blue-haired old lady in a Buick going 40 in a 65
mile-per-hour zone? Lift your foot off the pedal and the car slows down
sufficiently to avoid braking altogether until you can signal and get around
Creature comforts abound. The stereo is
serviceable (although I will soon replace it with something a bit more
powerful). The air conditioning is not just a hot/cold knob; it's intelligent,
and has a thermostat (astounding in such a small, economical car). And unless
one utilizes the "economy" button, the thing blows up a storm. (The
economy button turns off the a/c intermittently, and when the gasoline engine is
stopped.) This writer found
it curious that my wife's Accord LE (a sports car with a big 6 and every
conceivable creature comfort) was seriously lacking in the
air-conditioning department; but that one was an '01 model. Perhaps Honda's
changed their tune about a/c. As the weather's been getting cooler, the air
conditioner chooses to send warmer air to the footwell vents, and cool, dry air
out of the dash vents. Very, very nice. Especially on rainy days. The cost in
mileage of using the a/c is about 2 mpg.
When the engine is stopped? Yes, you saw
that if you read the paragraph hereinabove with care. Now, I'd been warned by
the previous owner that there are times the efficient little gasoline engine
stops altogether (under braking to a stop). The first time I drove the car,
surely enough, I arrived at a stop sign and the gas engine stopped. If the radio
is not playing, this can be extremely unsettling for a person old enough to
remember the days of carburetors. Silence - complete silence -
surrounds the driver. Running through my head for a split second was a
recollection of every moment that my first couple of cars, purchased in youthful
poverty, would occasionally stall, necessitating at best an embarrassing moment
of cranking the engine whilst the drivers behind me tapped their fingers; at
worst, the need to actually get out of the vehicle to find out what was wrong.
Upon releasing the brake on the Honda, however, the little engine sprung to life
(spun by the electric motor) and off I went. A red lamp on the dash, under the
tachometer, indicates that this "auto stop" feature is in effect. It took this
writer a long, long time to get used to this phenomenon. Worse, in the heat, the
a/c stops altogether (fan and all) if the "economy" button is utilized - kinda
like the Honda's way of reminding one that saving natural resources requires
concessions in comfort.3
Which brings us to miles-per-gallon. The car's
rating when new is around 46-48 mpg. The best I've gotten under optimal
conditions is 45 mpg. Speed has a lot to do with it. The speed/miles-per-gallon plot
looks something like this:
* * *
45 50 55 60 65 70 75 80
S P E E D (MPH)
Perhaps the reason that my mileage pales in comparison to the stated mileage
for the car is that the particular car we acquired had already been driven for
60,000 miles. I'm certain it needs a tune-up, and will alter this write-up
appropriately after that task has been performed, should mileage improve. The
'06 model is rated at a whopping 60 mpg highway.
If one goes to www.automobiles.honda.com, one can find the sticker prices and mpg ratings
of the '06 Civic Hybrid. Honda's own "savings calculator," a handy tool that
saved me having to spreadsheet fuel economy against the difference in price
between the Hybrid and standard models, proved, however, that one has to pay
to be green. Even over ten years, and even with the high daily mileage I'd
put on the car; the savings in gas doesn't surpass the difference in cost.
However, their handy calculator told me that I'm saving $3,200 annually over
using the Toyota Sienna we now own for making the same trip. (The savings were
about $4,100 over the Lincoln that the little Civic replaced.)
Fun with dials and indicator lamps
Fans of gadgets, bells and whistles will thoroughly enjoy this car's
instrumentation. The odometer "trip" meters A and B also show miles per gallon
(estimated by the car's computer). I try to beat my mpg by taking things easy;
resetting trip "A" to zero after every fill-up. The "B" trip-meter is measuring
performance overall. Until I read the owners' manual, I was a little taken aback
by the huge "battery" meter on the right, and its tendency to go from low to
high and back down at any given time; without relation to speed, engine rev or
lack of either. It turns out that this indicates how much battery for the
electric motor is left; and has no relation whatsoever to the battery hooked up
to the starting battery (which also powers the accessories, headlamps, etc. and
is charged independently of the big thing in the trunk that powers the electric
The "Assist" and "Charge" meters remind me of the reverse of a
vacuum-actuated gauge on an old Pontiac I owned many, many years ago. The
function of the Pontiac's gauge was to indicate how much power (in horsepower)
one's engine was delivering. The "Assist" side of the Honda's power gauge is
apparently there to remind one when hard driving is losing one precious
miles-per-gallon. The "Charge" gauge increments as the electric motor's battery
is being replenished, during deceleration, going down hills, etc.
All in all, I'm quite fond, now, of this little buggy with its 13 gallon gas
tank (which I refill only about every three days or so, despite high-mileage
daily driving). On the highway, the Michelin tires that are on it hug the road.
In hard turns, there's little over-steer and it recovers immediately. The ride
is comfortable with a sports-car feel about it.
Finally, satisfaction is indeed derived from the fact that fossil-fuel is
being saved not just for money's sake; I'm doing my bit to use less oil. The vehicle is also a certified ULEV (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle), so I'm leaving only CO2 and water in my
wake. (The cigarette smoke's another thing, let's not go there.) I am exploiting
the "green-ness" of the car also by parking it right in front of my business.
When I see people looking at the "Hybrid" logo on the rear, I take the time to
discuss it with them more often than not. (I have been admonished by more than one Birkenstock-wearing, patchouilly-reeking tree hugger for not installing solar panels in my place of business as a result.
Hybrids are now available in SUV
versions (from Ford) and from manufacturers other than Honda and Toyota. Would
that we could all go this way (and drive a little slower in general; what's the
hurry?) the world would be healthier, and, I think, happier.
1. Now, if one seeks to purchase a hybrid, you can count on waiting; the
dealerships sell out of them frequently. Additionally, because of the minimal
supply, it's apparent that if I sell this vehicle I'll get my money back.
2. Rootbeer277 has informed me that Honda's web site makes a big deal about
how the car was designed to survive impacts with larger vehicles. Regardless,
when betting with my life I'll take a three-ton Cadillac Escalade over a
well-engineered "crush cage" in a car so light it could be lifted single-handedly by a
muscle-bound power-lifter any day.
3. The a/c fan doesn't cut off in the '06 model. Perhaps Honda got too much
griping from folks who paid dearly for their green cars only to have to come to
grips with what it actually feels like? Ever been in a wood-heated house
in the dead of winter? Now, that's giving up creature comforts for the
sake of saving fossil fuel.