It came to me in an epiphany as I was driving the car of the week - an almost electric flash, which was appropriate, considering what I was driving. I had long puzzled over why Honda has made it first hybrid, gas+electric vehicle, the Insight, so doggone ugly. It was, after all, a technological tour-de-force and a very driveable ride, considering it runs on fumes. When Toyota released its hybrid, the Prius, they made it just a little different, but not nearly so off-putting.

Of course: this was Honda's first outing in America with a complex, radical new system, and they didn't WANT to sell a million, and they didn't want just anybody buying them.

They wanted eco-freaks and techno-freaks, early acquirers (like me), who would be proud to be seen in something that looks as if it was from a 20-year-old Jetsons cartoon. These people could put up with some quirks, and, if there were problems, would be more sympathetic than the average commuter, enjoying the novelty of it all.

Brilliant. But now the experiment is over, and the hybrid is becoming mainstream, at least for a technology leader like Honda. For the 2003 model year, you can buy a hybrid edition of the Civic that actually looks BETTER than its handsome 2002 brethren.

It costs more than most of its gasoline-powered Civic siblings, but it's the only one Uncle Sam will help you buy. Yep, since it's a low-polluting, high-mileage machine, the Great White Father in Washington had determined (through the offices of those lovely rulemakers at the Internal Revenue Service) that if you buy one, you can take a $2,000 deduction on your 1040. That will reduce the final drive-home price by somewhere in the range of $1,500, depending on your marginal tax bracket.

Either way, you're getting a car of considerable refinement and charm, plus not only the peculiar fun of driving a hybrid, but big gasoline mileage numbers, too.

EPA ratings on the automatic version are 48 mpg city, 47 highway, on regular unleaded. Driving as if I didn't believe we'd ever run out of crude oil, and with the air conditioner blasting in 90-degree weather, I logged 41.8, according to the car's built-in mileage computer, and most of that was on secondary roads.

Let's take a second to digress on the economics of operating a hybrid Civic instead of one with the normal 1.7-liter gasoline-only powerplant.

If you drive the typical 15,000 miles a year, and realize the 48-mpg EPA figure (probably quite overoptimistic), you will burn $431.87 worth of 87-octane in the automatic Hybrid. The gas-fired version gets an estimated 31 city, for a total annual consumption of $668.70 at the current national price of $1.382 per gallon for regular unleaded, as quoted by the federal Energy Department.

That's close to five bucks a week difference, not inconsiderable, but not all that suasive, either, considering that the big battery pack will someday have to be replaced.

In the Hybrid you do have the intangible soul-satisfying feeling of doing something green . . . but at what sacrifice?

To me, it's rather a wash, weighing the unique kicks of the Hybrid against the straight-line performance you give up, vis-a-vis the gas job.

The ugly duckling Insight uses a 3-cylinder, 1-liter gasoline engine. The Civic gets a comparative whopper, a 4-cylinder, 1.3-liter mill. It should, because the Insight is a two-seater, and the Civic has five sets of seatbelts - load master discretion advised.

The gas engine makes a maximum 85 hp. Its associate, the coaxial electric motor, can produce the equivalent of 13 hp, along with 36 foot-pounds of torque (automatic). The five-speed manual version has the same hp rating, and 10 foot-pounds more torque.

Obviously this is not a speeding bullet, but it's peppy enough for all practical purposes - including freeway merges, with some foresight - and because of some unusual factors, has a much better "launch feel" than the numbers suggest. In normal, steady-state, legal-speed cruising, you only need 10-15 hp to maintain your speed on level ground in most any reasonably aerodynamic car. (Honda has made the Hybrid more sleek than other Civics by means of a deep front air dam, a subtle aero lip on the trunk lid and extensive baffling underneath the vehicle.)

The gas engine and electric motor work seamlessly together. When the 144-volt NiMH battery pack buried behind the rear seat falls below about 50 percent of charge, the gas engine, through the alternator, starts charging it, even while cruising. When it gets nearly full, the engine is relieved of that burden. Conversely, when extra power is needed, as from a standing start or when pulling a grade, the electric motor gives back energy to help its buddy - instantly, and with no discernible mechanical feel. Honda calls the system Integrated Motor Assist.

The only way the driver can tell what's going on is by observing the pretty, segmented, electroluminescent gauge which shows whether the battery pack is charging or discharging. There's also a charge-level gauge of the same sort, which is quite sensitive to driving conditions. The battery pack starts charging instantly when the driver gets off the throttle, and goes to maximum rate of charge as soon as the driver's foot contacts the brake pedal. The car's wheels become generators during braking to scavenge energy otherwise wasted on heating the brake rotors.

Also during deceleration, three cylinders are turned off to conserve. Weirdest off all, when the car is stopped, the engine will turn off after a few seconds. The silence and lack of vibration are unsettling at first; there is a flashing light in the speedometer to show that the shutdown has taken place. The instant the gas pedal is depressed, the engine kicks in again - virtually imperceptibly.

The engine does not shut down when the (very competent) air conditioner is running, and that may have been a small factor in my consumption figure.

Weighing nearly 2,700 pounds, the Hybrid feels a bit ponderous, but that may be exaggerated by the relatively slow steering. Nonetheless, it handled quite acceptably, despite being fitted with rather small (185/70/14) low-friction tires. You'll have enough fun just watching the lights and trying to improve your gas mileage score (via a constant readout) that you probably won't need to toss this baby around. They make an Si for that kind of folly.

Ride quality was very good, although the springs and shocks seemed hard-pressed by the mass.

One other trick item on the Hybrid is the automatic transmission. It's a continuously variable design (CVT), meaning that instead of four or five gear ratios, there are an infinite number with an unusually wide range of ratios. This lets the computer, rather than your right foot, determine how many rpms are required at any second - you just choose the speed you want, within the machin e's limits. The CVT is eerily smooth, since gear-ratio-altering consists of sliding, instead of jumping, from ratio to ratio. You might get better performance from the manual trannie, but the CVT is a delight.

The battery pack is backed by an 8-year, 80,000-mile warranty. Honda isn't quoting prices, but it will probably cost a couple of grand to replace, which would make it a long-term wash, when you consider the years of gasoline savings.

Neither feds nor insurance folks have crashed a 2003 yet, but the 2002 version got top marks, and one would hardly expect retrograde motion from Honda. Driver and passenger get side air bags standard. So why buy a Hybrid?

Well, there's the ultra-low emissions status, the gas scrimping, the sheer fun of being on the leading edge . . . and it's a handsome, well-equipped car to boot.

Hybrids come loaded - for a low-priced compact - and cost $20,550 with the automatic. The tester bottom-lined at $21,099, with freight and floor mats. Payments at that price would be $428. Edmunds.com says they're going at sticker . . . but don't forget, your poor Uncle's going to help.

"The Gannett News Service"