2006 Civic Hybrid
2006 Honda Civic Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Articles and photos by Chris Chase

New England is a lot of things. For the geographically challenged, this portion of the northeastern United States comprises Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island (which actually isn’t one). It’s also quite friendly. But in person, perhaps its most striking characteristics are its green-ness, both literally and figuratively.

In the literal sense, aside from the larger population centres, New England is mostly trees. It’s really quite nice, too: even the Interstates are lined with leafy green things – a nice contrast to travelling along Ontario’s Highway 401, for example, which is lined with, well, mostly nothing.

New England’s other shade of green comes from the environmentally friendly leanings of many of the area’s residents. While Vermont appears to be the unofficial hippie-greenie capital of the northeast U.S., the sentiment can be felt throughout the region, particularly if you pay attention to what New Englanders drive. Two kinds of cars appear with alarming regularity around here: Subarus are massively popular with those needing to navigate snowy New England roads in winter time without pouring their savings into an SUV’s gas tank. Hybrids are big sellers too, as they allow the greenest of the greenies to put their money where their mouths are.

2006 Civic Hybrid
2006 Honda Civic Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

New Englanders aren’t shy about their desire to keep things green, and as a result, Toyota’s conspicuous Prius is a big seller. The mode of transport for our week long New England vacation, though, was the less obvious, but almost as thrifty, Honda Civic Hybrid.

Whether hybrids are worth their extra cost compared to similar non-hybrid models is a big issue, with detractors arguing that they rarely achieve the fuel consumption ratings issued by Natural Resources Canada. Of course, neither do most cars, but most cars aren’t so conspicuous in their intentions, either. Certainly the numbers do tend to be optimistic, and our mission on our road trip was to see how Honda’s least expensive hybrid model – which also happens to be the cheapest hybrid on the market – handled the ups and downs of New England’s two mountain ranges: Vermont’s Green Mountains and New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

One thing about hybrid cars is that they perform best (as in most efficiently) when driven in a way that emphasizes the strengths of their gas/electric powertrains. The keys are gentle acceleration, lots of coasting into red lights to try to avoid having to stop at all, which is also a good way to tick off some other drivers. Our plan, though, was to drive the car as we might a non-hybrid car, and see how much fuel it would ask us for.

2006 Civic Hybrid
2006 Civic Hybrid
2006 Honda Civic Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

The first good impression the Civic Hybrid made wasn’t at all related to its fuel efficiency: upon picking up the car in Montreal on the first Saturday, we were pleased to discover that all of the stuff we’d brought (two big suitcases, a hard-side guitar case, one stuffed-to-the-gills backpack, a duffel bag and a laptop) fit in the trunk with minimal coercion. (Granted, our cargo load swelled to fill much of the back seat, too, after a stop at Kittery, Maine’s outlet malls.) We found this particularly impressive given the Hybrid’s 295-litre trunk is a fair bit smaller than that of the standard Civic (which boasts 340 litres of cargo space) thanks to that pesky battery pack. The battery also eliminates the folding rear seat found in the regular Civic.

Suitably impressed, we set out, heading a little east of Montreal and turning south onto Highway 133 toward Phillipsburg, Quebec, where we would cross the border into Vermont and onto Interstate 89. That road heads due south until Burlington, where it jogs east and eventually crosses the Vermont/New Hampshire state line into Lebanon, NH. Next, we picked up Interstate 93 around Concord, NH and passed Manchester and Nashua before crossing into Massachusetts. About an hour later, we entered Boston and braved that city’s madhouse traffic to get to our friends’ condo (thankfully just off the highway), where we’d be staying the first two of our four nights in Boston. We’d covered about 500 kilometres, used just over half the fuel in the Civic’s 50-litre gas tank and emerged from the car a little road weary, but thankful for the Civic’s comfortable front seats.

Our Civic parked in front of one of Newport's many mansions
Our Civic parked in front of one of Newport’s many mansions. Click image to enlarge

The car got a couple days of rest in Boston. Driving here is not for the faint of heart, and the mass-transit system, known by locals simply as “the T,” is affordable and efficient. The Civic was called back in service on Tuesday, when we took a day trip to the swanky city of Newport, Rhode Island, just over 100 kilometres south of Boston and a 90 minute drive taking it easy. By the time we were ready to head back to Boston, the Civic was down to about a quarter tank of gas (according to the gauge) and we’d covered a little more than 600 kilometres (about 400 miles). The tank accepted nine gallons of gas (about 36 litres), making for an average fuel consumption figure of 5.5 L/100 km: significantly higher than the Civic’s highway consumption rating of 4.3 L/100 km, but a tick lower than the standard Civic’s rating of 5.7 L/100 km. Back to Boston, then, for dinner with friends on our last night there before heading north to Portsmouth, NH; 90 kilometres, or about an hours’ drive, away.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire's Memorial Bridge
Ceres Street in downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Top photo: the Memorial Lift Bridge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Bottom photo: Ceres Street in downtown Portsmouth. Click image to enlarge

Portsmouth is a lovely small city boasting a vibrant arts community and an inviting, if a little touristy, downtown. It’s also got a couple of cool lift bridges known as the Memorial Bridge and the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge (photo of memorial bridge) designed to carry car traffic over the Piscataqua River while a middle section of each can rise straight up, blacktop and all, to allow boats to pass underneath. The drive here was also the first time we noticed the beginning of New England’s foliage season. We were in the area just before the full-on explosion of colour that attracts thousands of tourists and drives up prices. Good timing.

We stayed two nights in Portsmouth, and on the second night, we met up with a friend for dinner at Newick’s, a seafood joint that’s long been a local establishment. It’s located between Portsmouth and the town of Dover, on an inlet fed by the Atlantic Ocean – the perfect location for anyone in search of fresh fish. The surroundings here look low rent, but if you can know where to get better straightforward seafood, let us know about it, because we haven’t found it.

After Portsmouth, it was off to the tiny village of Warren, nestled in the northern reaches of Vermont’s Green Mountains. It’s in Vermont that the Civic Hybrid had its work cut out for it: the entire state is a roller coaster of hills, and for every steep incline that had the car’s gas engine and electric motor (which generate 110 horsepower when operating in tandem) working feverishly to keep us going at the 65 mph speed limit (about 105 km/h), there was an equally impressive downgrade that we basically coasted down, allowing the Civic’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) drivetrain to recharge the hybrid’s battery packs.

Anyone who’s driven Ontario’s Highway 401 is likely familiar with the drab 1970s-era rest stops located every 80 to 100 km along that road. Well, only in this greenest of states will you find what we happened upon along Interstate 89. Just east of the New Hampshire state line near the town of Sharon, Vermont is a rest stop with an attached greenhouse where plants grow hydroponically in wastewater and said water is treated so that it can be re-used to flush toilets and urinals. The greenhouse is even open for weary travellers to wander through and read about how this “living machine,” as it’s called, works. Okay, it’s not Epcot Center, but it’s nifty and educational and surprisingly, doesn’t smell… much.

The Ottaquechee River in Woodstock, Vermont
The Ottaquechee River in Woodstock, Vermont. Click image to enlarge

Upon checking into our bed and breakfast, located just a few miles from Sugarbush ski resort, we left again almost immediately so we’d make it to Burlington, Vermont in time for a dinner reservation. After dinner and a stroll to walk off yet another terrific meal, we filled up the car for the second time since leaving Montreal. The odometer was showing about 700 km, and the car asked for 10.1 gallons, or 38.25 litres, of gas, which worked out to 5.5 L/100 km once again.

The next day took us about 50 km south to Woodstock, Vermont, a picturesque town in the purest sense of the word. A postcard-perfect main street, lined with nifty shops and restaurants, splits the village down the middle and makes for great strolling. If you ever get to Woodstock, stop for a moment by the Ottaquechee River (I oughta what??!), which wends its way through the village centre. The drive here from Warren is very scenic, too, along twisty two-lane roads and through some of the many tiny towns that dot rural Vermont.

On the way back to Warren, we stopped in nearby Waitsfield, home base of American Flatbread, a company famous among locals for its thin-crust gourmet pizza. We were eating here on recommendation from a family member who said it must not be missed.

2006 Civic Hybrid
2006 Honda Civic Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Five days a week the restaurant operates only as a pizza factory of sorts, producing pies to be frozen and distributed across the U.S. The other two days – Friday and Saturday evenings, to be exact – they open to the public for dinner.

The wood-fired pizza oven is just that: a rock kiln in the middle of the dining room, with a team of three cooks working together like a well-oiled machine. One takes the orders and dresses the crusts, another sticks them in the oven and a third slices them up and delivers each to the table where it belongs. Attractive to those with a green side is the company’s dedication to using as many locally-produced organic ingredients as possible. It’d be about a four-hour drive to get here from Ottawa, and you’d believe we’re thinking of going back just for dinner some day soon.

Sadly, that was the last meal of our vacation, and we’d be heading home the next day. We hit the road Sunday morning at about 11 o’clock with another stop in Burlington to get coffee beans at Uncommon Grounds, an ultra-hippy fair-trade coffee joint on Church Street, the city’s main downtown drag. Ninety minutes later, we were back in Montreal gassing up the Civic and returning it to Honda Canada. The final fill netted a fuel consumption number of about 5 L/100 km.

2006 Civic Hybrid
2006 Honda Civic Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

All told, we burned just under 100 litres of gas and covered roughly 1,800 kilometres. Our calculations weren’t scientific by any stretch, but by our math, the Civic Hybrid used about 5.3 litres of fuel for every 100 kilometres driven. Again, that’s closer to the highway rating for the non-hybrid Civic, but not a total letdown considering the conditions: a trunk full of cargo, lots of big hills and a driving style that didn’t always take full advantage of the IMA’s fuel saving characteristics.

The Civic Hybrid commands a $4,000 price premium over the most expensive gas-only Civic EX. While we were impressed by our test car’s smooth and quiet performance overall, we think we’d only recommend one to the right driver: one who already drove with a view to maximum fuel economy, and also someone who did most of their driving in the city, where hybrids tend to extract the biggest advantage over gas-only cars.

Maybe the question, then, isn’t whether a hybrid would be green enough for you; but rather, are you green enough to drive a hybrid?

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