IMAGE: HONDA CIVIC HYBRID
AP
The 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid has a sleeker look than its 2005 sibling.
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updated 1/9/2006 1:17:59 PM ET 2006-01-09T18:17:59

Gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles aren’t just stingy with fuel and emissions. They’re stylish statements on America’s roads and they’re even listed on some of the “what’s hot” lists for 2006.

So the 2006 model year is the perfect time for Honda to debut its new, more stylish, more powerful and, notably, more fuel-thrifty Civic Hybrid.

One of only four cars with gasoline-electric hybrid power sold in the United States, the 2006 Civic Hybrid also is quieter and a bit larger inside than its predecessor and comes for the first time with six standard airbags.

Starting price has increased $2,000 from last year, with the base Civic Hybrid now carrying a manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $22,400.

All Civic Hybrids come standard with a continuously variable transmission that the driver operates as he or she would an automatic transmission. In contrast, a 2006 Civic DX sedan powered only by a four-cylinder gas engine with automatic transmission starts at $15,910.

Among the three other hybrid cars on the U.S. market, the most notable Civic Hybrid competitor is the 2006 Toyota Prius, which is a slightly larger, mid-size, five-door hatchback that starts at $22,305.

Honda sells two other hybrid cars: The Accord mid-size sedan and the two-seat Honda Insight three-door model.

More aerodynamic look
But it’s the Civic, which dates to 1973 and is Honda’s best-known nameplate, that accounts for most of Honda’s hybrid sales. Company officials expect some 28,000 Civic Hybrids will be sold in the 2006 model year.

For 2006, the five-passenger Civic Hybrid has a new, aerodynamic shape that isn’t as severe as the Insight’s and isn’t as plain as last year’s Civic Hybrid.

The look, with windshield raked forward, is upscale and modern inside and out. And so was the fit and finish of the test Civic Hybrid. All seams and body and trim panels fit precisely and were well-aligned.

The driving experience with the hybrid powerplant is different, because for the first time in a Civic Hybrid, the vehicle can be powered solely via electric power in some driving situations, such as during cruising. Previous Civic Hybrids always required some internal combustion engine involvement.

For this year, the Civic’s whole hybrid powertrain is more powerful and efficient than before.

Honda’s software system that manages the mixing and matching of gas and electric power now is in its fourth generation.

More horsepower, torque
Meantime, the 1.3-liter, single overhead cam, inline four cylinder gas engine puts out 93 horsepower and 89 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm now, while the 15-kilowatt electric motor can generate up to 20 horsepower and 76 foot-pounds of torque right from startup.

The result: A maximum combined output of 110 horsepower vs. 93 in last year’s Civic Hybrid and 123 foot-pounds of torque at 2,500 rpm compared with last year’s 116 foot-pounds.

The changes are noticeable when a driver presses the accelerator to get started and during passing maneuvers, where the Civic Hybrid moves with a quick response and steady delivery of power.

Yet, fuel economy is improved, too — to a government rating of 49 miles a gallon in city driving and 51 mpg on the highway. This is up from 47/48 mpg for the 2005 model and means a Civic Hybrid can travel 615 miles or more before a fill-up.

This fuel economy rating also makes it the thriftiest compact car in the country.

To save gas, the engine turns itself off at times, such as when I was stopped at a traffic light. The car was so quiet, I might have been alarmed that something was wrong — until I noticed the bright green, blinking “Auto Off” light.

Power transition can be rough
The engine doesn’t necessarily turn off every time at a stoplight. The software, for example, may notice that the car’s air conditioner is on full blast and may need to keep the gas engine running.

The hybrid workings and the Civic’s tapping of electrical power stored in the onboard nickel metal hydride battery pack are managed by the computerized system which, by the way, also works to smooth out the transitions in power delivery.

But the test Civic Hybrid still exhibited a bit of a roughness now and then — almost like a car that’s ready to stall.

The sensation of a firmer, more well-put-together Civic came from the new front-wheel-drive platform.

The Civic Hybrid test car felt tighter in its handling, and while it wasn’t too rough or sporty, I did feel jolts when I drove over potholes. Impressively, the ride was quite quiet, with both road and wind noise muted.

Higher-tech dashboard
All Civic interiors now feature a more high-tech dashboard where the gauges in front of the driver are split between a curved arrangement up near the windshield and a lower group located in the traditional spot behind the steering wheel.

Honda officials said the effect is a pseudo head-up display, like that found on some more-expensive, sporty cars where pertinent driver information, such as speed, is projected onto the lower part of the windshield so drivers don’t have to divert their eyes from the road.

But in the Civic, this arrangement, combined with a compact steering wheel, contributed to my initial reaction that I was in front of a video game, rather than driving a car. The sensation passed as I spent more time in the driver’s seat.

Safety enhancements in the Civic include standard frontal airbags and side-mounted airbags for the front-seat passengers as well as side curtain airbags to protect front- and rear-seat passengers during a side crash.

This is also the first Civic Hybrid with standard active head restraints — in the two front seats — designed to help minimize whiplash injuries during a rear-end collision.

At least three more hybrid cars are planned for 2006. Toyota introduces its first hybrid version of the Camry, Lexus debuts the nation’s first luxury hybrid car, the GS 450h, and Nissan will unveil a hybrid version of its Altima sedan.

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