2003 Honda Civic Hybrid Review

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High Gear Media Staff High Gear Media Staff  
February 25, 2002

Pressed for time? All you really need to know about the Honda Civic Hybrid is that it drives just like any other Civic while it gets 50 mpg. See you next week.Wait, you want elaboration? For the environmentally conscious among us who also have real lives to lead, that’s enough to know. The Civic’s been a gold-star do-gooder for almost 30 years, and although the latest edition gets knocked by the automotive press for its benignity, there is no rational argument against recommending a Civic to a friend, family member or a 400-pound former inmate who knows where you live.

The Civic Hybrid is no different, and that’s an amazing statement considering its powertrain is essentially a big battery pack mated to a teeny four-cylinder engine. It’s bred from the same stock as the Nadergasmic Insight — only it’s better in every way except for gas mileage, where it pays a 20-mpg penalty for niceties like extra seats for three more folks and a real trunk. Relax, it still gets 50 mpg.

Honda is one of two or three companies that can make a promise of hybrid economy and regular-car performance and make it happen. The Civic Hybrid does it for an admittedly money-losing $20,000. If you’re counting on your fingers, take our word for it: it’s a good deal.

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Hybrid basics

In turning the ordinary Civic into a hybrid — a car that uses a small gas engine to power batteries, which in turn help out the gas engine when it needs more power, resulting usually in better fuel economy — Honda needed only to rethink the hybrid battery/engine pack from the Insight. Because, clever folks that they are, they planned the current Civic to be hybrid-friendly from the outset.

2002 Honda Civic Hybrid

2002 Honda Civic Hybrid

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Like we said twice already, the powertrain is a combination of a small gasoline engine teamed to a battery pack and electric motor. The gasoline engine is a powerhouse of low-friction, high-efficiency technology. The 85-hp 1.3-liter four-cylinder sports “i-DSI” — what Honda terms as “intelligent” dual and sequential ignition lean-burn technology. Basically, the engine uses a less-than-optimal fuel/air blend, but burns that lesser amount fuel more thoroughly; twin spark plugs in each cylinder, timed slightly apart, help the effort. With VTEC variable valve timing, low-friction pistons, thin-sleeve cylinder walls, and a plastic intake manifold, the Hybrid’s gas engine is light and clean, if not “cut” and “ripped.” Already, it qualifies as an Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV); a SULEV version goes on sale in California in January 2003.

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid

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Like the Insight, the gas engine in the Civic is teamed with a battery pack, electric motor and a controller, which Honda calls Integrated Motor Assist (IMA). This time around, the electric side of the equation is more efficient, too. The IMA takes up so much less space, it and the four-cylinder engine fit in less space than the Civic’s standard 1.7-liter four-cylinder. Too, by winding the electric motor better, the motor churns out 30 percent more torque than in the Insight, for a total of 10 kilowatts of power. The nickel-metal-hydride batteries, charged by the gas engine and also by deceleration and braking, are molded in between the back seat and the trunk, where they eliminate the pass-through and a slight bit of trunk space.

The Civic’s standard five-speed manual gearbox is modified slightly for Hybrid use but still feels classically Honda, with a clutch pedal that lets on less about its engagements than Dick Cheney. The continuously variable transmission (CVT) is available, but remains one of those fascinations that only city-bound drivers and techno fetishists might enjoy. Other modifications including low rolling-resistance tires, stiffer springs and high shock damping rates, a thicker front stabilizer bar, and bigger drums for the rear brakes.

Upscale mind

Outside you can tell a Civic Hybrid by the flush grille, clear taillamps, a small spoiler and the high-mounted antenna, and inside you’ll find special metallic-looking trim around the sound system and climate control, and a battery-capacity gauge on the dash. Otherwise there’s little to distinguish its 50-mpg capability.

And from behind the wheel it’s near impossible to tell that half the powertrain is the same stuff that keeps your laptop playing Moulin Rouge while you jet back from Palm Springs. There’s almost no noise to tell you an electric motor is working in concert with the engine, and no strange power fluctuations you might expect. Remember, it’s made by Honda, not some California power company.

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2003 Honda Civic Hybrid

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While the Insight gets ink for its compelling 70-mpg city-cycle fuel economy, Honda hopes that the well-equipped Civic Hybrid simply will be seen as a great economy car, one that happens to get 50 mpg city or highway. The list of equipment is oddly complete, we think: electric power steering (which Honda says boost fuel economy by nearly two percent) is a gimme, as are dual front and side airbags. But anti-lock brakes and Electronic Brake Distribution? Automatic climate control? Keyless entry, a CD player, power windows and cruise control? Sounds like Enronomics to us — as long as we’re losing money, let’s lose a lot.

Whether the marketing positioning works or not, Honda says its ready to absorb the cost of being a leader in hybrids. A 50-mpg Civic for $20,000, with a CD player? Count us in — and put it on this guy’s tab.

2002 Honda Civic Hybrid
Base price: $19,500 (est.)
Hybrid system: 1.3-liter in-line four, 85 hp; 10kW electric motor with IMA (93 hp total)
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual transmission or CVT, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 174.8 x 67.5 x 56.3 in
Wheelbase: 103.1 in
Curb weight: 2661-2732 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 48/48 mpg (CVT); 47/51 mpg (five-speed) (est.)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, Electronic Brake Distribution
Major standard equipment: Power windows, cruise control, keyless entry, CD player, automatic climate control
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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