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 States.1

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 intended for.

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 time.


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 her.

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:

     46 *
          * * *
     44        *

     42         *
     40             *
     38                *
     36                  *
     34                    *

        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.

Paying to be Green

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 motor).

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.