Civic Vs. Prius: Compact Hybrid Comparison

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Popularity can grow, and it can fade. Hybrid (gasoline/electric) cars saw gradual but steady escalation in the early years of the 21st century, but interest began to slip a bit in the second half of the decade. Suddenly, triggered by skyrocketing gasoline prices in 2007, and even more so in 2008, hybrids began to practically fly off dealer lots. Gas-guzzling SUVs could barely be given away, but small, fuel-efficient automobiles quickly became the superstars of the sales race.

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Small Hybrid Sedans

By mid-2008, frugal hybrid models were getting hard to find at dealerships. Honda and Toyota saw heightened interest in their small hybrid sedans, but the production lines couldn't keep up with demand. Motorists clamoring for thrifty vehicles have been paying full sticker price and beyond. In the used car market, too, compact cars that sipped fuel became hot items at hefty prices, while trucks were shrinking in value like ice cubes on a hot summer day.

Hybrid powertrains debuted as the 21st century began, in small cars: the two-passenger Honda Insight and the compact Toyota Prius sedan. Both vehicles were uniquely hybrid, offered only with a gasoline/electric powertrain. In 2003, Honda unveiled a compact Civic Hybrid sedan, taking an existing model and giving it the option of a hybrid powertrain. One year later, Toyota redesigned its Prius to midsize dimensions (as measured by passenger space).

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In each hybrid automobile, a gasoline engine works in concert with an electric motor/generator. Computer control switches between the two power sources as needed. Depending on the model and driving conditions, a hybrid car might run on battery power alone, the gasoline engine alone, or most often, both together.

While the car is slowing down, regenerative braking captures energy from the powertrain to recharge the batteries. Nothing ever needs to be plugged in-though many engineers have been working on plug-in hybrids, which are expected to reach dealerships before long.

Only Two Competitors

Several midsize sedans come in hybrid form. So do a number of SUVs. In the smaller-car field, only two models compete for attention: the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Toyota Prius. Honda's is a gasoline/electric variant of a model that's also sold with a conventional gasoline engine. Toyota's Prius is strictly a hybrid, with no gasoline equivalent.

Not much changed for the 2008 season with either hybrid, except that a lower-priced Standard model joined the Prius lineup. Nothing of consequence is expected to change for the 2009 model year.

Like gasoline-engine Civics, the Civic Hybrid is considered a compact sedan. Though its dimensions are similar, the Toyota Prius ranks as a midsize hatchback in the view of the Environmental Protection (EPA), which ranks cars according to passenger volume. Built on a 106.3-inch wheelbase, the Civic Hybrid is 176.7 inches long overall. Toyota's Prius has the same wheelbase, but is 1.7 inches shorter overall.

Engines, Transmissions, and Mileage

Each hybrid sedan comes only with front-wheel drive. In both, a four-cylinder engine runs on regular-grade gasoline, mating with an electric motor/generator. Both models use a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

In the Civic Hybrid, the 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine, working with a 20-hp electric motor, develops 110 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque. Under the Prius hood, a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 76 hp and 82 pound-feet, coupled with the electric motor, generates 110 total horsepower.

Fuel economy is the main attraction of both models, though their reduced emissions also appeal to environmental-conscious buyers. According to EPA estimates, the Civic Hybrid is rated at 40 mpg in city driving and 45 mpg on the highway (42 mpg combined). Toyota's Prius gets an EPA estimate of 48 mpg for city driving and 45 mpg on the highway (46 mpg combined).

The difference in city-driving estimates may be attributed at least in part to the fact that the Prius is able to pull away from a stop on battery power alone (if accelerated gently). As soon as you let up on the brake and touch the gas pedal of a Civic Hybrid, its gasoline engine starts. Honda's Integrated Motor Assist system can deactivate all four cylinders and shut the gas engine off while cruising at "steady-state" speed, but only under certain conditions.

Calculated at $4.10 per gallon, the EPA estimates average annual fuel cost at $1,464 for the Honda Civic Hybrid and $1,335 for the Toyota Prius. With either model, matching the EPA estimates demands a gentle foot and ideal conditions.

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Interior Comfort Comparison

Though modest in exterior dimensions, both sedans can seat five passengers (though four will be more comfortable). Interior dimensions are nearly identical, except for rear-seat legroom, where the Prius offers an additional four inches. Cargo volume is 14.4 cubic feet with the Prius and 10.4 cubic feet for the Civic Hybrid.

Both models are roomy enough up front, though Prius seat bottoms are rather short. Prius leads in backseat space; but the center position is the usual hard, high perch that puts the occupant's head near the roof.

Civic Hybrid seats are comfortable and supportive enough, with ample space and snugger-than-expected bolstering. Views are fine all around, and the navigation screen (if installed) is small but sufficiently high.

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Visibility is a bit of an issue with the Prius, because of the horizontal bar that crosses the back window and blocks a slim portion of the rearward view. Thick Prius windshield pillars can impede frontal views, but large mirrors are helpful.

In the Civic Hybrid, a large tachometer sits ahead of the driver, with Battery Charge indicators to its left. Above the tachometer is a big, easy to read digital speedometer, plus a bar-type fuel gauge and MPG indicator (which is not so easy to read). Unless you pay extra for an information screen, which includes a working diagram of how the hybrid powertrain is functioning, Toyota's Prius displays little evidence of its gasoline/electric configuration. In fact, you can barely tell when the gas engine is running. Toyota's information screen, if operative, is in the center of the dashboard. The high-mounted digital (green) speedometer is especially easy to read, but the electronic gearshift demands a bit of familiarization.

Safety and Star Ratings

Both models have standard antilock braking and a complement of six airbags: frontal-impact, front seat-mounted side-impact, and side-curtain type. A stability-enhancement system is available for the Prius, which has standard traction control. Both incorporate Brake Assist for enhanced reaction in an emergency stop.

Neither model has achieved the ideal five-star crash-test ratings all around, for both frontal and side impacts, from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Instead, the Civic Hybrid gets dual five-star ratings for frontal impacts and a four-/five-star score for side impacts. Toyota's Prius gets twin four-star ratings for frontal impacts and a five-/four-star rating for side impacts. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has given both the Honda Civic and Toyota Prius "Good" ratings for both frontal offset and side impacts.

Trim Levels

Honda's Hybrid model comes in a single trim level, though a version with a navigation system and satellite radio is offered. Civic Hybrids are equipped with power locks/windows, remote entry, automatic climate control, mirror-mounted turn signals, a rear spoiler, and 15-inch tires on alloy wheels. Unlike other Civics, the Hybrid lacks a split-folding rear seat, sunroof, and rear disc brakes.

Toyota offers three versions of its Prius. Basic Prius equipment includes automatic climate control, power locks/windows/mirrors, and remote entry. The "Base" model adds cruise control, heated power mirrors, and a cargo cover. The Prius Touring includes xenon high-intensity-discharge headlamps, foglamps, a sport suspension, and 16-inch tires rather than the usual 15s.

Honda and Toyota hybrids can provide navigation assistance as an extra-cost option. Honda offers no other factory options, but the Prius can by augmented by several option groups.

Driving and Performance

Both hybrid models operate on a combination of gasoline and electric power, but they do so in different ways. With the Prius, if you start off from a stop by pushing gently on the gas pedal, and conditions are right, the car will start rolling on battery power alone. Somewhere past 20 mph, or if you push harder on the accelerator, the gasoline engine starts up. You feel the engine fire, but it does so promptly, with a gentle nudge of the starter motor.

With both models, when you slow down, regenerative braking comes into play, using the electric motor as a generator to charge the battery pack as the vehicle comes to a halt. At that point, provided the engine is fully warmed up, the gasoline engine usually stops for the duration of the idling period. Starting up a cold Prius is something of a ritual.

Honda's engine, in contrast, fires as soon as you let up on the brake and touch the gas pedal. Therefore, the Civic Hybrid will not start off on battery power alone. Honda says the gas engine will shut off under certain "steady state" cruising conditions, but don't expect that to happen often. Sometimes, the Civic's engine comes to life with an annoying thump.

On the whole, the Civic Hybrid rides and handles like other Civics-perhaps a tad rougher at times. Neither model has any sporty pretensions, but they drive easily and maneuver effectively. Although the Prius suspension seems reasonably compliant, there's a feeling of lack of springiness.

Each model is very quiet. The occasional thump when a Civic Hybrid's engine starts is felt rather than heard. Though short of spirited, the Civic Hybrid performs more than adequately for ordinary driving. Prius acceleration is even more stirring than expected. Though the Prius doesn't feel like it's increasing speed fast to pass or merge, it is, with ultra-smoothness and little sound. Takeoffs from a standstill also are more energetic than conventional wisdom dictates.

Pricing

Even before the recent burst of interest in hybrids, a price penalty had to be paid when selecting a gasoline/electric model. Hybrids tend to be well equipped, so they should not necessarily be compared with the least costly gasoline equivalent. Toyota, of course, has no gas-engine equivalent for its Prius.

Honda's 2008 Civic Hybrid has a Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) of $23,235 (including destination charge), which is more than $3,000 higher than a regular Civic EX sedan with an automatic transmission. An additional $1,750 buys the navigation system and satellite radio. In Standard trim, Toyota's Prius stickers for $21,610. The Base version goes for $22,985, while the Touring model commands $23,880.

Until 2007, the federal government offered tax credits to buyers of a Prius or Civic Hybrid. But because those credits were based on sales, they were phased out when too many of these thrifty hybrids had been sold.

About the Author

James M. Flammang is an auto journalist and author, and the editor of Tirekicking Today (www.tirekick.com).

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