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Just admire your mileage

It's a kick seeing what Honda's Civic Hybrid can do with a gallon of gas, but that's where the excitement ends.

August 24, 2005|Steven Cole Smith | Orlando Sentinel

I have yet to join the True Believers who insist that hybrid vehicles are, flaws and all, the answer to our problems of oil dependency, global warming, pollution and the heartbreak of psoriasis.

I like hybrids and admire what the manufacturers have done, both mechanically and with regard to their public spiritedness, because at this point none of them is making money from hybrids, regardless of what they tell their shareholders. No one has yet amortized the cost of developing such an innovative product.

As I spent a week in a 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid, I tried very hard to enjoy the experience, and ultimately I did.

Here's how: You know that with, say, a sports car, you get a certain amount of pleasure from the acceleration, the swoopy styling and the cornering?

In the Civic Hybrid -- base price, $20,950 -- you get a certain amount of pleasure from looking at your running fuel-mileage total and seeing that you are getting 38.3 miles per gallon, which was my average over about 380 miles. This is considerably less than the Environmental Protection Agency ratings of 47 mpg in the city, 48 mpg on the highway, but still, 38.3 mpg is pretty good. Right? Right.

I don't think there was any way to get 48 mpg in the Civic, but I know I could have done better if I turned off the air conditioner, which, I understand, some True Believers are willing to do. In August, it might be a bit warmish, but anything to save a gallon.

Actually, I have been in contact with some hybrid owners who did not realize that when you pull up to a stop sign, and the engine stops, the air conditioning does too. The fan keeps blowing, and for maybe 30 seconds, the air is cool, but after that, it gets warmer. With the Civic, the "economy" setting on the air conditioning lets the engine shut down at a stop, but on the regular setting, it won't. The majority of my driving was done with the air on economy, and if it hadn't been, I would have averaged less than 38.3 mpg. But I would have been cooler.

Otherwise, the Civic was just not much fun to drive. Its electric-boosted power steering was notchy and annoying, and there was a remarkable amount of road noise from the tires.

The Civic, like all Honda hybrids, is a "partial" hybrid, meaning it won't move using its electric motor alone; the electric motor just helps Honda's little 93-horsepower engine accelerate, and therefore the engine uses less gasoline. With its 11.88-gallon fuel tank, you could expect a range of about 450 miles between fill-ups.

And with the CVT, or continuously variable transmission, which works like an automatic but doesn't have a set number of gears, acceleration wasn't bad.

Typical of Civics, it was built like a little tank. There is no scheduled tune-up until it reaches 110,000 miles, and I have little doubt that it would be trouble-free for a very long time.

Satisfying? Yes.

Fun? Sorry, not so much.

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