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CAR OF THE MONTH September 2006

2006 Honda Civic Hybrid Review

Beware of Gawkers

In short: An eco-friendly gas-sipping sedan that's easy to live with.

Not to boast, but our parking spaces are frequently occupied by flashy luxury automobiles that most people—including us—can only dream about owning. Mercedes, BMWs, the odd Bentley, plus a few “hot” cars of the moment like the Pontiac Solstice have graced our office lot. And yet, no vehicle in recent memory has attracted more attention from passers-by than this humble Honda Civic Hybrid. Although it was sitting next to a bright red Cadillac Escalade with 22-inch chrome rims, the little Civic was the beacon of conversation for folks getting a breath of fresh air or quite oppositely, having their midday cigarette. We even managed to turn a sale (you’re very welcome Honda).

All the attention is well-deserved. Now that gas is cemented above the $3 mark and global warming is finally hitting people’s radar screens, anything that advertises 50 mpg is going to start looking like Keira Knightley to a ship full of sailors. Yet, the Civic Hybrid is so much more than a simple fuel economy figure (which isn’t as great as the EPA says it is, but we’ll get to that later). It's a special car that proves fuel efficiency, space and high-tech features don’t have to be mutually exclusive qualities.

Inevitably, the Civic Hybrid will be compared to the Toyota Prius, despite being very different than its more publicized competitor. To begin with, the Civic looks and feels more like a normal car with its sedan body and steering that actually seems physically connected to the front wheels (versus the Prius’ electric “Grand Turismo” steering). There’s also less of a learning curve involved in getting acquainted with this hybrid, although some find the unique dashboard design with split instrument panel hard to get used to. The major differences are underneath the hood. We’ll spare you the Civic-versus-Prius hybrid technobabble and just say that the Honda’s is a little less transparent in its operation. It cannot run solely on electric power, and after the engine automatically turns off while coasting or stopped, there is a slight shudder once the engine starts up again like its big brother, the Accord Hybrid. It’s not annoying by any means; it’s just a reminder you’re driving something out of the ordinary.

In terms of power, the engine certainly feels peppy enough around town with a generous amount of torque provided by the electric motor. Highway passing can be an adventure, but just stick to the carpool lane (some states allow hybrids to travel in them regardless of the number of occupants) and you’ll be cruising in fuel efficient comfort. The continuously variable transmission has two settings—drive and sport—the latter of which increases revs and limits electricity to make the Civic sprightlier. It does impair fuel economy, though.

And what was our gas mileage with this little fuel sipper? We averaged 31.5 mpg with a mix of city and highway driving. Perhaps we have lead feet, but that’s a far cry from the 49 mpg achieved by the unrealistic EPA rating system, and also worse than the Prius we tested. Regardless, mileage will always depend on the driver, and 31.5 mpg is still a very high number in this day in age, especially considering the car’s size and equipment levels.

That equipment includes suede-like cloth, side curtain air bags, automatic climate control, an auxiliary jack for iPods and a chunky tilt/telescoping steering wheel with radio controls. The only factory option is the same superb voice-activated navigation system found in the $50,000 Acura RL (minus real-time traffic info). All these features go to show that it’s somewhat unfair to compare the $25,000 Hybrid Civic to the regular plain-Jane, 15 grand version. Celebrities and other folks might be trading in their luxury cars for hybrids to save gas and the environment, but they still want the newest tech features found in more expensive cars.

If our unscientific parking lot observation is any indication, Honda has a hit on its hands and rightfully so. The Civic Hybrid is equally desirable as luxury cars twice its price (and more), simply because it does its job so well. Don’t believe us? Just ask the mass of humanity congregating around it.

Warranty/Service: 3-year/36,000-mile basic warranty; 5-year/60,000 powertrain warranty.

Base Price: $22,150 /As tested: $24,200

Technical Specifications

Vehicle type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan

Engine:1.3-liter inline-4; electric motor assistance
Horsepower: 110 bhp @ 6000 rpm (gas);
20 bhp @ 2000 rpm (electric)
Torque: 123 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm (gas);
66 @ lb-ft @ 4500 rpm (electric)
Transmission: Continuously Variable

Curb weight: 2,869 lbs
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
175.4/67.5/56.3 in
Turning circle: 34 feet

Brakes: front disc, rear drum with ABS, electronic brake assist and regenerative braking
independent front and rear

Safety: front air bags, front side air bags, side curtain air bags, daytime running lights

0-60 mph: 10.8 seconds (full charge); 12.3 (half charge)
Top Speed: N/A

EPA City: 49 mpg
EPA Highway: 51 mpg

Highs: Engine that’s both responsive and fuel efficient; decent steering; spacious interior; tons of useful tech; looks good inside and out

Lows: Small trunk needs fold-down rear seats; fuel economy could be better; bigger wheel/tire combo would help handling; poor front leg room

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(Updated: 12/15/11 NW)