Honda's compact Civic is all new for 2012, and with it comes an updated version of the Civic hybrid. While the regular gasoline-powered Civic has always been a top seller, the gas-electric Civic Hybrid has struggled against its rivals. Has Honda found the right formula with the new Civic? Read on.
First Glance: Same crust, improved filling
Honda first introduced a hybrid version of the Civic in 2003, the same year that Toyota introduced the definitive version of the Prius. Since then, it's been an uphill battle for Honda; the Prius has always offered more space and better fuel economy with a more flexible hybrid system.
The all-new Civic Hybrid marches into 2012 armed to the teeth. While the Civic doesn't appear much different on the outside -- the sheetmetal is actually all-new, but a smoother front end and Accord-like taillights are biggest differences -- Honda's engineers have made several significant changes to the hybrid system. Both the engine and electric motor are larger, and the battery is now a lithium-ion (Li-Ion) unit, which is lighter and more powerful than the nickel-metal hydride (NiMh) battery used in the previous Civic. Power is up, as is fuel economy; the new Civic Hybrid is rated at 44 MPG city/44 MPG highway, a significant improvement over the outgoing Civic Hybrid (40 city/43 highway), but still not as good as the Toyota Prius (41/48).
Pricing for the new Honda Civic Hybrid starts at $24,820 ($24,050 plus a mandatory $770 destination fee), a price that includes power windows and locks, air conditioning, Bluetooth phone connectivity, cruise control, automatic headlights, and a CD player with an input jack. (For comparison, a similarly-equipped conventional Civic will run you around $21,275.) Honda doesn't offer many options on their cars, but the Civic Hybrid can be had with heated leather seats for $1,250, navigation for $1,500, or both for $2,700. As a parent, I like the leather seats because they are easier to clean (and my wife likes the heating feature for her backaches), but I'd pass on the fussy navigation system in favor of an inexpensive Garmin or TomTom.
In the Driver's Seat: Screen-o-rama
My twelve-year-old son's face lit up when he first sat in the Honda Civic. "Look at all those screens! If only you could hook a PlayStation up to one of them!" Like the outgoing Civic, the new car features a split-level dash with a digital speedometer above the steering wheel rim and the tachometer beneath. New for 2012 is a multi-function LCD display screen to the left of the speedometer, and my navigation-equipped tester had yet another screen in place of the stereo. Andrew was right: All the screens make the Civic's interior look a bit like Bill Gates' living room. But I'm sure Gates has better taste in furnishings -- while most of the materials lining the Civic's cabin are of good quality, there is some appallingly cheap-looking plastic trim scattered about the dash.
The new Civic adopts the hypermile-coaching displays introduced on the 2010 Insight. Colored bars flanking the speedometer glow green when you drive efficiently and angry blue when you're wasting gas. The multi-function display offers a horizontal bar graph that rates your driving in real-time, as well as a traditional power-flow display that shows when power is being drawn from the gas engine and the battery.
Disco-dash aside, the Civic offers comfortable front seats with excellent all-around visibility. The back seat is very good; it has a flat floor, a boon for small kids who get stuck in the middle seat, but it doesn't offer as much space as the Toyota Prius. The trunk is a weak point: The battery pack squeezes the Civic's already small trunk down to just 10.7 cubic feet, a cubbyhole compared to the Prius' massive 21.6 cu. ft. hatchback, and the back seats can't be folded down to expand carrying capacity.
On the Road: IMA soldiers on
The Civic Hybrid once again uses Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system, which sandwiches an electric motor-generator between the gasoline engine (now up to 1.5 liters and 110 horsepower) and the continuously-variable automatic transmission. The concept behind IMA is that the electric motor provides a boost during acceleration, allowing use of a smaller, more fuel-efficient gas engine. When the car is decelerating, the motor-generator charges the battery pack in the Civic's trunk. An auto-stop function shuts the engine off at stoplights. Like other hybrids, the Civic can run on battery power during low-demand situations (such as low-speed driving at steady speeds). But because the electric motor is mounted on the gas engine's crankshaft, the motor must turn the engine as well, which saps power and limits the Civic Hybrid's battery-only functionality.
One notable improvement in the new Civic is the air conditioning system. The previous Civic Hybrid used an engine-driven compressor, which meant that there was no A/C when the engine was in auto-stop mode. The new Civic's compressor can also run on battery power, so the air continues to blow cold.
I had trouble achieving the EPA fuel economy ratings in the old Civic Hybrid, and my luck didn't get any better with the new one. EPA ratings are 44 MPG city/44 MPG highway, but I averaged 42.1 MPG despite gentle driving and frequent use of the Civic Hybrid's ECON mode, which helps the driver get better fuel economy (but dulls acceleration). Although the EPA ratings are equal for city and highway, my test car seemed to get significantly better fuel economy on the open road than it did in town, which seems to be typical of Honda's IMA system.
Journey's End: Anything Civic does, Prius does better
All in all, I rather enjoyed the new Honda Civic Hybrid. Simple controls and great sightlines make it easy to drive and park, and it offers the nimble, light-on-its-feet driving experience typical of Honda cars.
Even so, the Civic Hybrid is at a disadvantage compared to its main rival, the Toyota Prius. Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, which separates the gas engine and the electric motor, gets significantly better gas mileage in town with much less driver effort -- even a novice hybrid driver should have no problem nudging the Prius well past 45 MPG. And its electric-only mode is far more effective than the Civic's. The Prius offers a bit more passenger space and a lot more cargo room, and at $24,280 it's actually less expensive (though a well-optioned Prius can easily top $30k). That said, the Civic is much more enjoyable to drive than the Prius.
But the Prius isn't the only alternative. Honda's own Insight Hybrid can be had for well under $20,000, and it gets nearly the same fuel economy as the Civic Hybrid. It offers less passenger space and chintzier cabin trim, but it has more cargo room. If you need a bigger car, the Ford Fusion Hybrid is a roomy mid-size sedan that should deliver fuel economy in the high 30s. If luxury is your thing, the Lexus CT 200h offers proper luxury cachet and should get comparable fuel economy to the Civic Hybrid. And if you really want to help reduce our country's gluttonous oil usage, ask your Honda dealer about the Civic Natural Gas -- it doesn't offer the same flexibility as a gasoline-powered hybrid, but it's even better for the environment.
Bottom line: The new Civic Hybrid is good, but the Toyota Prius still does the job better. -- Aaron Gold