2003 Honda Civic Hybrid
Honda Civic Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Laurance Yap

Honda Insight owner, Wayne Kwok, is not a happy guy, and it’s all because my enviro-car’s battery charges faster than his..

We’re tooling around Toronto in one of Honda’s newfangled Civic Hybrids. It’s a conventional-looking car–a whole lot more conventional-looking than the teardrop-shaped Insight that he drives–packing Honda’s latest super-efficient gasoline-electric drivertain, this time a lean-burning twin-spark 1.3-litre four-cylinder abetted by a compact brushless electric motor and a continuously-variable automatic transmission. The extra cylinder and an infinite number of gear ratios give the Hybrid
pretty good get-up-and-go (to about 80 km/h, it’s comparable to an automatic Civic), but its real party trick is how quickly it recaptures energy under braking to charge its battery.

In a hybrid system such as this Honda’s, the motor and battery operate as sort of a closed system–you never need to plug the Civic hybrid in. Under acceleration, the electric motor converts energy from the battery into extra torque to provide a significant extra shove in the back, but when slowing, it actually reverses and acts as a generator to feed electrons back into the battery. And some extra-clever technology (such as valves that close shut, reducing engine friction to allow the electric motor to do the majority of engine braking) means the second-generation Hybrid system in the Civic recaptures energy up to 30% faster than the similar system in an Insight. “If I drove my car like this,” Kwok says as we zip into another hole in traffic, “I’d have drained my battery
already. Colour me jealous.”

Wayne Kwok
Wayne Kwok at the wheel of the Civic Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

It doesn’t end there, either. In the scant two years since Kwok’s Insight was introduced, Honda’s made big advances in packaging as well as mechanical and electrical efficiency. Instead of two big, separate boxes, the powertrain controller and battery now reside together in a sealed container that fits behind the rear seat; its combined volume is 42% smaller than the Insight’s system, making for a trunk that’s just as useable as a regular Civic’s, only without the folding rear seatback. The
thin motor is the same size as the Insight’s, but gives more power as well as more regeneration; like the battery and power unit, it’ll likely last the life of the car (the battery is warranted for eight years).

The net result is a vehicle that, like any other Civic, is very easy to drive, but even quieter and more refined. When cruising, the drivetrain is eerily silent, the electric motor making it easy to ride a fat wave of torque along the highway without ever needing to rev the engine. The steering (it has electrical power assistance in the Hybrid, unlike the hydraulic assist of pure-gas Civics) is quick and easy, if a little bit heavy at parking-lot speeds. The ride is firmer than other Civics’, but is by no means harsh–certainly, it’s a lot smoother than the buckboard Insight; credit a softer 30-psi inflation pressure in the Civic’s low-rolling-resistance tires.

Unfortunately, like Insight, and for that matter, Toyota’s Prius, braking performance, while strong, feels inconsistent, as the car tries to juggle slowing down with charging the batteries. A brief touch of the middle pedal starts slowing the car immediately, but if you release pressure,
sometimes the car keeps braking in an effort to charge the battery. Keep your foot in it and ease off just as you reach a stop for smoothness’ sake, and sometimes pressure releases too fast, meaning you have to jump on the brakes again in order to avoid driving into the car ahead. Some more tweaking of the software is in order, though the clever idle-stop function, which shuts off the gas engine as you slow to a crawl, works just fine; so long as you’re in Drive, all you need to do is release the brakes to get the car going again.

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid instruments
Click image to enlarge

Stickering at $28,500, the Civic Hybrid ain’t cheap, and you’d have to drive a lot of miles to benefit from its fuel economy advantage (Transport Canada rates it a remarkable 4.9 L/100 km – 57.6 mpg – in the city and 4.6 L/100 km – 61.4 mpg – on the highway), but you do get a lot more equipment than even a top-of-the-line Civic EX. Keyless entry and power gadgets are given, of course, but the Hybrid also has an exclusive automatic climate control system, new (and much more comfortable) seats, aluminum and chrome-finish interior trim, 14-inch alloy wheels, a functional new front airdam and rear spoiler to reduce drag, and whiz-bang neon instruments that are the coolest this side of, well, an Insight’s. The interior is a special light tan colour, and there are a couple of new paint colours as well so that you can sort-of stand out from the crowd.

And that, concludes Kwok, is why, despite his admiration for the Civic Hybrid’s engineering achievements, he might never warm to the new car as much as his Insight.

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid and Honda Insight
Civic Hybrid and Insight. Click image to enlarge

The Insight, after all, is a vehicle that lets you wear your efficiency and your environmental consciousness on your sleeve:
part of the attraction of the car is the reaction it gets from other drivers; nice as the new Civic Hybrid’s body is, it’s never going to get people stopping you in parking lots to ask what the heck it is you’re driving. “A much better car,” Kwok admits as he gets back into his Insight to head home, “for sure. But, well, it’s just not as cool.”

But that’s exactly what Honda wants. As cool as the Insight is (it will continue to be sold, but there are no plans, currently, to upgrade its electronics package to the Civic Hybrid’s second-generation package), it was never a car with mass-market appeal; only 150 units were sold last
year. This Civic, largely because of its familiar styling and more conventional design, should have no problem doing much better. Honda projects sales of 1000 units, which still isn’t a lot, given conventional Civic sales in this country, but this car’s a big step toward taking hybrid powertrains–and, more generally, environmental consciousness–into the automotive mainstream.

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