(First posted 12/29/2013) The burned van had been towed away, the rental car was costing money, and we were about to move halfway across the country but needed a second car beyond the Tahoe and were not ready to commit to a new car payment. As luck would have it my wife’s friend Erin called and said she was moving away with her FBI husband…
Normally not a big deal but they were moving to Saipan (who knew the FBI maintained operations well away from the 50 states, I had no idea) and hence needed to liquidate many if not most of their belongings including her car. Her husband had a government issued Crown Vic which would just get reassigned but she was having trouble selling her car, maybe we wanted it?
Normally selling a Honda, let alone a Hybrid, would be a non-issue in the San Francisco area, however she had rear-ended someone on the freeway several months back and had it repaired but the resulting CarFax Scarlet Letter doomed any chance of selling it privately due to the magic words “airbag deployment”. People would call, she would explain, they would say no thanks without even looking.
She was at the point where she had been going to dealers to get their offers, the most recent of which was a mere $9,000 from the local Toyota dealer and which she was planning on taking if I was not interested. So I took a close look. Apparently traffic had stopped in front of her on the freeway and she hit the rear of another car which deployed the steering wheel airbag and damaged the front.
Looking at it everything looked perfect. The paint matched, the panel gaps were good and the VIN stickers on the hood and both fenders were original. So it looked like the bumper cover, airbag, and probably the bumper internals had been replaced. She had all the receipts but looking at it, it seemed perfect.
I drove it around the block and figured this would do especially at the bargain price. I offered her $500 more than the Toyota dealer and signed the paperwork later that evening. Done deal, not bad for a car that stickered for $23,200 just a couple of years earlier and had less than 30,000 miles on it.
I was mindful of the fact that I had relatively recently sold a Civic that was very similar to this one because I was kind of bored of it, but also appreciated its virtues and knew it would be a fine car. I was also interested in living with a Hybrid, having never done so beforehand. I figured this would not be a long-term relationship but more of a somewhat extended test drive (which of course pretty much describes many of my cars if I am being honest).
So what is different between this and the normal Civic? Well, first of all the color and the interior. The exterior color was called Magnetic Pearl, which to me always looked like a dark blue or blued steel color but to others looked more charcoal. Inside however was composed of a mix of Blue and a Creamy Gray color, a very different and distinctive combination that was welcome by dint of not being just overall gray or beige. Neither the outside nor the inside colors were available on non-Hybrid Civic’s.
The exterior of the Hybrid Civic also wears different wheels that are smaller (15”) and look more “aero” than the standard versions, the front bumper is shaped slightly different and the trunk lid sports a small spoiler that apparently smooths airflow a bit more. In addition, there are supplemental turn signals in the mirrors and the antenna is a small one at the rear of the roof.
The most notable things on the inside besides the colors are the fact that the rear seats no longer fold and that the trunk space is smaller due to the battery pack. Also, every accessory that could be power assisted IS power assisted with the exception of the hand brake which still hit my knee constantly and was no less irritating in this car than in my prior Civic. The inside trim/options conform generally to the “EX” version of the regular Civic except there is no sunroof, presumably to keep weight down. Fine by me, I appreciated the extra headroom.
The power is supplied by a 1.3 liter 4-cylinder engine augmented by an electric motor that is located between the engine and the continuously variable transmission (CVT). Unlike the Prius for example, the Honda is not able to ever run on battery power alone, the engine is always engaged when moving. The battery charge meter is an extra bar graph that quickly became my primary focus when driving in much the way that the MPG readout on my old VW GTI’s trip computer became utterly addictive.
For the first couple of months I mainly drove it to and from work. The car worked well, almost the same as a regular Civic. Quiet, smooth, economical with one big difference. It had stop/start technology. You’d stop at a light and after a couple of seconds the engine would shut down. Let off the brake and it would spring to life before you had time to move your foot over to the accelerator. Nowadays I read comments on other sites re: stop/start since other makers are implementing it and can immediately tell when someone has never used it.
It is a seamless technology that makes perfect sense to save fuel. That being said, I was in a friend’s new BMW recently that has it as well and it was nowhere near as smooth. His car vibrated significantly more than my Honda did during the start and even when the engine came to a stop. Try it before you knock it but give several systems a chance, they are not all the same, this one was totally livable and completely on target as far as the car’s mission was concerned.
I also realized that you could “game” the average mpg quite a bit depending on driving style. With a very light foot it would “upshift” rapidly (I know it’s a CVT and does not really shift but I guess it stops running at its peak power output rpm). However, once cruising, if you quickly lifted off the gas entirely and then v-e-r-y gingerly stepped back on to it to the same position you were at before, it would go into a leaner-burn mode and/or shut down a couple of cylinders and you would get a lot better mileage according to the gauge at least.
I learned about this by reading up on the Hybrid forums and it did seem to work, but do not think it is something the average driver would realize or do. I also think this contributed to the relative failure of this car in the market and had to do with a class-action lawsuit against Honda (along with some other factors, admittedly). The chart above does a good job of showing how and when the electric motor kicks in to help and when the engine turns cylinders off and when it regenerates. However the way you drive it does seem to affect how it changes between the parameters.
Anyway, going to work down my hill I would see the battery bars regenerate themselves when coasting and applying the brakes. Conversely, heavy throttle as I would use heading back up the hill after work would see the battery bars rapidly depleting themselves. Just driving normally in stop and go or on a freeway etc. would result in the battery generally remaining in the upper 2/3rds of its charge range.
Last week’s article contained a bit about moving our Tahoe to Colorado. It soon became time to do the same with this Civic. I loaded up the trunk, put the dog in the backseat and loaded more stuff in the passenger seat. Knowing how the battery depleted itself on my trips up the hill back home, I was ready to see how the car would handle the trip. Well, the Sierra Nevadas went pretty well, likely helped by the fact that driving up them from the west it is rare that you just keep going up for miles on end.
We’d go up a mile, then head a bit back downhill and pick up speed, then more up etc. On the occasions that the battery would be depleted you would realize that a 1.3liter naturally aspirated engine is no longer sufficient to power a modern car. But it was not horrible. Not great, but not horrible.
On the long stretch across Nevada and then the first part of Utah it would easily cruise at 80+ all day long. The dog was happy in the back, I was fine in the front. After Salt Lake City if you want to head East you need to remain on I-80 up the mountains to Park City. This is a very steep, very constant grade with virtually no relief until you reach the top. After the first mile the battery was depleted and the car started to slow down.
The CVT had it running at its peak power point, I had the throttle pinned, but slowly I was slowing down. At its slowest I was down to almost 25mph in the far right truck lane and big rigs were passing me for the last couple of miles. I don’t know if a Prius would be any better, probably not, but if I had a mountain commute or regularly had to go up and down one, I would not be buying a hybrid of any sort as it was miserable.
Eventually I made it to our new home in northern Colorado and the final trip average worked out to 44mpg. Not bad at all, but really not that much better than a normal Civic could do.
In our new home it was fine. I was curious how it would do in the snow and ice and the answer was not bad. When it is really cold out the start/stop does not operate in order to allow the heater to work properly, this does have some effect on overall economy obviously.
I also had to replace two tires (the previous owner had replaced the other two already), I was able to find the same brand/size online and had them shipped to me. Tires are very important on a hybrid, if you don’t get the proper low-rolling-resistance ones you will feel it in the fuel economy department very quickly.
Reliability-wise it was perfect. Nothing was wrong with it and nothing went wrong. The Honda dealer serviced it for oil changes only (4th change free and $25 each with the coupon that included a wash and free fresh Otis Spunkmeyer cookies while waiting, can’t beat that). Many people still seem to think that you will need to replace the battery pack at frequent intervals at great expense.
Two things: 1) There is a vibrant second-hand and reconditioning market for hybrid car batteries and 2) The batteries are warrantied significantly longer than the rest of the car since they are considered part of the emissions system. This means that in most states they receive an 8year/80,000 mile warranty and in CA, CT, MA, ME, NY and VT they receive a 10year/150,000 mile warranty.
Battery failure is not common and there should be no fear of having to replace them every couple of years even though you can still find people who will yammer on about this being a “requirement”. Interestingly though, if you buy the car in CA for example, while you live in CA you are covered under the 10/150k warranty but if you move to another state (besides the six listed above) then you are only covered under the 8/80k warranty. I assume it works the other way as well.
Knowing it was temporary transportation made it an easy decision to eventually replace it. I ended up shopping it around when looking for a replacement, the first dealer that had what we wanted that I took it to offered me the same $9500 I paid for it based on the accident history. At the next dealer I also found something we wanted, decided what a fair price for it was (to me), told the dealer straight up what the problem was with the car. I stated what I was willing to pay for their car, made it clear that I wanted $12,500 for the trade-in, and that he had ten minutes to decide and then I would head off towards the next dealer. No playing games.
He showed it to his used car manager and within five minutes we had a deal. I have no idea if they made a killing or not and don’t care but I was pleased and that is what matters. At that time it had about 44,000 miles on it. As I said it was a fine car but hard to find much to be passionate about, it really was a lot like a reliable electric appliance (which is perfect for a lot of people and pretty much the whole point of the car I suppose, and from that perspective it was absolutely stellar).
As an added bonus, since there had been a class-action lawsuit regarding the fuel mileage and how the battery recharged itself (Honda had apparently changed the algorithm with a software update that was irreversible and involuntary on behalf of the owners and was implemented during routine service visits in order to make the battery packs last even longer) I received a check for $200 several months after trading it in. I had been under the impression that only the original owners were eligible for this so this was completely unexpected and very welcome.