The poor Honda Civic Hybrid has always had to live in the shadows. It was what I like to call a "second-tier hybrid" that didn't match the Toyota Prius or its sibling, the Honda Insight, in green performance or image. However, for 2012, the Honda Civic has been refreshed. Visually, not much has changed. But under its skin the 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid is slightly more powerful, much easier to live with, and more fuel-efficient than the previous generation.
We put the Civic Hybrid to the test to see if it's outgrown its second-tier stigma.
Blue is the new green
It's hard to tell a 2012 Civic from a 2011 model at speed. It's even harder to tell a 2012 Civic Hybrid from a standard 2012 Civic at a glance. Only in direct comparison do the changes to the 2012 Civic become apparent.
Externally, the Hybrid model distinguishes itself from the standard with clear plastic trim with a slight blue tint. You'll find this bluish trim atop the grille and in the headlamps up front and the rear light cluster out back.
The Hybrid's upper and lower grilles have also been reshaped to allow the sedan to slip through the air with less drag. The wheel arches are filled with wheels unique to the hybrid model that have been designed to disturb less air with each rotation and have been shod with low-rolling-resistance tires.
In the cabin, Honda seems to have kept intact those attributes of the Civic sedan that make it a safe decision for level-headed adults. The Civic's greenhouse offers exceptional 360-degree visibility, reducing blind spots and making parallel parking a breeze, even without a rearview camera option available. The sedan offers good headroom and shoulder room, with controls that fall nicely into the hand. The bilevel instrument cluster seems less like the bridge of a spaceship now that we've had a few years to acclimate, but the new hard dashboard materials do visually cheapen the Honda's interior, and drew comments from our passengers.
If Honda somewhat cheaped out on the dashboard materials, it must have spent the saved money on sound deadening. The standard Civic's cabin was noticeably quieter than its competitors' and the Hybrid was quieter still, thanks in part to its power plant.
Honda's thriftiest hybrid
Where the standard Civic's engine room is occupied by a 1.8-liter, 140-horsepower gasoline engine, the Hybrid has a 1.5-liter gasoline engine that's augmented by Honda's Integrated Motor Assist technology to output a combined 110 horsepower. Interestingly, the hybrid system's torque, at 127 pound-feet, is almost identical to the gasoline engine's 128 pound-feet, so the hybrid doesn't really feel less peppy around town. That's due to the new and more powerful 23-horsepower electric motor supplying 78 of those pound-feet from as low as 500rpm.
As in all IMA-equipped Honda vehicles, the electric motor works in tandem with the gasoline engine, rather than parallel to it. So the Civic Hybrid cannot cruise under only electric power as cars with Ford's and Toyota's hybrid systems do. The IMA does take advantage of a start-stop system that kills the gasoline engine when stopped and fires it back up with the help of the electric motor when it comes time to resume driving. Honda seems to have smoothed the stop-start transition out since we last saw it, as the system seemed more tolerable than it did when we tested the Honda CR-Z.
Where the CR-Z featured a six-speed manual gearbox and the Civic EX-L had a five-speed automatic, the Civic Hybrid comes with a single-option Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) that is able to infinitely vary its ratios over a set range. The transmission has three modes: D is the standard mode that is tuned for fuel efficiency, S is a sport mode that allows the revs to rise and disables the start-stop system, and L is a low-ratio mode for... well, we're not sure what it's for, because we certainly don't think Honda expects anyone to tow a load with a Hybrid. Even at its sportiest, this is not a gearbox that favors performance driving, but its unobtrusive operation makes for a smooth and quiet ride.
If all of that fuel-economy technology wasn't enough, the 2012 Civic Hybrid features a color-coded economy indicator in its instrument cluster that glows green when you're driving economically and blue when not, and an Econ button that tunes the climate control systems, engine characteristics, and throttle response curve to help you optimize your driving style. However, unlike the standard Civic's big green button, the hybrid's Econ button doesn't immediately transform the car into a gutless wimp. Where the standard Civic's Econ mode felt like a massive compromise to cheat a few more miles per gallon out of the EPA's test cycle, the Hybrid's Econ mode feels like a tool to use to help stretch the time between fill-ups.
Add it all up and the Civic Hybrid now finishes the EPA's test cycle with a rated fuel economy of 44 mpg city, 44 mpg highway, and 44 mpg combined. It's not very often, if ever, that you see a car with the same scores across the board. In practice we were able to get the Civic Hybrid's trip computer to report 44.1 mpg by about the half-tank mark with testing that emphasized freeway and back-road cruising, peppered with a bit of city and stop-and-go driving. However, by the end of the week with an empty gas tank and quite a lot more aggressive city driving mixed in, the average had dropped to 40.3 mpg--lower than the EPA's average, but still quite respectable.