The Civic, with its long-held reputation for quality, has carried the hybrid banner for Honda until the introduction of the new Insight. Still, its only sibling rivalry appears to be from lesser-priced nonhybrid Civics.
Appearance: This generation of the popular compact sedan, which made its debut in 2006, has a rounded, aerodynamic design. Honda has made some design updates, including a six-sided front grille. Not much is different in the hybrid version, except for the little pat-on-the-backside "Hybrid" badge.
Performance: The 1.3-liter, 110-horsepower four-cylinder engine is complemented with an electric motor that kicks in to give the car extra power when needed at speeds up to 35 mph. The system is called Integrated Motor Assist. Acceleration from zero is adequate, and we had to floor the gas pedal to get to merging speed on the highway. But once at cruising speed, the car is zippy and comfortable. The acceleration, with the continuous variable transmission (CVT), is smooth. But the engine speed changes frequently, so you'll have to retrain your ears for the whirring and other unfamiliar sounds. The regenerative brakes feel stiff as they recharge the battery, and you might feel some kickback. Another energy-saving feature, Auto Stop, turns the engine off when you're at a stop. At first, the silence is startling. But each time you take your foot off the brakes, the car gives a little shudder as the motor kicks in. There's a tiny lag before the car moves forward.
Interior: The hybrid gets the more upscale package of leather trim and the navigation system with satellite radio. The leather-trimmed seats are firm yet comfortable, and adjustments are done manually. The gauges are divided into two levels: Digital speedometer with big numbers at the top near the windshield, and a more typical panel you see through the steering wheel with a big tach in the middle to show your rpm. Tucked away in the corner is a small fuel-efficiency gauge telling you how the car is powered. File this under simple-but-useful: The two cupholders in the front console adjust to the size of your cup or mug. The hybrid battery is stored vertically behind the rear seats, cutting down on trunk room, which isn't helped by hinges that swing down into the space. This also means the seats won't fold down.
Our 3 favorites
Feel: Just shut the doors and listen to the thunk. It's solid.
Head room: The interior is surprisingly roomy for a compact car.
Steering wheel: It's wrapped in leather and feels just right.
Visuals: The large digital speedometer in the upper panel, which is closer to the windshield, makes it easier to look down to check.
Storage: Armrest console with a deep well to put in small items, like a camera with lens.
Handling: The Civic is responsive, zippy when negotiating traffic.
The bottom line: If you want a reliable car that doesn't scream "hybrid," this may be worth a look. Once you get over the odd noises, the Civic Hybrid behaves more like a regular car compared to its hybrid competitors.