2008 was pretty good for the Honda Civic Hybrid. As the original Insight was but a distant memory and the Accord Hybrid faded into obscurity, the Civic was the lone hybrid in Honda's portfolio.
But as the calendar turned over, the landscape changed. At the 2009 Detroit auto show, Honda unveiled its new 2010 Insight. The competition also heated up with the arrival of the 2010 Toyota Prius and Ford Fusion Hybrid. In this more competitive market, you can have to wonder about the Civic Hybrid's place in this world. Does it still belong?
The 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid is the highest-mileage member of the Civic family. Its four-door body style delivers the same practicality as the basic Civic sedan, but delivers EPA fuel economy ratings of 40 mpg city, 45 mpg highway, and 42 mpg combined. As for a life-justifying reason to exist, being a mileage king isn't a bad start.
Another strong point is the Civic Hybrid's price. At only a $3100 premium over a similarly equipped Civic EX-L, one can imagine buyers making the step up to the Hybrid-L (at $24,850) to benefit from the significant mileage improvement over the non-hybrid's 26/34 mpg. (At $2/gallon, the fuel-savings payoff driving 15,000 miles per year is about 9 years; half that if the price of gas doubles.)
A third consideration is that while the 2010 Insight borrows nameplate awareness and brand equity from the first-generation Insight -- a car that has acquired cult-like status in some car circles -- the new Insight is slotted below the Civic in terms of price, starting at under $20,000. The least expensive Civic Hybrid starts at about $23,650, but is considered a more "premium" small car offering many more features including four-wheel disc brakes (the Insight's rear brakes are cost-efficient drums) and the availability of a leather interior.
Additionally, the Insight is about five inches shorter, two inches narrower and has a six-inch shorter wheelbase compared to Civic Hybrid, so the Insight offers less passenger room.
The 2009 Civic Hybrid receives a few tweaks underhood as well. The 1.3-liter I-4 carries over for 2009, but it's rated at 110 hp, 17 more than in 2008. Through Honda's Integrated Motor Assist system, it's aided by a 20-hp electric motor, which works in one of five different ways (one method allows the Civic Hybrid to run on electric power alone, but not from a standing start. The extra horsepower, larger motor, and aerodynamic snout help earn the Civic Hybrid an advantage on the highway - it's rated at 45 mpg, while the Insight is certified at 42 mpg.
The Civic's exterior is largely carryover from 2008, although it does receive a new front fascia and tail lamps. The revised look mimics the fuel-cell FCX Clarity sedan, allowing Honda to build upon its green credentials. Other than the Hybrid's lightweight 15-inch aluminum wheels, there's no way to distinguish the car from its siblings - except, of course, for some small hybrid badges.
Interior enhancements to the 2009 Civic Hybrid Sedan include more technology. A USB Audio Interface is standard and a Bluetooth hands-free cell phone link is added to models with navigation. Standard features include power locks and windows, tilt/telescope steering wheel, remote keyless entry, steering-wheel audio controls, a 160-watt audio system with an auxiliary jack for your MP3 player, and automatic climate control. Additionally, new cloth materials and patterns on seats, door linings and armrests have been updated and look sharp. Unfortunately, there's no folding rear seat, because the battery pack rests between the rear seats and the trunk.
Like other Civics, the 2009 Hybrid gets electronic stability control and also features dual airbags, side and side curtain airbags, and anti-lock brakes. Government crash tests give five-star ratings for frontal impacts, with four-star front and five-star rear for side impacts. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates the 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid as "good."
From behind the wheel, the Civic Hybrid handles well, but you won't mistake it for a performance car. The electric power steering starts light, but builds in feel as speeds grow higher. The skinny low-rolling resistance tires hang on in quick corners, but S2000-like handing is not this car's mission. Unfortunately, the grabby brakes and the unpolished transitions between coasting and getting into regenerative braking detract from the sedan's around-town smoothness. The current crop of 2010 hybrids (such as Ford Fusion and Lexus RX450h) do a better job of blending the transitions between the engine, motor, and regenerative braking. If driving a Civic Hybrid is important to you, you'll learn to drive around most of these issues in a few days.
As hybrids become increasingly mainstream, there's certainly a place for the 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid. It has the goods to be competitive, and the argument for this car will grow stronger as fuel prices rise.