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2008 Honda Civic Hybrid test drive

The frisky, frugal, fun-to-drive hybrid

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

By

2008 Honda Civic Hybrid left front

This little Civic Hybrid looks right at home under a canopy of Mother Nature's green.

© Adrian Gable

What do the rating stars mean?

We love a great performance, whether it comes from a movie actor, a championship ballroom dancer or any vehicle with four rubber tires bolted on. That, in a nutshell, is what the 2008 Civic Hybrid delivers—a great, no muss, no fuss, performance—especially in the “fill ‘er up” department. Base: $23,200, as tested with Satellite-Linked Navigation System: $24,985. EPA estimates: 40 city/45 highway. Warranty: 36 month/36,000-mile basic, 60 month/60,000-mile powertrain, 8 year/80,000-mile hybrid components federal or 10 year/150,000-mile in CA,CT, MA, ME, NY or VT.

Initial Impression

Christine: “I enjoy driving Hondas and was looking forward to getting behind the wheel of the Civic. Would this hybrid grab the road and be as fun to drive as I remembered?”

Scott: “I was eagerly anticipating the arrival of our 2008 Civic Hybrid tester. I’ve learned some simple tricks when it comes to driving cars (especially hybrids) for optimal fuel economy and I was lickin’ my chops at the chance to blow the EPA estimates outta the water with this little guy. Along with a scheduled four-hour highway jaunt to White Plains New York, I had a nice fuel mileage “testorama” all planned out. Honda designers have engineered in all kinds fuel efficiency cleverness (from multi-stage engine valve rockers for selective cylinder deactivation, to an Intelligent Power Unit for hybrid management) fully intending this system to rely mainly on the extremely efficient and fuel-stingy hybrid—1.3-liter engine for primary power with the small electric traction motor providing additional boost--and in that spirit I thought it only fitting that I give them a thorough testing/flogging.”

“The plan: Lancaster to White Plains—drive lightly and, as much as possible, between 60 and 65 MPH. For the return trip: Keep up with traffic and pretty much ignore speed limits. During the week: Try to induce the hybrid and engine management systems into economy modes as much as possible.”

Look & Feel

2008 Honda Civic Hybrid cockpit

The Civic's innovative two-tier dash.

© Adrian Gable

It’s easy to get comfy inside the Civic’s spacious cab-forward design. A steeply raked “lotsa glass” windshield and “mile-wide” two-tier dashboard give plenty of visual space and the all-manual adjustable seats give plenty of travel in every configuration of up/down, forward/backward and recline positions. Rear seating is pretty decent too, but a long legged driver (like Scott) can put a pretty good squeeze on the hapless left rear passenger, and the lack of a fold-down rear seat (thanks to the hybrid battery and power unit) makes stowage a bit more tricky. In the eye-catching department (aside from the Civic’s striking pose), is the progressive blue illumination highlighting the hybrid IMA instruments.

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick. This little nursery rhyme came to Scott’s mind the first time he flung the little Civic into a curve. OK, at just 110 hp, maybe it’s not as quick as some, but nimble? Spot-on. We love what the Honda engineers have done with Civic’s rigid unit-body design and tight little suspension package. Initially, Scott forgot-to-remember that he loved the taut feel of the ’07 we test drove last year. But remember he did, not long after jumping behind the wheel of the ’08 version. Luckily enough, good judgment prevailed, and the “pocket protector” gang resisted the temptation to tweak perfectly-fine-just-the-way-it-is-handling. Even with relatively small 15-inch alloy wheels and all-season tires, the Civic Hybrid slices and dices twisty blacktop with can’t-wipe-the-smile-off-my-face agility and well-just-look-at-that-fuel-economy-gauge efficiency.

Fuel-ability

These guys are just really good at this hybrid stuff. Honda’s combination of IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) and IPU (Intelligent Power Unit) is somewhere between a mild hybrid and full hybrid drivetrain. Though many of its contemporaries utilize a hybrid battery and motor that allow them to accelerate and drive at moderate speeds on electric power only, the Civic Hybrid really can’t do that per se. It’s that electric only mode that enables other hybrids to achieve their superior fuel economy. So how does Honda do it with their system? It’s the I (Integrated) of the IMA and the I (Intelligent) of the IPU that makes it possible. All parts work together to constantly select the most balanced and efficient combination of engine/electric power letting each operate at its most opportune level.

Imagine this scenario: Accelerate from a stop with the engine and motor working together to get the car up to speed. As you ease into a steady cruise, the engine reduces output while the motor keeps speed up. Ahead lies a long stretch of flat roadway, and with the load even lighter, the IMA deactivates two (or more) of the engine's cylinders as the motor continues to assist. Now, as a stop light looms, lift off the throttle to decelerate, while the motor electrically reverses (regenerative braking) to begin charging the battery and simultaneously slows the car. Stopped at the traffic light, the engine shuts-off, but the hybrid system keeps the car “on” so that lights and accessories (navigation, stereo, A/C) continue to function. No, it’s not magic, but it comes close.

When It's All Said & Done

2008 Honda Civic Hybrid oil cap

A sign of the times: 0W-20 hybrid oil only.

© Adrian Gable

So how’d Scott’s fuel mileage tests work out? Pretty darn good. For phase 1, the Lancaster to New York highway trip, he drove gently and managed to keep speed at a relatively constant 61 mph (what could be greater than cruise control?) and the thrifty little Civic responded with an eye-popping 54.7 mpg. Wow! Nearly 10 mpg better than EPA estimates. In phase 2, the return trip home, he let ‘er rip with nary a concern for speed or throttle control, and motored along with traffic at a good 75 to 80 mph clip, And sure enough, the damage to the Civics fuel economy was staggering—mileage took a good whack and dropped all the way to 49.1. Wow again, but still better than EPA estimates.

The rest of the week consisted of our normal trips to the store, errands to run and friends to visit, and we each took turns behind the wheel. Scott took three days, and without being too intense about it, applied various eco driving and mild hypermiling techniques to his treks and averaged a combined mileage of 48.7 mpg. Very decent. Finally, we each drove a few days like average motorists without paying much attention to efficiency. Of course, the blasé attitude showed up at the pump. That inattention knocked our mileage to the lowest of our lows—a mere 41.5 mpg.

So is the Civic Hybrid worth the price premium over a comparably equipped Civic EX? Check out the numbers:

  • Tax credit through end of 2008: $525
  • Fuel savings/year: $597
  • Price differential: $3055
  • Calculated payback: 4.2 years

Even with the tax credits drying up, we think a payback in less than 5 years is worth the up-front costs.

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