- The Washington Times - Friday, August 16, 2002

Watch yourself in Honda's newest car, or you could become a fuel-mileage snob.

It's easy to do in the 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid, which looks for all the world like a regular Civic sedan but boasts a combined city/highway fuel economy rating of 48 miles per gallon.

At the wheel of the Civic Hybrid, I found myself wanting to yell to other drivers at stoplights: Hey buddy, what kind of gas mileage are you getting in your car?

The reason for the superior demeanor?

This innocent-looking new Civic uses Honda's latest-generation gasoline engine/electric motor hybrid powertrain, along with low-rolling-resistance tires, subtle aerodynamic touches and electric-motor power steering, for optimum traveling efficiency.

In fact, the Civic Hybrid is so efficient, it has a 600-mile traveling range, meaning it could go from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and back on a single tank of gas.

And you never have to plug this car in, despite the fact it has an electric motor. The permanent magneto DC motor uses power that's stored in an onboard, nickel-metal hydride battery. This battery is recharged as you drive when the motor does double duty as a generator.

The front-drive Civic Hybrid, carrying a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $19,990 for a manual-transmission model, is the third gas-electric hybrid offered for sale in the United States.

The first was the Honda Insight, a two-seater that began sales late in calendar 1999 and is priced at $19,540 for a 2002 model with manual transmission and no air conditioning.

The second U.S. hybrid, also still sold today, is the Toyota Prius, a five-seat sedan that has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $20,480. Note that the 2002 Prius comes only with an automatic transmission and, like the Civic Hybrid, includes standard air conditioning.

Unlike the Insight and Prius, the Civic Hybrid uses the body of a car that was designed for a traditional gas engine. The Civic, after all, has ranked as the best-selling compact car in America for five years. All previous Civics were powered solely by gas engines.

The Hybrid, therefore, is touted as a new direction for gas-electric hybrids. Ford Motor Co. plans a hybrid version of its Escape sport utility vehicle sometime next year. It, too, will share the body of a regular Escape.

To be sure, there are a few minor changes to the Civic body to bolster aerodynamics of the ever-efficient Hybrid.

For example, the Hybrid has a slight rear lip on the trunk that's not on other Civic four-doors. But consumers don't seem to notice and I'm just a bit disappointed, I guess, that the Hybrid styling is so mainstream on such a ground-breaking car.

The drive, however, is no disappointment. Even when I drove the test car, equipped with continuously variable transmission, without a care about saving gas, I wound up getting more than 40 miles per gallon in combined city/highway travel.

Yes, there's some sluggishness during highway passing. The Civic Hybrid's four-cylinder engine is a small, 1.3-liter, single-overhead-camshaft unit with a maximum of 93 horsepower when it's getting an assist from the electric motor. The motor assists during acceleration and when the car is climbing hilly roads, for instance.

But the Hybrid tester managed city traffic pleasantly and without fuss.

Of course, there can be a bit of a panic if you're driving without the radio blaring and with the air conditioning off. Because that's when you're likely to notice that the Hybrid has turned itself off while it waits at the light.

It's the same eerie quiet I recall as a teenager when the timing belt broke on my old car and I found myself stranded.

Here, though, there's no need for worry as a blinking green auto stop light on the instrument panel reassures that the Hybrid intentionally stopped running in order to save fuel and reduce emissions.

Press the accelerator if you're in a CVT Hybrid or put the car in gear in a manual-transmission model and the Hybrid restarts itself quite smoothly, without your touching the ignition key.

Bright blue gauges inside tell the driver what's going on in Honda's hybrid system as there are gauges showing when the battery is being recharged and when the gas engine is getting a boost from the electric motor.

Besides a regular gas gauge, there's a meter showing the charge condition of the battery.

This may sound complicated, but the arrangement really is quite logical, once you're used to it.

Honda also provides an absolutely addictive gauge that shows the average fuel economy per trip as well as near-instantaneous fuel economy. This is how I knew I was getting more than 40 miles a gallon without doing the math.

Steering in this Civic isn't as responsive or as precise as I'd like. In city driving, I had to turn the wheel quite a bit to get the car to swerve around a sudden road obstacle.

The variable-assist rack-and-pinion steering is electric to reduce drains on the engine.

There's a fair amount of road noise, too, as the 14-inch tires with special rubber compound for lessened friction on the road transmit sounds from the pavement inside to riders.

Honda did have to skim some space in the Civic's trunk in order to fit the battery pack and control unit behind the rear seatback.

Thus, the Civic Hybrid's trunk offers 10.1 cubic feet compared with 12.9 cubic feet in a regular Civic sedan.

But in the passenger compartment, with a volume of 91.4 cubic feet, is the same as in other Civic sedans.

The gauges are the only indication inside the car, in fact, that something is different about this Civic.

Seats are normal-looking, spongelike in their feel and supportive. Standard features include keyless remote entry, power door locks, mirrors and windows, side air bags and three-point seat belts for all five riders.

Rear windows go down nearly all the way, and the AM/FM stereo with CD player and four speakers provides decent sound.

The Hybrid weighs at least 100 pounds more than a comparable Civic sedan.

The 2002 Civic sedan with gas engine earned five out of five stars for driver and front-passenger protection and four out of five stars in side-crash testing for both front and rear seats, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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