Forget the Corvette. Ignore the F-150. The Honda Civic Hybrid may be the most quintessentially American car on the road.
I say this after a weekend spent in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. Like Cambridge, San Francisco or Seattle, the city may have a latté dispensary on every corner and no fewer than five restaurants serving farm-to-table organic charcuterie. But unlike similar cities stateside, there’s nary a hybrid to be found amidst the miniature Mazdas, Pontiac hatchbacks and diesel Vee-Dubs crowding the Queensway at rush hour. As a Bostonian, it was utterly disconcerting for me to hear cars idling at stoplights.
I’m no sociologist, but it’s easy to understand one reason why hybrids haven’t caught on in the Great White North. The average Canadian drives 8.8 miles to get to and from work, usually commuting from dense suburbs close to city centers — er, centres. The average American travels almost three times that distance. Even with the Dominion’s higher gas taxes, Canadians could all drive ‘59 Fleetwoods to work and still come out ahead.
In the U.S., we don’t like densely populated towns. In the postwar housing boom, we clamored for land, lots of land, only to get fenced in by rings of densely populated highways. We also dislike taking public transportation, funding public transportation, paying for gas, driving small cars, looking like we’re wasting gas when we’re wasting gas, finding a place that sells diesel or making any sort of compromise whatsoever.
Enter the 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid. Redesigned for 2012 with a new lithium-ion battery pack, it’s a uniquely American car, created for those who want to have their half-baked cake and eat it, too. It’s a pleasure to drive among hybrids, but anodyne compared to a TDI. It’s not expensive, but it’s not as cheap as a car without batteries. It’s a fuel-sipper, but a Prius uses less gas. By default, it’s the least-worst choice.
The 2012 Civic’s exterior update has had a lukewarm reception at best. The prior generation was as stylish as it was ubiquitous, but the new car only excels at communicating just how much money Honda saved through the redesign.
Inside, multiple LCD screens are canted towards the driver, like some sort of automotive Bloomberg terminal. On the tester I drove with leather and navigation ($26,750), those displays worked together about as closely as the 2011 Red Sox. For instance, the same glowing rectangle was responsible for displaying the radio tuner and navigation, but song titles were buried in a menu on another screen entirely. Replacing a tuning knob with a mini joystick makes scrolling through satellite radio channels a laborious task. And I’ll never understand why Honda wastes prime dashboard real estate by putting a tachometer right behind the steering wheel on a hybrid with a CVT.
Honda’s already got so much flak over the Civic’s interior that they’re in the process of drawing up a redesign. If their engineers want an example of how to better display relevant information, check out Lexus’ CT 200h, which offers such gems as an unobtrusive gauge that combines a tachometer and a fuel economy display.
Aside from all the screens, the car has a surprisingly low-tech vibe. The nav system’s display has a font cribbed from a serial killer’s ransom note, the seat heater switches are pure Heathkit and the shifter is straight out of a mid-’90s Accord. Prius aficionados will immediately note the absence of keyless ignition.
On the road, the car shines. The car relies on Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist, which adds electric power on acceleration and recaptures energy through regenerative braking. Since it augments a smaller, lighter engine, the Civic Hybrid gets the same mileage on the highway as around the city.
Despite my averaging 41.4 mpg, there was little feedback to indicate the Civic Hybrid’s duality of propulsion. Acceleration felt more brisk than a Prius, braking felt less grabby than most hybrids, and the car handled as competently as a regular Civic. My only complaint is how digital and detached the electric steering felt, as if the wheels must only turn at even-numbered angles.
It’s a good car overall, but the balance of battery-electric power has changed. Where the old Civic Hybrid just had to be better than the Toyota Prius, the new car is competing against offerings from Ford, Hyundai and Kia, plus a spate of VW diesels and low-emissions compacts. Price and performance-wise, the new Honda straddles an awkward middle-ground between Priuses that lease for $200 a month and loaded Ford Fusion Hybrids that sell for remarkably close to the upper limit of the Civic’s asking price. By comparison, the Civic Hybrid is a compromise, a kludge, a slice of Americana.
The Civic Hybrid’s toughest competition, however, is in the same showroom.
First, a little lesson in marketing: Toyota’s Prius became the hybrid poster child because the automaker added utility to the Prius that none of their other vehicles have. If they’d just stuck batteries in a Corolla, the customer could immediately see how little value a hybrid would add. But the Prius has a funky dashboard, a huge hatch and a lot of personality for an A-to-B appliance. You might love it, you might hate it — but you probably won’t find yourself sweating bullets in a Toyota dealership, dithering over its financial merits versus a Matrix. Similarly, Ford started the Lincoln MKZ and MKZ Hybrid at the same base price to avoid that conversation.
Aside from a hybrid drivetrain and standard Bluetooth, the base Civic HF is almost identical to the base Civic Hybrid. Sure it has an EPA rating of 29 city/41 highway, but it also sells for almost $4,600 less. I’ll do the well-worn hybrid premium math: Assuming that gas is $3.50 a gallon and that you’re driving 12,000 miles a year with a lead foot in city traffic, it’ll take nearly nine years to make up the difference between a Civic Hybrid and Civic HF in fuel costs alone. About the only rational rationale for buying the Hybrid over the HF is the two fewer tons of carbon dioxide the battery-boosted car emits over its ICE-only stablemate. Coincidentally, that’s the same amount of carbon dioxide a human emits each year just from digesting food. Go on a juice diet, and there’s no reason to get the Hybrid.
Or, you could just move closer to work and potentially halve your carbon footprint, but that would be downright un-American.
WIRED 44 mpg highway, 44 mpg city. Improved lithium-ion battery pack. Nimble on the open road. So! Many! Screens!
TIRED Interior could use an update. Less value than other hybrids. Steering is too robotic.
Photos courtesy of American Honda Motor Co., Inc.
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