2002 Honda Civic

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2003 Honda Civic Hybrid

This 2003 review is representative of model years 2001 to 2005.
By Ann Job of MSN Autos
Rating: 9.5
Pros:
  • Rated at 48 mpg
  • Looks like normal car
  • Surprisingly quiet
Cons:
  • Premium price for a Civic
  • Technology still evolving
  • Low rolling resistance tires

Wheee! After sitting in utter silence at a traffic light with not so much as a vibration or engine buzz, I pushed the car's accelerator.

Still without a sound coming from under the hood, I began picking up speed quickly. The rush of power—immediately forceful—seemed almost like a giant hand had reached down to propel my vehicle down the road.

Truth is, it wasn't the gasoline engine that was powering my Honda Civic test car in those rushed seconds. It was the car's electric motor, and the experience is just one of many surprises awaiting buyers of Honda's new 2003 Civic Hybrid.

Car of firsts
While it looks pretty much like any other new Civic sedan, this newest member of the Civic family is unique in many ways.

It's the first production Civic with a powertrain that combines an electric motor with a gasoline engine. The only other car with Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system, as it's called, is the oddly shaped, two-seat Insight.

The new Civic Hybrid is the first vehicle in America to have such a hybrid powertrain installed in a mainstream body, meaning it's a car that has, until now, housed only gasoline engines and it looks, overall, like a regular vehicle.

But watch. More are coming, as Ford, General Motors and Chrysler ready hybrid models, including sport-utility vehicles, for the years ahead. Toyota, which already sells the Prius hybrid sedan, a car that was designed from the get-go to house a hybrid power plant, also is looking at adding more hybrid models in the U.S.

Meantime, for now, the Civic Hybrid ranks as the world's highest-rated, mass-production, gasoline sedan in terms of highway fuel economy, with a rating of 51 miles a gallon when a five-speed manual transmission is mated to the hybrid power plant.

Drives like a regular car
The Civic Hybrid offers the same kind of seating for five that's available in regular Civic sedans. In fact, interior passenger volume of 91.4 cubic feet is the same as in other Civic sedans.

This compares with 47.4 cubic feet of passenger room in Honda's other hybrid, the Insight, and 100.4 cubic feet inside the Prius, the only other hybrid now on sale in the States.

But Honda did have to skim some space from the Civic's trunk in order to fit the battery pack and control unit behind the Hybrid's rear seatback. Thus, the Civic Hybrid's trunk offers 10.1 cubic feet vs. 12.9 cubic feet in regular Civic sedans and 11.8 cubic feet in the Prius trunk.

You operate the Civic Hybrid as you do to others, which is to say you simply fill the gas tank. There is no plugging anything in, despite the fact the car has a 13-horsepower electric motor that works during startups to provide strong torque and supplements the 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine, when needed, during other times of strong acceleration.

Hybrids can capture energy that's usually lost during braking and can store it as electricity in a special battery, where it's tapped by the electric motor. A very small amount of the Civic battery power also comes from the gas engine when the battery gets low, according to Honda.

Immediate savings in gas
The decidedly unique feel of the Civic Hybrid's electric motor's immediate torque is just as enjoyable as the gasoline savings and emissions reduction.

With the Civic Hybrid's impressive fuel economy, you can expect to drive all the way from Los Angeles to Seattle on just two tanks of gas.

Not easily distinguished from other Civics
I guess I'm a bit disappointed that the styling is, well, so mainstream that most folks on the roads don't notice this high-tech and groundbreaking car.

There are a few changes vis-a-vis other Civic sedans—a very small spoiler on the trunk lid, for example—but they're not noticed by most consumers.

My tastes—probably too gaudy for Honda—would have been to have some big glowing green body trim to highlight the "green car" character.

But inside the Civic Hybrid, the instrument panel's bright blue colors add to a very informative and fun set of gauges that encourage drivers to keep track of their fuel economy and try to beat their own performance, day after day.

It's hardly the kind of gauges found in regular cars and trucks.

Pricier than regular Civic sedan
The research and development costs for the Civic Hybrid technology are substantial, helping to explain why this Civic has a starting price just under $20,000.

This compares with less than $16,000 for a 2002 Civic LX sedan that has many of the Hybrid's standard interior features such as side airbags, cruise control, air conditioning and four-cylinder engine.

Quiet inside and out
But you'd be hard pressed to get as quiet a ride in the LX sedan as you do in the Civic Hybrid, where the four-cylinder engine often turns itself off at stoplights to conserve fuel and reduce emissions.

You don't have to start the thing up once the light turns green. You merely press the accelerator and get ready for a real "whee" experience.

Be aware, though, that after the little gasoline engine takes over and is pressed to the max, there's some buzziness heard from the engine. At highway speeds and on mountain roads, the engine also can feel a bit taxed. This engine, designed as a lightweight package with low friction, generates a maximum horsepower of just 85, and torque peaks at 86 lb ft. at 3300 rpm. This compares with a maximum 127 horses and 114 lb ft. of torque at 4800 rpm from the 1.7-liter four cylinder in the top Civic sedans, the GX and EX.

And despite all the hard work of Honda engineers, the Civic Hybrid does weigh in some 100 or so pounds more than a comparable gas-only Civic sedan.

Working the gears in a Civic Hybrid with the manual transmission—rather than the continuously variable automatic—can boost the vehicle's response on mountain roads and make it feel peppier. But it will result in lower fuel economy.

Also be aware that this Civic's tires are low rolling resistance, all-season 14-inchers designed to move along roads with less friction than conventional tires. This could mean a bit less grip in slippery conditions. But I was pleased to find that in the test car, on dry pavement at least, I could take the Civic Hybrid through corners quite aggressively without the tires complaining.

Final notes
The Civic Hybrid uses a nickel-metal hydride battery system that weighs 63 pounds. The system has 120 individual 1.2-volt cells for a total battery system output of 144 volts.

Battery technology continues to evolve and improve. Meantime, Honda officials provide a special warranty on these batteries, good for eight years/80,000 miles, whichever comes first.

This warranty compares with the three years/36,000-mile limited warranty that Honda provides on the entire car.

Additionally, the IMA in the Civic Hybrid is a second generation of Honda's IMA system. There are improvements here over the IMA that was first placed in the Insight, which debuted in the States in December 2000.

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BB05 - 7/23/2014 5:44:44 PM