What Happened to 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid?

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Honda says the Civic Hybrid’s electric motor is more assistant than primary driver.
Honda says the Civic Hybrid’s electric motor is more assistant than primary driver.

There’s something unusual on the latest Honda Civic Hybrid’s Monroney sticker.

Its EPA fuel-economy ratings are exactly the same for both city and highway driving: 44 miles per gallon. Hybrids, at least the non-luxury ones, typically get better mileage in stop-and-go urban driving because the gas motor shuts down when the car stops, and at low speeds electricity makes a bigger contribution.

So far, in town and on surface roads, tippy-toeing around in hair-shirt ECON mode, I’ve averaged 46.9 MPG (according to the Honda computer). It’s a pleasant surprise to find a car that exceeds its estimates, but it’s clear that one of the reasons such hybrids get the mileage they do is because of how we treat them. The video-game instruments and the unsettling dynamics make sure we never forget what we’re driving, and we behave accordingly. Gingerly we tip into the throttle, slowly we accelerate, gently we brake . . . always keeping an anxious eye on the econo-meter. Nobody drives an ordinary car this way.

What if we did? My hunch is that piloting, let’s say, a Chevy Cruze with equal care (at least the Eco Manual model) would achieve similar fuel stinginess. And the Cruze is the same size, a bit more comfortable, handles better, and costs three or four grand less than this $25,000 Honda.

It isn’t that the third generation of the Civic Hybrid is technologically stagnant. For 2012, its 4-cylinder internal-combustion powerplant was bumped up to 1.5 liters and the electric motor to 23 horsepower and 77 foot-pounds of torque, for combined total of 110 HP and 127 ft-lbs. Honda also switched to a lighter but more power-dense lithium-ion battery pack. At the same time, the car’s interior was stretched a few inches and got a mild face-lift, and everything seems Honda-normal, which is to say pleasant, unobtrusive, high-quality and well-screwed-together.

The over-the-road characteristics didn’t get the same upgrades. Other makers have figured out how to smooth out their gas/electric drivetrains, to reduce stop-start shuddering. Oddly, though, the Civic’s gas engine very rarely shuts down, even at stoplights, so its low-speed lurches seem to come from slack in the driveline and abrupt downshifts. (Not easy, that, with a CV transmission!) Some makers have also been able to reduce the grabbiness of their hybrids’ regenerative brakes. (Instead of being lost as heat, stopping energy is recaptured by connecting the brakes to a generator, which helps charge the battery.) At low speed, the Civic’s brakes are hard to apply smoothly; at high speed, they seem to be thinking about something else entirely. And while one of the pleasures of driving most small Hondas is their sharp steering and lively handling, these qualities are lacking in the Civic Hybrid. For so little civility, I’d expect at least 75 miles per gallon in return.

Is this still a hangover from the early hybrid days, when we thought being green meant doing penance and suffering? Maybe the better alternative is Honda’s Civic Natural Gas model, America’s only production CNG (compressed natural gas) powered car? Then again, if all you want is a sprightly little car that’s reasonably fun to drive and still efficient, there’s the everyday Civic Si, in both two- and four-door trim, batteries and electric motor not included.

Even with gasoline at $4+ a gallon, the payback on the extra cost of a gas-electric car is years in the future. Many people, though, are happy to spend more on a car in order to cut their personal output of greenhouse gasses, or to reduce America’s use of oil, or just to be on the cutting edge of automotive technology. It’s all good. I think. It’s just that, in this case, we expect more from Honda, which otherwise makes brilliant motorcycles, lawn mowers, snow blowers, outboard motors and even a jet airplane—along with all their other cars, of course.