My Civic Hybrid Experience!
By Christopher Todd
Baltimore, MD 21211
I bought my Honda Civic Hybrid in July 2002. It was one of the first 2003 Civic
Hybrids sold in Maryland. Back then, some of my coworkers thought I was crazy –
After all, gasoline was only $1.29/gallon back then. But that was before “Operation
Iraqi Liberation” (or OIL War for short.) Now that gasoline is close to $2.50/gallon
(but has recently been as high as $4.00), no one’s laughing anymore.
The early nay-sayers described the car technology as “unsafe” and “unreliable”.
Personally, I’ve never seen a hybrid on the side of the road in a broken-down
condition. People don’t get electrocuted from hybrids either. In truth, my Civic
Hybrid has been the best car I’ve ever owned. They don’t cost more to insure, and
only cost marginally more to maintain (chiefly due to the obscure grade of motor oil it
Current Stats and Repair Summary
Type: 1st generation IMA connected with a 1.3L i4 gasoline engine.
Fuel Economy when New: 48 MPG
Fuel Economy at 70,000 miles: 45 MPG
Fuel Economy at 90,000 miles: 44.5 MPG
Current Mileage at 115,000: 38.0 MPG
Age: 4.5 years
Total Emergency Repairs Required: 1
Total Recalls: 1
Total Warranty Repairs: 3
Total Paid-for Repairs: 1
Total cost of non-ordinary repairs 1: $80
IMA Battery capacity @ 70,000 miles: 96%
IMA Battery capacity @ 90,000 miles: 92%
Highest Fuel Economy Ever Observed: 69 MPG*
Lowest Fuel Economy Ever Observed: 36 MPG**
Repairs Required over 115,000 miles
I can say with certainty that this has been the most trouble-free vehicle I’ve ever
owned. To date, it’s only needed one emergency repair, and four other non-
50,000 miles: The catalytic converter bit the dust. This was covered under warranty.
It didn’t keep the car from being operational. I was alerted to the problem by the
“check engine” indicator.
65,000 miles: A software glitch caused the IMA to shut down, leaving the vehicle
propelled solely by the gasoline engine. The car was still somewhat drivable under
this condition – it just wasn’t very fast. The repair only required a new software
installation, and my car was running again in under an hour.
70,000 miles: A recall was issued to HCH owners by Honda. This wasn’t actually a
repair, however. Honda developed a more efficient software program to run the IMA,
and the company wanted existing HCH owners to have it. Just for kicks, I had the
shop do a load test on the IMA. The batteries were still delivering charge at 96% of
81,000 miles: The locking assembly on the driver’s side door became defective. It’s
still possible to open the car with the push-button door opener. This, too, was covered
90,000 miles: No repairs at this mileage, but I did do the 90k service and got the IMA
batteries tested. They still retained 92% of original capacity.
95,000 miles: The catalytic converter failed again. Honda paid to replace this unit. My
car was in the shop only a few hours. During diagnostics, the technicians discovered
that the 12v starter battery was dead. This is the little battery, not the huge IMA
hybrid battery. I paid the $80 to replace it. I suppose it lasted only 3.5 years because it
never actually gets used. Later that day, I bought new tires for the car and got a front-
end alignment. This procedure boosted my mileage back up to 45 MPG. I don’t
consider the tires/alignment a “repair” since tires do wear out no matter what car you
108,000 miles: I did a lot of standard maintenance. I replaced two tires, replaced the
brake pads (for the first time ever), changed the oil and transmission fluid, and got the
wheels, rebalanced. The car seems to be riding a lot more smoothly now.
109,000 Miles: A sensor failure has made the check engine light turn on. I had the car
diagnosed and there is nothing mechanically wrong with the car. The car alarm seems
to not turn on when it is very cold outside. I purchased a new stereo! It does MP3 and
iPod! The batteries are probably beginning to degrade. The IMA did a full
115,000 Miles: The IMA batteries are definitely on their way down. Of course, they
have a service life of about 150K, so this is no shock. The IMA rarely shows a charge
above 70% anymore and the charge drains much more quickly when the motor is
assisting the engine. Also, the auto-stop feature rarely engages anymore. This is not
the end of the world, however since a Civic Hybrid will basically function like a
regular 4-Cylinder Civic if the IMA battery is weak.
Summary: Five repairs over a four year span is pretty good. The sole
“recall” is only marginally classifiable as a repair, in my humble opinion
since it consisted of a software update and not a mechanical repair.
Hybrid Maintenance Differences
Contrary to popular myth, the IMA batteries are designed to outlast the car. The
battery array on a HCH costs about $1,700 to replace, but it’s unlikely that any Civic
Hybrid owner would ever have to replace them. A set of hybrid batteries should last at
least 150,000 miles (possibly as much as 210,000 miles).
The brake pads last a really long time because they aren’t actually engaged that often
for stopping the car. The regenerative braking system captures kinetic energy for
conversion into electricity. The brake/rotor/disc system is engaged primarily for
emergency stopping when full brake pressure is exerted. For ordinary stops, the brake
pads are used only sparingly. My first set listed over 100,000 miles.
The only reason why Jiffy-Lube doesn’t do oil changes on hybrids is that they don’t
stock the oddball grade of oil these cars take. This will probably change as hybrids
become more commonplace.
The 30-60-90k maintenance programs take longer to execute because the hybrid
design is more complicated. However, I’ve never found a Honda dealer that couldn’t
service my Civic Hybrid. Until hybrids become more commonplace, I’d stick to the
dealers for routine maintenance.
Hybrids cost a little more to maintain. This is mostly due to the cost of the odd oil it
uses. However, I’m pretty sure that not having to get new brakes for 100,000 miles
has mostly offset the increased cost of ordinary maintenance.
Hybrids are outfitted with stiffer tires than standard vehicles, and the tires are inflated
at a higher pressure. The side effect is that the tires actually last longer. Higher tire
pressure also reduces pavement friction, which equates to a slightly higher fuel
economy. I’ve replaced the front tires twice in 108,000 miles.
Current-era hybrids don’t have to be plugged in to charge. Instead, the IMA draws
electricity from captured kinetic energy from braking, decelerating, and from excess
capacity from the car’s generator. Future hybrids (like the Chevy Volt Concept) may
have the option to be plugged in, however.
The batteries do not need to be replaced. Generally, the IMA battery pack should
outlast the vehicle. In any event, the IMA batteries have an eight year warranty. They
cost about $1,700 to replace – not the $10,000 that nay-sayers have claimed.
However, it’s unlikely that the units will ever have to be replaced during the vehicle’s
service life. For example, the IMA batteries in my car were still functioning at 92%
capacity after 90,000 miles and my car did not begin to lose significant fuel economy
until 110,000 miles.
The Hybrid Ride
I didn’t exactly buy this car for speed. I was, however, pleasantly surprised that it was
reasonably powerful (for it’s class of vehicle, at least.) It has more pep than the car it
replaced (a Toyota Echo). It’s got enough power that it doesn’t impact driving
performance if I run the AC (the Toyota Echo lost about a third of its power when
running the air conditioning.)
The car is extremely quiet. At normal highway speed (55-65 MPH), you can barely
hear any engine noise at all. Because the engine shuts off at traffic lights and stop
signs, the car is absolutely silent in standby mode. It’s eerily quiet.
Because the car’s body is basically a standard 4-door Civic body, it’s roomy enough
for anyone 5’10” or shorter (I’m 5’10”; if I was much taller, the car would be a little
too small for me.) I’m told that the Toyota Prius II is roomier. When I bought my car,
however, the Toyota Prius I was basically a hybridized Toyota Echo.
The suspension is reasonably stiff. I can take the i83 “concrete roller coaster” at about
75 MPH without losing control of the vehicle. The car also can stop on a dime and
give 9 cents change.
When I bought my HCH, there was only one configuration. But the configuration
came with everything: AC, power windows, power door locks, power steering, power
mirrors, remote trunk release, arrestor alarm system, antilock brakes, CD player, map
lights, and cloth interior. So… it was at least a pretty darned good configuration!
Newer hybrids (such as the Prius-Il) have many options.
I’ve come close to depleting the battery while driving. You have to drive in some
pretty mountainous areas in Pennsylvania to really tax the IMA. I’ve driven it down to
10% charge, but I’ve never drained it all the way to zero. Even if I did, the worst thing
that would happen is that the car’s thrust would fractionally decrease until the IMA
could recapture additional charge from braking or from the engine’s generator.
This car is not a “plug-in” hybrid. The battery charge for the IMA comes from three
sources – regenerative braking, deceleration, and the engine’s generator. When I hit
the brakes, the car creates electrical charge by converting kinetic energy into electrical
energy. Likewise, the transmission captures kinetic energy when decelerating and
turns that energy into electricity. The car also pulls excess charge from the generator
to recharge the IMA. Thus, HCH owners don’t have to plug their cars in at night. It
drives just like a regular gasoline-only car except it gets about 30-40% better fuel
economy! What would be better?
There are a few things that will screw up its fuel economy, however. Running the AC
at maximum power for long periods of time will drop the fuel economy to the 40-42
MPG range. But then, running the air conditioner affects the fuel economy on all cars.
Driving at 75 MPH or higher will also reduce the fuel efficiency. But then, the speed
limit in most states is 65, right? Most people by hybrids for fuel economy and to
reduce pollution -- not blow the doors off other cars.
It’s important to understand that the EPA fuel economy ratings are for “best case”
conditions: 55 MPH, no AC, temperate climate, low humidity, flat terrain and gentle
acceleration. If all of these conditions are met, my car will get 48 MPH. But it’s rare
that I get perfect driving conditions. Hybrid foes often criticize the hybrid cars’
general inability to attain the EPA mileage while not mentioning the fact that most
conventional cars also get 10%-20% less than the EPA estimate.
Reasons NOT to buy a Hybrid
My review wouldn’t be complete without citing the fact that hybrids aren’t for
everybody. While they are probably great cars for 60-70% of the population, there are
reasons not to buy one:
• You don’t drive much. If you drive less than 8,000 miles per year, it doesn’t
really matter what car you drive, since the vehicle isn’t making much
environmental impact or using much fuel. On the bright side, low mileage
trade-ins are worth big bucks!
• You need to tow/haul heavy things. Right now, the biggest hybrid is the
Toyota Highlander (a midsize SUV). GM, however, is planning on making
some heavy-duty hybrid work trucks sometime in 2008. These big v8’s will
run like a four-cylinder when it’s hauling nothing and then automatically scale
up to v8 when the power is needed. It will also feature auto-stop in order to
save gas in stop-and-go traffic. But for right now, there aren’t any heavy-duty
• You only care about saving money on gas. While you can break even on the
cost difference between a hybrid and its conventional counterpart, you have to
drive the car a lot. The break-even is in the 75,000-100,000 mile range. If
you’re a real road warrior, you’ll definitely hit that mark. When buying a
hybrid, you have to see the big picture: they pollute a lot less than a standard
car, and you’re giving less money to Middle East terrorists.
Of course, no car is perfect. I’ve got a few (but not many) pet peeves. Some of these
problems have been corrected in the 2nd generation hybrids (Prius II, HCH 2006, and
Ford Escape Hybrid.)
Floor mats: OK, this is a minor detail, but the floor mat on the driver’s side had a
hole worn through it after only 10,000 miles. Gimme a break!
CD/Stereo: For a $20k car, it really should have had a better stereo. While the radio
gets good reception, and the CD rarely skips, I’d enjoy it much more if the speakers
were more powerful and if the CD player could access songs in MP3 format. (Note: I
finally got around to actually getting a decent Stereo).
AC Autostop: When the car is in standby mode, the AC stops running (this has been
remedied in the 2nd generation hybrids).
No “stealth” mode: The 1st generation hybrids can’t propel the car by battery alone.
The IMA assists the engine, not the other way around. The 2nd generation hybrids can
propel the car solely on battery at low speeds (20-30 MPH). Thus, for driving around
the neighborhood, a 2nd generation hybrid actually doesn’t require any fuel for brief
distances (about one mile.)
Overall, I’d give my car a satisfaction rating of 9 out of 10. The 2003 Civic Hybrid is
a 1st generation hybrid (also called a “mild” hybrid.) Within that definition, it
performs its job superbly. I’ve driven enough miles on the car that I’ve broken even
on the price difference between the standard and hybrid Civic. The trade-in values on
hybrids are unbelievably high since these cars are in such high demand. My 1st
generation hybrid performs well enough that I’ll never own another non-hybrid car.
I’m already sold on the 2nd generation hybrids (currently: Prius II, HCH’06, and Ford
Escape Hybrid.) I like smaller cars, so I doubt I’d get a hybrid SUV.
So… what’s a 2nd generation hybrid? These are cars that can operate solely on battery
at low speeds, and then switch to gasoline for highway speeds. Even at 45+ MPH, the
battery array still helps accelerate the car. After all, a conventional gasoline engine
uses the most fuel when accelerating from a stop and when performing an emergency
acceleration. It also wastes fuel when idling or in stop-and-go traffic. The 2nd
generation hybrids effectively address both situations admirably. A 2nd generation
hybrid is also called a “full” hybrid.
What I’m really looking forward to is the 3rd generation of hybrids. Also called “plug-
in” hybrids, these vehicles will have very large battery arrays (most likely using
lithium ion cells, not nickel metal-hydride.) A plug-in hybrid can be plugged in
overnight to be recharged – but it doesn’t have to be. If plugged in overnight, the 3rd
generation hybrids could get as high as 250 MPG over short distances (40-60 miles)
before switching back to 2nd generation hybrid mode (typically 45-60 MPG). Thus, if
some driver has a relatively short drive to work (say, 10-30 miles one-way), that
person would probably have to fill up only once three months!
There have been a few documented cases where independent engineers have modified
a Prius II with additional battery reserves in order to turn it into a rudimentary 3rd
generation hybrid. Some of these cars have gotten 100-150 MPG (see
www.greenhybrid.com) using NiMH cells. There is also a documented case of a Prius
II being augmented with solar cells. That configuration yielded 75 MPG.
I really look forward to the day when the Middle East is bankrupt and the terrorists
are penniless. It won’t happen overnight, but it could happen. Developing cars that get
150+ MPG will be the way this happens.
Types of Hybrid Systems:
IMA: Integrated Motor Assist. This system is used by Honda on the Civic and
Accord hybrids. It was originally deployed in the Honda Insight, a small 2-passenger
car that got over 65 MPG. IMA is a “Mild” hybrid system because the engine cannot
disconnect from the transmission in order to allow the electric motor to push the car
by itself. It is, however, the best mild hybrid system around.
HSD: Hybrid Synergy Drive. This system is used by Toyota (Ford also uses a
technologically similar system). This is a “full” hybrid system because the Car can be
propelled by the electric motor alone, the gasoline engine alone, or both at the same
time. The Toyota Pius, Toyota Highlander, Ford Escape, and Nissan Altima use this
architecture. Several Lexus models also use HSD. But unlike the Toyota hybrids,
Lexus hybrids are engineered to boost acceleration, not gas mileage.
FAS: Flywheel Alternator Starter. This is something of a “special purpose” hybrid.
Instead of using electrical energy to push the vehicle, FAS essentially turns the
vehical into a 14 Kw mobile power plant. It supports four standard 110v outlets. This
System is implemented in the Chevy Silverado pickup truck. FAS is a mild hybrid
BAS: Belt Alternator Starter. This is GM’s “budget” hybrid system. A 32v battery
pack gives the vehicle idle-stop and rudimentary motor-assist. BAS gives a 15-20%
increase in fuel economy. This system is used in the Saturn Vue and may soon be
deployed in the Saturn Aura and Chevy Malibu. This is a mild hybrid system.
2-Mode: This is GM’s heavy-duty hybrid system. Like HSD, 2-Mode is a “full”
hybrid system, but also adds towing capability. 2-Mod2 can operate in a number of
ways: motor only (EV), 4 cylinders only, 4+ motor, 8 cylinders only, and 8+motor.
The first 2-mode trucks should be available in 2008.
E-Flex: This is the prototype propulsion system for the Chevy Volt concept car. The
E-Flex system is an advanced “full” hybrid. The vehicle is propelled solely by
batteries and uses a small gasoline engine to keep the batteries charged. The E-Flex is
also a “plug-in” hybrid, meaning that the batteries can be charged with household
current. When used as a “plug-in” hybrid, an E-Flex vehicle could theoretically travel
40 miles without using any gasoline. The first E-Flex vehicle (Chevy Volt concept)
could be available sometime between 2010 and 2012. The limiting factor for release
would be the mass availability of low-cost, high-quality lithium ion batteries.
Hydrogen Hybrids: These vehicles use a fuel cell stack and a set of batteries to
provide propulsion. Current prototypes include the GM Sequel and the Honda FCX .
The chief advantage of a hydrogen hybrid is that the exhaust is only water vapor. But
many technological hurdles must be overcome before hydrogen hybrids can become
commercially viable. Some of these factors include: lack of a hydrogen refueling
infrastructure; lack of non-leaking hydrogen containment tanks; high fabrication costs
(currently, close to $1 million per vehicle); short life span (30,000 miles). This
technology may not at be ready.
Other Mystery Hybrids: Nissan is developing its own hybrid technology so that it
will not have to pay licensing fees to Toyota for using HSD. Honda is also developing
a new hybrid car from scratch, and it will probably launch around 2009.
Mileage Highs and Lows:
* 69 MPG was observed once while driving a 4 hour day trip to Luray Caverns. I had
the cruise control set to 62 MPH and the terrain was mostly flat. I made no stops, and
I didn’t run the air conditioning. The temperature was about 75, and there was low
humidity. Basically, the driving conditions matched the “perfect” EPA test conditions.
** 36 MPG was observed once while driving in an incredibly hilly terrain in
Pennsylvania. The IMA was drained to 1 bar, and thus could no longer assist the
engine. I also had the AC running because it was 90 degrees outside. I later learned
that the tire pressure was far too low. The fuel economy picked up after I reinflated
the tires at a service station.