2003 Honda Civic Hybrid
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by Greg Wilson

Honda’s second gas-electric hybrid after the Insight, the 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid has a gasoline-electric powertrain that averages 29% better fuel consumption than a regular Civic sedan. Priced at $28,500, the Civic Hybrid has an 85 horsepower 1.3 litre ‘lean-burn’ four cylinder engine, a 10 kW (13 horsepower) electric motor, and a powerful 144 volt Nickel Metal Hydride battery pack and powertrain control unit. Unlike electric cars, the Civic Hybrid doesn’t have to be recharged each day.

Incredibly fuel efficient, but is it worth the money?

So-called Hybrid vehicles, those which use a combination of a small internal combustion engine and a powerful battery and electric motor, are viewed as an interim step between the internal combustion engine and the emergence of fuel cells. Unlike pure electric vehicles, Hybrids don’t have to be plugged into an electrical outlet and charged up every night. Their small engines run on regular gasoline and the battery charges as the car is driven. Hybrids are very fuel efficient and emit fewer emissions than regular automobiles. The Honda Insight hybrid, for example, is the most fuel-efficient car in Canada.

Honda and Toyota were the first auto manufacturers to introduce hybrid vehicles in Canada in 1999: the Insight and Prius respectively. The Insight is a two-seater coupe with a small 67 horsepower 1.0 litre 3 cylinder engine, a 13 horsepower/10 kilowatt electric motor, and a 144 volt battery pack. The Toyota Prius is a five passenger sedan with a 70 horsepower 1.5 litre four cylinder engine, a 44 horsepower electric motor, and a 274 volt battery. The Honda and Toyota hybrid systems are similar in principle, but there are some notable differences. The battery in the Honda system provides additional power for the engine but never propels the car by itself. In the Prius, the battery and engine can work independently of each other.

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid
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The newest hybrid on the market is the 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid. Unlike the Insight and Prius which were designed exclusively as hybrids, the Civic Hybrid uses the familiar Civic sedan bodystyle, and offers a similar independent suspension and roomy five passenger interior. This will likely appeal to buyers who want an established car rather than a unique hybrid-only bodystyle.

The Civic Hybrid’s gasoline-electric powertrain includes a new lean-burn 1.3 litre four cylinder engine and a more advanced and lighter-weight version of the Insight’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system. This includes a thinner, lighter 13 horsepower DC electric motor sandwiched between the engine and transmission, and a more compact and energy-efficient 144 volt Nickel Metal Hydride battery pack and powertrain control unit positioned behind the rear seats.

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid
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The 1.3 litre I-DSI (dual and sequential ignition) four cylinder ‘lean burn’ engine has two sparkplugs per cylinder, VTEC variable valve timing, a single overhead cam and two valves per cylinder. To save fuel, it automatically cuts off three of its four cylinders while decelerating, and also features an automatic ‘idle stop’ feature which stops and starts the engine automatically at a stop light.

The Civic Hybrid comes with a standard continuously variable transmission, a ‘stepless’ automatic transmission with an infinite number of gear ratios. A manual transmission is available in the U.S., but not in Canada.

Though it’s not quite as fuel-efficient as the Insight (which is Canada’s most fuel-efficient car), the Civic Hybrid gets up to 4.6 l/100 km (61 mpg) on the highway, and even more impressive, 4.9 l/100 km (58 mpg) in the city. As well, it meets ULEV (ultra low vehicle emissions vehicle) standards.

For comparison, the standard Honda Civic LX with a 1.7 litre four cylinder engine and automatic transmission offers 5.8 l/100 km (49 mpg) on the highway and 7.9 l/100 km (36 mpg) in the city. It’s also a ULEV engine.

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid
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Notwithstanding the improved hybrid system, the big advantage of the Civic Hybrid over the Insight is its practicality. It has room for five passengers instead of two, and a decent-sized trunk (286 litres/10.1 cu. ft.) However, as the battery and power control unit are located behind the rear seats, the Civic Hybrid doesn’t offer folding rear seatbacks like those available in the standard Civic sedan.

The Civic Hybrid’s exterior styling is slightly different to the regular Civic sedan — there’s a new front air dam, a rear lip spoiler and distinctive alloy wheels, and underneath are aerodynamic body panels to reduce air drag. Inside, there are unique blue-backlit instruments, metallic-look dash trim, and plenty of standard equipment including automatic climate control, an AM/FM/CD audio system, cruise control, power windows, keyless remote, and premium seat cloth. The Civic Hybrid’s MSRP is $28,500 – or about $9,400 more than a Civic LX.

Advanced engine and transmission

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid
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I could spend pages writing about the Civic Hybrid’s new 1.3 litre i-DSI (Dual and Sequential Ignition) lean-burn four cylinder engine which Honda says achieves the highest standard of fuel economy in the world. Its two spark plugs per cylinder allows an extremely lean fuel-air mixture for improved fuel economy, and its new cylinder de-activation system uses Honda’s VTEC technology to idle three of the engine’s cylinders during deceleration. As well, the Civic Hybrid retains the Insight’s idle stop feature which shuts off the engine automatically at a stop light, and then restarts it immediately after the driver lets off the brake pedal.

The electric motor, which is located between the engine and transmission, has the world’s highest output density and practical efficiency, says Honda, and offers 30% greater “assisting and regenerative torque” than the previous model – without an increase in size. The Civic Hybrid’s Power Control Unit and the nickel metal hydride battery pack have been combined into a single unit called the Intelligent Power Unit (IPU). This reduces the size of the system by 50 percent and allowed Honda designers to place the Civic Hybrid’s IMA behind the rear seat in the trunk.

A continuously variable transmission (CVT) offers smooth, stepless shifting and features a “creeping aid” function to stop the car from rolling backwards on steep hills.

When cruising on a level road or going downhill, the Hybrid’s gasoline engine provides all the power, but when accelerating or climbing a hill, the electric motor and battery pack provide additional boost. When decelerating or coasting, the battery pack is recharged by the electric motor. As well, when braking, a regenerative braking system captures energy from the brakes to charge the battery.

For the most part, this is all seamless and the driver isn’t even aware that it’s happening, but there are some exceptions.

Driving Impressions

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid
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Sitting in the driver’s seat, the first thing you’ll notice are the three attractive blue-backlit gauges in the instrument cluster. The unique gauges include a tachometer with an inset PRNDS gear selection indicator (S is for Second, a lower gear ratio), a green indicator light for Auto Stop, a large central speedometer, a digital instant fuel consumption gauge, and a round gauge that combines readout for the IMA system: Charge/ Assist, battery charge level, and coolant and fuel gauges.

As you accelerate, the Assist gauge lights up showing how much battery charge is ‘assisting’ the engine to accelerate. When you coast or brake, the ‘Charge’ gauge lights up indicating how much the alternator is charging the battery.

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid
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The Civic Hybrid weighs 81 kilograms (187 lb.) lb. more than the regular Civic, and the combined horsepower of the engine and electric motor adds up to 98 horsepower, or 17 horsepower less than the regular Civic’s 1.7 litre four cylinder engine. Not surprisingly then, the Civic Hybrid is slower than the regular Civic sedan. From 0 to 100 km/h the Hybrid takes about 13 seconds, about two and a half seconds slower than a regular Civic sedan. However, this figure is deceiving because the Hybrid has better low-speed response. Its engine and electric motor develop maximum torque at much lower engine revolutions than the regular Civic’s engine. The Hybrid’s 1.3 litre engine offers 88 lb-ft. of torque at 3300 rpm and the electric motor adds another 36 lb-ft. at just 1000 rpm for a total of 124 lb-ft. For comparison, the regular Civic’s engine has a maxium of 110 lb-ft at a much higher 4500 rpm.

From a stoplight, the Hybrid is very responsive and it’s also good at passing and lane-changing in and around town. As well, its electric-powered variable-assist steering system is very easy to turn at slow speeds, and the car’s small size makes it very maneuverable.

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid
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To save gas, the Hybrid’s engine features an automatic engine stop feature when the car comes to a complete stop in traffic. The engine shuts off automatically and then starts again automatically as soon as you lift your right foot from the brake pedal. Both the engine stop and start functions are barely noticeable – the Hybrid’s powerful starter motor starts the engine instantly each and every time. The Auto Stop feature does not work if the air conditioning system is running in normal mode because it consumes too much power, but will work in Economy Mode. This is activated by pressing a button on the dash. Also, be aware that if you stop and start too frequently, the engine will keep running when you stop.

A side benefit of the hybrid powertrain is a reduction in engine noise. While stopped at a red light with the engine off, the car is of course, absolutely silent. But even while cruising or under gentle acceleration, the Hybrid is quieter than the standard Civic sedan – for some reason, the smaller 1.3 litre engine is quieter than the 1.7 litre engine. There is however, a slight whistle/whine coming from the electric motor, but it’s barely audible.

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid
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On the freeway, the Civic Hybrid is very comfortable and quiet – the engine does just 2200 rpm at a steady 100 km/h. The car’s powertrain struggles if you have to pull out and pass a car at 100 km/h, but it’s adequate.

The Hybrid’s standard continuously variable transmission has a smooth, ‘stepless’ shift action that’s considerably smoother than a standard four-speed automatic transmission. Under normal acceleration, you hardly notice the transmission at all, but if you step on the gas pedal, the transmission will feel and sound like it’s ‘sliding’ as the engine revs faster than the rate of acceleration. This is normal operation for a CVT, but it does take getting used to.

The one thing I disliked about the Civic Hybrid were its brakes. It has four wheel discs with ABS, but it’s braking performance is affected by the regenerative charging system which charges the battery when you brake or just coast. As you put your foot on the brake, you can feel the pedal sink a little deeper, and even stay there briefly as you raise your foot. This is disconcerting particularly when a moment later the brakes release and the car speeds up unexpectedly and you have to depress the brake pedal again. I didn’t find it dangerous or difficult to use, just disconcerting.

Dollars and Sense

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid
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The well-equipped Civic Hybrid has a base price of $28,500 – $9,400 more than the top-of-the-line Civic LX base price. From a pure value-for-money standpoint, the Hybrid doesn’t appear to be a good deal.

Though you will save money on fuel, it may not be enough to pay off the Hybrid’s price premium. The Civic Hybrid’s fuel consumption averages 29% better than the regular Civic with the 1.7 litre engine. The Hybrid averages 4.8 l/100 km (59 mpg) while the standard Civic LX with an automatic transmission averages 6.8 l/100 km (42 mpg).

In a hypothetical case where the owner of a Civic Hybrid and a regular Civic LX each travel 20,000 km per year and pay an average of 70 cents per litre, the Hybrid owner will pay $672 in gasoline per year while the regular Civic owner will pay $952 a year, for a saving of $280 per year. In that case it will take 33 years to make up the $9,400 difference (not counting interest accumulation).

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid
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There are other cost considerations too. The Hybrid’s battery pack has a limited lifespan, and is expensive to replace. Honda has an eight year warranty on the battery, but after that the owner has to pay for a replacement battery when it dies. Honda officials couldn’t tell me exactly how long the battery will last, and couldn’t tell me how much it would cost to replace, but they did say a replacement battery for the Insight is priced between four and five thousand dollars!

Then there’s the issue of resale value. What’s ‘high-tech’ today is usually ‘low-tech’ in five years. The market for a used Civic Hybrid with an old-generation hybrid powertrain and an expensive battery that may need replacing soon is not likely to be very good. As a percentage, there’s no doubt that the resale value of a regular Honda Civic will be better.


If you’re looking for the very latest high-technology vehicle that offers a comfortable well-equipped interior – or you drive a lot and want to save gas costs – the Civic Hybrid is worth considering. But the typical economy car buyer may find the Hybrid’s overall cost of ownership too high.

Technical Data:

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid
Base price $28,500
Type 4-door, 5-passenger sedan
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 1.3 litre 4 cylinder, I-DSI, VTEC, 16 valves, DOHC
Horsepower (engine) 85 @ 5700 rpm
  (battery) 13 @ 4000 rpm
Torque (engine) 88 ft-lb @ 3300 rpm
  (battery) 36 ft-lb @ 1000 rpm
Transmission Multimatic S continuously variable transmission (CVT)
Tires 185/70R14 low rolling resistance
Curb weight 1243 kg (2,732 lbs.)
Wheelbase 2620 mm (103.1 in.)
Length 4455 mm (175.4 in.)
Width 1695 mm (66.7 in.)
Height 1430 mm (56.3 in.)
Trunk capacity 286 litres (10.1 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 4.9 l/100 km (58 mpg)
  Hwy: 4.6 l/100 km (61 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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