Whether dodging SUVs on Southern California freeways or taking the twists and curves in moderately high-altitude mountain driving, the Honda Civic has always distinguished itself as one of the most fun-to-drive cars on the market.

The difference with the Civic I recently drove is that under the hood is Honda’s hybrid system, mating a 1.3 liter gasoline engine with able assist, when needed, from a electric motor.

The result is the best combination yet of high gas mileage, performance, and handling in a mostly conventional package that will be a cozy glove-fit to any driver who’s comfortable with today’s subcompacts.

In fact, it’s hard to tell the Civic Hybrid from the pure gasoline versions of this benchmark econobox. The only clue on the exterior is a small badge on the right rear. Inside, conventional gauges are replaced by an electronic instrument panel, with extra digital displays monitoring battery level and gas mileage, plus the all-important “Auto Stop” light (more on that later).

And best of all, at least for us motor nuts, it’s available with a 5-speed manual transmission.

I was able to spend a week with the car, finding it capable around town. Something that would take me a bit of getting used to is the “idle stop” system, which shuts off the gasoline engine at stops.

Because my Civic was a 5-speed, I had to pay attention to make sure the engine had started again before letting out the clutch and expecting the car to move. With only a week behind the wheel, I hadn’t yet perfected keeping my eye on the tachometer and “Auto Stop” light when accelerating from a stop. But, with a few more hours behind the wheel I don’t think it would be a problem.

I also tend to step on the clutch, then brake, when decelerating to a stop. Honda’s system only charges the battery when the clutch is engaged and the brake applied. So I’d adjust a bit and only hit the clutch at the last moment.

There were a few new sensations for a manual-gearbox car… at times it almost felt like it had an automatic transmission. As I quickly discovered from viewing the Honda’s power display, it was the electric motor clicking on or off, or the charging system engaging.

On the freeway, I had no problem keeping up with the 80 mph (sorry, California Highway Patrol) traffic in Southern California. Even on steep grades in San Diego (such as Interstate 15 south of Mission Valley) or Orange County (the north SR-73 toll road), the Civic was able to pass monster SUVs.

My initial trip from Honda headquarters in Torrance, Calif., to San Diego, registered 52 mpg. Not bad.
But the most fun was a day-long trip through the mountains outside of San Diego. My 150 mile trip included driving to the famous Hale Observatory on Mount Palomar. At Palomar’s elevation of 6,140 feet, I found no loss of performance.

The twisting roads were extra fun with the Civic’s snappy clutch and relatively short-throw (at least for an econobox) shifter.

One surprise was the lack of stickiness of the low rolling resistance tires. It just reminded me that I wasn’t driving a sports car. Otherwise, handling and performance were on par with a rented, automatic equipped Ford Focus four-door I drove on the same route a few months back.

But the mileage on my mountain trip (that included about 50 miles of freeway driving) is something that no sports car could touch… 43.5 mpg. And that certainly helped keep a smile on my face.

At $20,110 (price as tested on my 2004 model), no wonder Honda can’t keep the cars on dealer lots. And aside from not having to wait awhile for delivery, I can’t imagine why buyers would opt for the gas version.
So here you go… saving the planet can be fun.

About the Car

  • Vehicle: 2004 Honda Civic Hybrid
  • Reviewed: April 2004
  • Time with car: One week
  • Miles: About 1,000.
  • Vehicle supplied by Honda for review.
  • Web site link

Me with the Civic


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