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2002 Honda Civic Hybrid

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

Wayne Kwok – a militantly environmentalist, Sobe-swilling ex-vegan – is not a happy guy, and it's all because my Hybrid Honda's battery charges faster than his.

We're tooling around Toronto in one of Honda's new Civic Hybrids. It's a pretty conventional-looking car, a whole lot more conventional-looking than the teardrop-shaped Insight he drives. But it packs Honda's latest super-efficient gasoline-electric drivetrain, 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.

As expected, the extra cylinder and an infinite number of gear ratios give the Hybrid much better get-up-and-go (to about 80 km/h, it's comparable to an automatic Civic), but the new car's real party trick is how quickly it recaptures energy under braking to charge its battery.

In a hybrid system such as this, 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, but seamless, extra shove in the back, but when slowing, it actually inverts and acts as a generator to feed electrons back into the battery mounted between the rear seats and the trunk.

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 per cent faster than the similar system in an Insight.

"If I drove my car like this, I'd have drained my battery already" Kwok says as we zip into another hole in traffic.

This is true: Long uphill sections have the Insight's power management system struggling to provide electric assistance while simultaneously trying to keep the battery charged. This inevitably results in the engine-motor combination reverting to a safe mode where no assistance is provided because the battery's so close to being drained. The result? The Insight's engine wheezes and wuffles even in the lowest gears in the hills, whereas the Civic's hums merrily along.

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 per cent smaller than the Insight's system, making for a trunk that's just as usable as a regular Civic's, only without the folding seat.

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 warrantied 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 infinitely variable transmission also means seamless, rubber-band-like acceleration without pauses or jerks for gear changes.

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 and a mite too light at highway velocities. 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.

(Wayne's are pumped up to their maximum 42 psi for maximum fuel economy.) 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 the regenerative braking going in an effort to charge the battery. Keep your foot in it and ease off just as you reach a stop for the sake of smoothness, and sometimes pressure releases too fast, meaning you have to jump on the brakes again in order to avoid punting the car ahead of you.

Some more tweaking of the software is in order, though the clever idle-stop function, which shuts off the gas engine as you come to a stop, works just fine. As long as you're in drive or neutral, all you need to do is release the brakes to get the car going again. (You can disable this function via a dash button.) Stickering at $28,500, the Civic Hybrid isn't cheap, and you'd have to drive a lot of kilometres 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 a 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 air dam 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 and there are a couple of new exterior colours as well so that you can sort of stand out from the crowd. Mostly it's the green-and-chrome "Hybrid Gasoline-Electric" badge on the car's rump that they notice.

And that, concludes Kwok, is why, despite his admiration for the Civic Hybrid's engineering achievements, he might never warm to the new car. The Insight, after all, lets you wear your environmental consciousness on your sleeve. Part of the attraction 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, for sure," Kwok admits as he gets back into his Insight. "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 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, making it as rare as an Acura NSX supercar.

This Civic, largely because of its familiar styling and more conventional design, should have no problem doing much better.

Honda projects sales of 1,000 units, but this car's a big step toward taking hybrid powertrains – and, more generally, environmental consciousness – into the automotive mainstream.

HIGHS: Fuel economy Easy to drive Conventional package LOWS: Inconsistent braking Electric-assist steering Stiff-legged ride Freelance Laurance Yap (yap @ mac.com) prepared this report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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