Palm Springs, California-- Honda is about to ask environmentalists, "How green is your wallet?" Its 2003 Civic Hybrid will serve as gasoline-and-electric propulsion's acid test. The Civic marches past Honda's first hybrid, the Insight, in almost every area except its near-$20,000 base price. It brings to Honda's green party a new 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine, a lighter and more compact battery-and-electronics pack, two more doors, and a back seat. And it looks like a regular car, unlike the awkward Toyota Prius.
In typical Honda fashion, all the bases are covered to ensure that this is no mere science-fair project. The Civic Hybrid has drag-reducing body add-ons, structural upgrades to safeguard the nickel-metal-hydride batteries in a collision, unique chassis calibrations, low-rolling-resistance tires, electric-motor power steering, upgraded interior trim, and a cool-blue gauge cluster.
Below 3700 rpm, the gasoline-and-electric powertrain team beats the torque available from the normal Civic's 1.7-liter engine. Unfortunately, with an extra 150 pounds on board, acceleration is leisurely. During our preview drive, we clocked 0-to-60-mph runs of 11.0 seconds with the standard five-speed manual and 13.2 seconds with the optional CVT automatic. That neatly brackets the Toyota Prius's 11.9-second capability but trails a Civic LX automatic's 11.2-second pace.
The permanent-magnet DC motor not only assists acceleration, but it also helps soothe the four-cylinder engine's noise and vibration characteristics. In place of the normal Civic's boomy high-rpm bluster, this powertrain issues a muted growl, and it purrs contentedly during normal driving. Twin spark plugs light the lean fuel-air mixtures sent to the two-valve combustion chambers, and VTEC mechanisms disable three cylinders during deceleration to maximize regeneration (battery-charge) effects.
Gauges for fuel economy, electrical activity, and battery charge are the only real windows into the Civic Hybrid's complex but congenial soul. City and highway mileage approaches 50 mpg, which is roughly 10 mpg better than a Civic HX. Certified nationwide as an ultra-low-emissions vehicle, the Civic Hybrid generates less than a sixth of the pollution spewed by a typical large sport-utility vehicle. But will one in ten Civic sedan buyers pay an extra $2000 for those bragging rights? Honda is betting that they will.