The all-new 2006 Honda Civic line has won awards usually reserved for brand-new cars, not for a makeover of a 33-year-old model. But winning Motor Trend Car of the Year, plus the North American Car of the Year award bestowed by 49 full-time auto writers -- me included -- shows Honda really stepped up development of this eighth-generation Civic, after an admittedly lackluster model that lasted from 2001 until 2005.
Last year, I went on record with a moderately snarky review of the 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid that, like all hybrids, is powered by a small gasoline engine aided by an electric motor to increase fuel mileage. I simply did not find the '05 Civic Hybrid much fun to drive. I got 38.3 miles per gallon, which was impressive, except that the Environmental Protection Agency rates the car at 47 mpg in the city, 48 mpg on the highway. I received plenty of letters and e-mails from Civic Hybrid owners insisting that they get close to the EPA ratings in their cars, and that I must have a lead foot.
So with the arrival of a 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid test car, I thought seriously about babying it, trying to get the EPA-rated mileage, which is now 49 mpg in the city, 51 mpg on the highway.
But I didn't. I ended up driving the Civic Hybrid like a car, any car, for more than 500 miles. On the highway, through the Hardee's drive-in, idling in traffic jams. And I averaged 42.7 mpg. Considering that the new Civic Hybrid is bigger, heavier and more powerful than last year's model, I think that's pretty good. It isn't 50 mpg, which the EPA says the car should average, but it's pretty good.
And the new Civic Hybrid is fun to drive -- up to about 50 mph. Around town, it's just fine. Sometimes when you pull up to a stoplight, the engine shuts off, restarting as soon as your foot leaves the brake pedal. And sometimes the engine keeps running. An onboard computer, not me, tells it what to do. When the Civic Hybrid is accelerating, the gas engine is running, but the car can operate on electricity alone in what Honda calls "certain steady-state cruising situations."
That gas engine is a 1.3-liter four-cylinder, aided by a 20-horsepower electric motor. Combined, Honda claims 110 horsepower, a 24 percent increase over last year. A manual transmission was available, but now only the CVT automatic is offered on the Hybrid. A CVT is a "continuously variable transmission," meaning that rather than having four or five or six set gears, there is an infinite number of gear ratios available. It works just like an automatic, but you don't feel the car change from one gear to the next.
The Hybrid requires few sacrifices. Because of the battery pack -- 132 small nickel metal-hydride cells -- trunk space is reduced from 12 cubic feet to a still-generous 10.4 cubic feet. Overall weight of 2,875 pounds is only about 70 pounds more than a comparable Civic EX. The gas tank is a little smaller at 12.3 gallons, but Honda claims a rather optimistic range of 615 miles between fill-ups.
The new Civic's wheelbase of 106.3 inches is 3.2 inches longer than in 2005. Overall length of 176.7 inches is a little more than an inch longer. The width, at 69 inches, is an inch and a half more than last year, and it translates directly into some very welcome elbow room. Rear-seat room is generous; the car seats four six-footers comfortably.
On the road, especially around town, the Civic Hybrid feels pretty much like any car. The brakes are a little odd, in that they generate electricity when applied to help recharge the battery, so you don't have that linear feel you do with regular brakes. In five miles, you no longer notice the difference. The throttle is "drive by wire," meaning that when your right foot presses the accelerator, it isn't connected directly to the engine, but rather to a computer that tells the engine to accelerate, and by how much. Sometimes drive-by-wire systems have a sort of disconnected, artificial feel, but this one doesn't.
Unfortunately what does feel disconnected, at highway speeds at least, is the steering. Other Civics use hydraulic power steering, but the Hybrid uses electric power steering. Driving faster than 55 mph, the steering is darty and nervous, not helped by the smallish P195/65R-15 tires, the same size that comes on the base Civic DX. Other Hondas have electric power steering, and they feel normal, so I expect this is a temporary situation. Crosswinds also seemed to affect the Hybrid more than I expected. It's nothing dangerous, just a little uncomfortable. Last week I had a Civic EX, and it displayed none of those issues.
But neither did it get 42.7 mpg.
Honda raised the price on the Civic Hybrid by 3.8 percent, but this car is so much better than the previous model that the increase isn't significant. Most everything you'd want is standard, including air conditioning, power-operated features, cruise control, tilt steering, antilock brakes and side- and side-curtain air bags. Base price is $21,850, and with the only option -- an excellent satellite-linked navigation system, which the test car had -- the price is $23,350. Add $550 for shipping to that.
This is a much better Civic Hybrid than the last one. But there's still a little work to be done.
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Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5699.
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