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2003 Honda Civic Hybrid

Hybrid cars, which use a combination of electric and liquid-fuel power, are thought to be at least a partial answer to how we can get more efficiency out of our transportation system.

Never mind that as long as gasoline is literally cheaper than water, there is little incentive to do so.

Until now, there have been two hybrids on our market: the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius.

Oversimplifying somewhat, the Honda is essentially a gasoline-engined car with an electric motor assist system, while the Toyota is essentially an electric car with an on-board gasoline-engine recharger and power booster.

Both claim major advancements in fuel economy and technology.

But both share similar disadvantages.

To start with, both of them cheat. At least some component of their superior fuel economy comes not from the hybrid powertrain but from other technical components.

For Insight, lightweight materials and it-looks-weird aerodynamics play big roles.

Both Insight and Prius use regenerative braking, which recaptures otherwise-lost energy. Both feature fuel shut-off at idle.

Put some of this technology into a conventional car, and where would you be? Both Prius and Insight are also hugely subsidized by their manufacturers – for PR purposes, so the economic playing field is hardly level.

There are also other technologies that can deliver similar or superior overall efficiency with a lot less fuss. The Canadian car magazine World of Wheels did a three-way test among a Prius, Insight and Volkswagen Golf with turbodiesel engine, and the Golf was better in almost every category.

Which is a necessarily roundabout way of getting to today's subject, the Honda Civic Hybrid. It is, effectively, the Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system from the Insight, adapted to an otherwise fairly conventional Civic sedan.

As with Insight, the Civic Hybrid is essentially an energy-recapturing system. A motor/generator – just a minuscule 65 mm wide – sits around the crankshaft where the flywheel normally would go.

On deceleration, the IMA switches to generator mode and feeds power back into a trunk-mounted battery that is 30 per cent smaller, 6 per cent lighter, yet more powerful than Insight's.

When the driver asks for more than the 85 horsepower produced by the all-new 1.3-litre, four-cylinder engine, the IMA becomes a motor, adding a maximum of 13 additional horsepower from the battery.

There is no provision for external recharging of this (or Insight's) battery pack.

This powertrain also has idle shut-off, which operates only when the engine is fully warmed up, and as long as the air conditioner is off or set to economy mode.

The power unit is mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT), something Honda has offered in the States on gasoline-engined Civics for a while but new to Canada.

The entire point of the Civic Hybrid is to make the car as normal as possible in every way.

Indeed, apart from a single badge on the right rear, you'd have to be a Honda product planner to tell the difference between this and a normal Civic sedan.

Inside, you'll soon spot the attractive instrument panel that contains the power meter, which shows whether you're using or accumulating electric power. There's also an overall fuel economy indicator.

(I doubt you will ever tire of watching these displays, or of feather-footing the gas pedal trying to maximize the car's performance.) Driving the car is just a bit different than normal. No need to hold the key against a springload in the keyhole on the steering column to start it – the "ignition" activates the IMA, which acts as a starter motor.

Pulling back on the shift lever shows that, despite an all-new transmission that has no gears, Honda still can't get the shift quadrant right.

The CVT has an "S" (presumably for Sport) position, which generally supplies lower ratios at smaller throttle openings, for better performance. But when you pull the lever back from Park, it automatically stops in the "S" position rather than D for Drive, where 99 per cent of your driving will be done.

Long after I'm dead, Honda will still be building cars, and probably still be getting this wrong. I won't give up – as long as I have breath, I'll keep pointing this error out to them, and to any who follow this incorrect path.

If you listen very carefully, and are extremely sensitive, you may hear the occasional odd noise or feel the occasional odd bump from the Civic Hybrid's powertrain. You will, of course, notice the engine shutting off, but as soon as you touch the "gas" pedal, the engine restarts instantly and silently.

You may also note occasions while accelerating gently that the engine revs are dropping while road speed is increasing, a characteristic of CVTs.

But for the most part, you will notice nothing. This is just a quiet, refined car, with more than acceptable performance.

And the potential, according to Transport Canada fuel economy ratings, to achieve 4.9 litres per 100 km in the city, 4.6 L/100 km on the highway.

By comparison for city/highway usage, the Volkswagen Golf and Jetta turbodiesel both score 4.9/6.9 L/100 km city/highway with automatic transmission, so the Civic Hybrid takes a clear win here.

I didn't have enough time in the Civic to determine whether real-world economy would match this theoretical superiority.

What's notable about the Hybrid, apart from those lofty numbers, is how little difference there is between the city and highway scores. My guess is that the CVT keeps the engine at or closer to its optimum efficiency at almost any road speed.

The CVT has the potential to deliver better performance as well as better fuel economy. Again, it'd be interesting to compare the Hybrid to a regular Civic with a 98-horsepower gasoline engine, a CVT and idle shut-off.

Since that's not going to happen, we're left with the most "normal" hybrid yet. And it all works extremely well, as you'd expect from Honda.

The Civic Hybrid is equipped to about the same level as a conventional Civic LX: air conditioning, ABS, full power, AM-FM CD, the works.

The list price – the only price; there are no options – is $28,500, which puts it about eight grand over an LX automatic.

Is it worth it? You'll have to drive a long, long way to make it so.

Using Transport Canada's fuel cost calculation method (20,000 km, 55 per cent city, their admittedly optimistic ratings, and a 66 cents per litre fuel cost) a Civic Hybrid will cost you $625 a year in fuel, a Civic LX $918 – just $293 more. That's a 27-year payout! Your actual results may vary somewhat but, obviously, the Civic Hybrid is a non-starter when it comes to saving money.

When it comes to saving fuel, it surely does work. So, it's a technical if not economic achievement.

If you're the sort of person who likes to be first on your block with the latest, greenest technology, then the Civic Hybrid might be your ride.

If you're simply looking for high-quality, low-cost transportation – well, there's that conventional Civic LX right next to it in the Honda showroom.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie (jim @ jimkenzie.com) prepared this report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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