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The Civic is the second hybrid car brought to market by Honda—the first was the 2-seat Insight.

Often a step ahead of others, Honda has scored another touchdown with its gasoline-electric Civic Hybrid. This early 2003 model is a very user-friendly "turn the key and go" sedan.

The Civic Hybrid is exceptionally fuel-efficient, although it might best be considered more futuristic than compelling to many average car buyers in this country because fuel prices remain low here.

High-Tech Alternative
The new Honda is a high-tech alternative to conventional economy cars such as the Toyota Echo and Volkswagen's turbocharged diesel cars. But it's also the first established, mainstream auto with a gasoline-electric hybrid system.

The Civic Hybrid went on sale in early spring for around $20,000. Conventional Civics are offered in a wide variety of trims and have base prices ranging from approximately $13,000 to $19,000.

Based On Top-Selling Model
Honda was smart to base the front-drive Civic Hybrid on its regular Civic, which has set the pace for subcompact car refinement and is the top-selling small car in America. The automaker doesn't want potential buyers to be afraid of the gasoline-electric setup of its new model, which it says will require no more maintenance than a regular Civic.

Honda plans to sell 2,000 Civic Hybrid models each month here, which is a fairly high number for a car that many will regard as radical.

High Estimated Economy Figures

The Civic Hybrid will make owners pretty much strangers to filling stations; it delivers an estimated 46 mpg in the city and 51 on highways with its 5-speed manual transmission, and 48 and 47 with its automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT). Only regular-grade gasoline is required, and the 13.2-gallon fuel tank gives an estimated range of more than 600 miles. Figures with the CVT are unusual in that most cars get lower EPA-estimated fuel economy in the city than on the highway. The smooth, efficient CVT has, in effect, an infinite number of ratios and thus no set number of gears. No upshifts or downshifts thus are felt and it makes conventional automatic transmissions seem rather old-fashioned. The Civic with the next-highest fuel economy is the gasoline-engine, 117-horsepower HX trim; it delivers an estimated 36 mpg in the city and 44 on the highway with a five-speed manual transmission and 35 and 40 with the CVT.

Other Gasoline-Electric Hybrids
Other gasoline-electric hybrids are Honda's tiny, racy looking Insight 2-seater and Toyota's nifty but bland-looking Prius sedan. Demand for both relatively new models has been surprisingly high in America, despite the fuel price situation. The Civic Hybrid thus should do well, although it also won't win any beauty contests. The Civic Hybrid looks like a regular Civic sedan, except for a more aerodynamic front end, a small rear spoiler and discreet "Hybrid Gasoline Electric" trunk badging.

Average Highway Performance
The new model drives like a regular 115-117 horsepower Civic, thanks to Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) gasoline-electric system. IMA uses an 85-horsepower gasoline engine and 13-horsepower electric motor, which seamlessly work together to provide lively acceleration to highway speeds. However, the 65-75 mph passing time is just average with just a driver and no cargo in the car. The Civic Hybrid is quick off the line and hits 60 mph in a decent 11-12 seconds, depending on the transmission. Merging into fast expressway traffic should be no problem. Honda uses its second-generation IMA technology. The system's heart is the high-revving 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine, which is hooked to a high-output electric motor between the engine and transmission.

How It Works
When braking or decelerating, energy is recaptured by the electric motor and stored in the compact battery module for later use. As the car accelerates, stored energy is directed to the high-torque electric motor to supplement the gasoline engine's performance. As with a conventional car, you just twist the ignition key and go.

The 2,661-2,732-pound Civic Hybrid comfortably seats four 6-footers—or five if those in back are on the slim side. It has a large trunk with a low opening, although the lid's hinges eat into space and the inside of the lid has a rough, unfinished look. Those, and such things as a manual hood prop with a cheap plastic clip, make it look as if Honda cut costs to provide lots of equipment while keeping the price down.

Many Standard Items
Standard items include automatic climate control, an AM/FM/CD sound system, cruise control, remote keyless entry, premium fabrics, an adjustable steering column, a rear window defroster, and power windows, door locks and mirrors. Safety items for the rigidly built car include side airbags up front.

Upscale Interior
The quiet, upscale interior is airy and has everything from supportive front bucket seats to large controls, nicely placed cupholders and a fair number of storage areas. However, some drivers with long legs will wish that their seat moved back a few inches more. Facing the driver is an electronic instrument display with gauges that show, for instance, when the IMA battery is being charged or when it's providing electrical power assist. Conventional instruments include a tachometer and fuel gauge, which hardly moved during the week when I was testing the car.

Generally Fun to Drive
All 2002 Civics have better ride and handling, so the Civic Hybrid benefits from these improvements. While a bit stiff, the steering is quick. The suspension is supple, although the rigid high-fuel-economy 70-series tires allow a fair number of bumps to be felt. The Civic Hybrid is nimble and thus generally fun to drive despite the skinny tires and narrow 14-inch wheels. The brake pedal has a nice progressive action, and there is an anti-lock system with electronic brake distribution for surer stops. A much larger number of hybrid gasoline-electric cars and light trucks are expected to hit the market within the next few years. So step right up. The future is no farther away than the closest Honda dealer showroom.