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2012 Honda Civic Hybrid: Frugal but flawed

2012 Honda Civic Hybrid

Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail/ted laturnus The Globe and Mail

Overall Rating
Could use a proper transmission, but still a nice package. You'll like this car if: you like Hondas and hybrids, not necessarily in that order.
Looks Rating
Next to the Kia Optima, the best-looking hybrid out there.
Interior Rating
Dreadful over-the-shoulder peripheral visibility.
Ride Rating
More responsive than the Toyota Prius.
Safety Rating
Usual roster of airbags, front and back, plus vehicle stability, traction control, ABS, EBD, etc.
Green Rating
One of the highest fuel economy ratings in the industry.

When Honda introduced the first Insight in 1999, it was a lightweight hybrid vehicle that delivered the best fuel economy recorded in a non-electric production vehicle: 4.4 litres/100 km in town and a remarkable 3.9 litres/100 km on the highway. These numbers stood for years and were only recently bettered by the new Toyota Prius, which is good for 3.7 city/4.0 highway.

The latest version of the Civic Hybrid, which got a small makeover for 2012, is almost as thrifty as the original Insight, rated at 4.4 city/4.2 highway. Although not quite as frugal to operate, the Civic Hybrid is a much more civilized automobile. It shouldn't be confused with the new Insight, by the way, which has a completely different body style and offers less performance.

But where the original Insight was just a two-seater and afflicted with an exceptionally homely body style, the Civic Hybrid seats five and is as easy on the eyes as a regular Civic sedan. It still utilizes the latest incarnation of Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) program, but now has a CVT only, which is its undoing. The original Insight came with a manual gearbox, although a CVT was introduced in 2000.

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It's too bad Honda doesn't offer a decent transmission with the Civic Hybrid, because it could use one. I found the CVT – as ever – to be snatchy, unpredictable and crude. Honda has pretty much perfected hybrid drive technology and a decent transmission would really hit the spot here.

The 2012 Civic Hybrid features a 1.5-litre, four-cylinder gas engine, up slightly in size over last year, married to an electric motor with a lithium-ion battery pack that, for 2012, is larger than before. Together, the electric motor and internal combustion engine deliver 110 horsepower, with 127 lb-ft of torque. This is enough to pull the Civic Hybrid along at a decent clip, but don't look for adrenalin-pumping performance here.

Again, if the CVT was replaced by a proper gearbox, this would be a much nicer vehicle to drive, and, if I was in the market for a hybrid compact sedan, the CVT would be a deal-breaker for me.

That said, this is still very much a Civic – which is a good thing.

It has that built-in drivability factor that Honda does so well and has comfy seats, intelligent ergonomics and plenty of elbow room.

One note here, however; over-the-shoulder peripheral visibility from the driver's seat is terrible. When merging on to the highway on an on-ramp, for example, looking over your left shoulder can be frustrating. The roof pillars, combined with the seat headrests, block your line of sight, and no amount of craning your neck fixes this. You have to completely re-adjust the way you merge, because your mirrors are no good here either. It's annoying and potentially dangerous.

Otherwise, no serious gripes. The Civic Hybrid features easy-to-understand graphics and you can keep track of your ongoing fuel consumption via the car's "Eco Assist" feature. This handy little gizmo lets you keep track of your gas supply via a set of blue and green illuminated bars on either side of the speedometer. If they're green, your economy is at its optimum. There is also a hard to miss "Econ" button that recalibrates the transmission and some of the accessories, and puts the drivetrain's emphasis on fuel economy, rather than performance.

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Since the Civic Hybrid is no hot rod to begin with, the Econ mode turns the Civic Hybrid into one of the slower cars on the road – right up there with the Toyota Prius c.

Elsewhere, all the usual electronic modcons are here. For example, the centre display monitor – what Honda calls iMID – does all kinds of things, most of which are pointless and distracting. You can load up your own personalized wallpaper, surf through satellite radio, access Bluetooth and use the "energy flow indicator" to strike an ongoing balance between gas and electric power, and minimize your emissions.

Honda describes this as "the ultimate app." I describe it as something that takes the driver's attention away from what he/she should be doing: driving the car. Also, in direct sunlight, the monitor is hard to see. Back to the drawing board for this one, Honda.

Despite its shortcomings – the grabby CVT, terrible over-the-shoulder visibility and a difficult-to-read centre monitor – the Civic Hybrid is nonetheless a nice car to spend time in. I'd take it over the Prius, for example, simply because it's more comfortable and has better handling.

It also has a reasonably high standard equipment level, with things like heated front seats, climate control, one-touch-up/down windows, a vehicle stability system, traction control and electronic brake distribution all standard. My tester had the navi package, which adds $1,300 to the price tag.

Tech specs

2012 Honda Civic Hybrid

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Type: Five-passenger hybrid sedan

Base Price: $26,485; as tested, $27,845

Engine: 1.5-litre four-cylinder with permanent magnet electric motor

Horsepower/torque: 110 hp/127 lb-ft

Transmission: CVT

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 4.4 city/4.2 highway; regular gas.

Alternatives: Toyota Prius, Toyota Prius c, Kia Optima Hybrid, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Honda Insight, Ford Fusion Hybrid

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