The New and Improved Honda Takes on the Undisputed King of Hybrids
By Mike Magrath, Features Editor Published Aug 26, 2011
As an only child, I missed some valuable life lessons. Sharing for example. Group dynamics are confusing, too. And finally, my last character flaw as influenced by my parents' halted procreation, to me compromise is a dirty, dirty word.
But, with each new phase in life, the C-word becomes more prominent. Bless those who can drive their caged Miatas, track-ready BMWs or cherry-bombed Corvettes on a daily basis. For the rest of us, though, a balance must be struck. Rear seats, fuel economy and tolerable in-cabin decibel levels become priorities and all of a sudden, a hybrid starts looking like a good idea.
Two of the best hybrids available right now are the 2011 Toyota Prius and the all-new 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid. They have four doors, reasonable cargo space, affordable prices and big-time fuel economy numbers. Each one has its own compromises, so we set out to find which car we found more tolerable, or maybe even likable.
One Old, One New
The 2011 Toyota Prius is, mechanically, the same car we've seen before. It features a pair of electric motors and a 27 kW nickel-metal hydride battery pack that provides a 36-horsepower shove for the electric half of the equation. A 98-hp 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder represents the conventional internal-combustion half. A planetary-type continuously variable transmission (CVT) figures out how to get the power to the front wheels. It's a respectable system that transitions smoothly between electric and full-blown hybrid mode.
The Honda Civic Hybrid, on the other hand, utilizes a 1.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine and newer 20kW lithium-ion batteries, which have a higher energy density than nickel-metal hydride batteries. The electric motor in the Civic Hybrid is parked between the CVT and the car's conventional engine. This means that any time the motor spins, the engine spins and vice-versa. Honda calls this system IMA for Integrated Motor Assist. Unlike with the Prius, there's no pure electric drive, but there is some engineless coasting available at certain constant speeds. In the Civic, if the engine can be off without ruining the ride quality, it will be off thanks to the car's automatic start/stop functionality and active Eco mode.
Because You Deserve It
There was already enough sacrifice going on in a test of two hybrids, so we skipped over the base model cars ($22,120 for the Prius One and $24,050 for the Honda Civic Hybrid) and went straight to the top. Our 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid with leather and navigation carried a sticker price of $27,500, which includes heated leather seats, navigation, Bluetooth, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, 15-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls.
The top tier of Priusdom is the Prius Five. (Do not confuse this with the Prius V.) For the privilege of being the most pampered, you get to shell out $29,080. And that's before options. We'd skip the $5,080 Advanced Technology package seen here (nav, dynamic cruise, pre-collision, advanced parking system, lane keeping assist) and opt for the $2,380 nav system instead. That move would lower the Prius from our MSRP of $34,719 to a more reasonable $32,489.
With all of this trimming, it's easy to forget that these cars start out as relatively inexpensive compacts. But beyond the leather, beyond the multimedia information screens and beyond the atypical powertrains, the way these cars drive makes you forget their natural station in life.
On the Road
With a steeply raked windscreen, thin pillars and a low dash afforded by the centrally mounted everything, the Prius feels twice as big as it is — in a good way. There's no small-car intimidation factor. Perhaps this explains the way Prius drivers try to own the road.
The ride, too, mimics that of a large car, with minimal noise and harshness and a tendency to rebound a fairly impressive sine wave after severe impacts. And, like any decent large car, the Prius' steering and brakes are unobtrusive to the point of being annoying. The steering is weightier than that of previous Prii, but this is a result of reprogrammed steering electrons and not a revised, improved connection to the wheels.
On the Road
With a steeply raked windscreen, thin pillars and a low dash afforded by the centrally mounted everything, the Prius feels twice as big as it is — in a good way. There's no small-car intimidation factor. Perhaps this explains the way Prius drivers try to own the road. The ride, too, mimics that of a large car, with minimal noise and harshness and a tendency to rebound a fairly impressive sine wave after severe impacts. And, like any decent large car, the Prius' steering and brakes are unobtrusive to the point of being annoying. The steering is weightier than that of previous Prii, but this is a result of reprogrammed steering electrons and not a revised, improved connection to the wheels.
The real surprise in this test was the ride quality of the 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid. It's good enough to ignore the painfully slow 0-30 time and the confused start/stop system that gets behind itself in slow traffic. It's good enough that every editor who had it came back with pretty much the same impression: "Dude, the ride."
It's an enviably good mix of damping and spring rates that results in a ride that isn't floaty or harsh. And despite its compliance over rough pavement, when the road gets bendy, the Civic Hybrid sets firmly without the body roll you'd expect from a hybrid. It is still a Civic after all. You'll never confuse this for a large car ride, yet you'll wonder why everyone talks up those big cars so much anyway.
We've had experiences with light cars where a few hundred pounds of gear really makes for a marked improvement in ride quality, and we think that's what's happening here, as the non-hybrid 2012 Civic wasn't this impressive. As impressive as the ride is, the Civic does suffer from higher levels of in-cabin noise than the Prius. From wind noise to tire noise to the crude stutter of the engine firing back to life, there's little peace found inside the Civic.
Because Driving for Fuel Economy Is Boring
Before we donned our fuel-saving caps and glass-soled shoes, we had one last foray into the world we know best: the test track.
It feels wrong, but throttling the 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid on a closed track actually sounds right. It sounds normal. Like a Honda. Of course, it also comes to a stop like a Honda.
Digging into the pavement from 60 mph, the 2,830-pound Civic managed to stop in a barely-Dodge-Power Wagon-beating 137 feet. Blame rear drums. Blame low-rolling-resistance Bridgestone Ecopia EP20 tires. Blame whom or whatever you want, the effect is a braking system that instills no driver confidence.
If you are presented with enough room to hold down the throttle without having to worry about any sort of emergency stop at the other end, the Civic Hybrid hits 60 in 10.1 seconds (9.7 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and goes on to complete the quarter-mile in 17.5 seconds at 80.1 mph.
The Prius lacked both the Civic's drama in braking and its familiar-if-not-pleasant engine note. Thanks to the slick CVT, the Prius' engine droned for 10.2 seconds when we hit 60 mph (9.8 seconds with rollout) and then for another 17.4 seconds as we ran the quarter-mile at 79.3 mph. When asked to stop from 60, the 3,138-pound Prius dug in and clawed out a perfectly standard 124-foot stop.
Things continued to be a relative tie in our handling tests. Despite the Prius being the poster child of terrible dynamics and the Civic's legacy as the real driver's economy car, the numbers were remarkably similar. The Toyota squealed around our skid pad at 0.79g while the Civic pulled 0.76g. The Toyota finished the slalom averaging 61.2 mph, behind the Civic's 62.8 mph.
And because this is that kind of test, the Honda recorded 20 mpg during track testing and the Prius flattened it with a whopping 24 mpg.
Because Gas Is Expensive
The first thing you should know about this portion of our journey is that we did not do a fuel economy loop. Fuel economy loops are designed to simulate some ideal mix of traffic-free, low-and-medium-speed events with few stops, little incline and a slew of otherwise idealistic environments. They've got as much to do with real-world driving as a strip club does with dating. Sure, it's a neat benchmark, but you can't get disappointed when the real world doesn't quite live up to it.
Could we have squeezed out more — potentially double — the miles per gallon by ignoring the flow of traffic, side-stepping hills and swapping our work schedules to reduce the chance of seeing another car? Sure. But we could do that with our current vehicles. The draw of a hybrid is that you don't have to change your behavior to improve your environmental impact.
So we picked editors with different commutes — heavy city traffic, light off-hours highway traffic and a near 50:50 mix of city and highway — and let them have at it with the charge that they're to drive as if their own dollars are on the line.
So we drove these two hybrids like we owned them and tabulated the results.
In our unstandardized, unstaged, real-world tests, the Toyota Prius fell below its 51 city/48 highway/50 combined EPA mpg estimate. We averaged just 39.8 mpg, with a best tank of 45.8 mpg and a worst tank of 34.9 mpg. The worst tank was a result of a long drive on a very empty freeway.
The Civic is rated by the EPA at 44 mpg. Everywhere. City: 44. Highway: 44. Combined? Yep, you guessed it. 44. And unlike the Prius, we managed to catch a glimpse of the elusive EPA number with one 44.8 mpg trek. Overall, though, we only squeezed 38.8 mpg out of the Civic Hybrid.
A 1 mile-per-gallon difference in the real world? Slight advantage to the Prius.
Because in Every Compromise, There's a LoserWe know why people buy hybrids. Be it carpool stickers or fitting in at the local Starbucks, there's an external motivator in the purchase that no math can dent.
Though it has a slight edge in ride quality, the 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid — with its normal dash, conventional shifter, traditional engine note and Civic-like driving dynamics — is almost too normal. It doesn't look special, it doesn't feel special and the IMA system compromises practicality and drivetrain smoothness. Each time the engine jumps back to life, hooking up to the transmission with the subtleness of a first-time clutch user, the compromises of a mixed drivetrain smack you square in the face.
The 2011 Toyota Prius was designed as a hybrid with a unique, instantly recognizable shape that emphasizes function over form and a drivetrain that channels the flow of power as seamlessly as runoff trickles into the Mississippi.
There are times to rebel, to swim against the school, and then there are times to fall in line. The easier compromise here is the car that makes you forget what real cars are like, that coddles and amuses as it delivers superlative fuel economy. In this case, that would be the Toyota Prius.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.