The first generation Honda Civic Hybrid with a five speed is for the kind of man whose devotion to Popular Mechanics was the end of his first serious relationship. He who attempts to rebuild an automatic transmission in his garage for fun. If you engage strangers at a party in serious talks over the petrological differences between igneous and sedimentary rocks, you’ll be fascinated by the lengths that Honda’s engineers went to in order to ensure the best possible gas mileage in the Civic Hybrid.
Since I occasionally stick my toes into the pool of pedantry, I earnestly appreciate the efforts myself. Every possible exploitation of efficiency has been built into this vehicle, to the point of absurdity. Power is derived from a miniscule 85 horsepower 1.3 four cylinder single cam engine, augmented by a 13 horsepower electric motor, a booster seat which allows it to sit comfortably at the family reunion dinner table that is the US Highway interstate system while returning 50 miles a gallon.
Honda’s LDA engine utilizes two spark plugs for each cylinder, capable of firing independently of one another, which is necessary to completely burn the bison-burger fuel mixture preferred by the ECU. At times, the engine will run an air/fuel ratio of 22:1, so lean one could imagine driving it through Beijing without even filling the tank, simply running on the unburnt hydrocarbons in the atmosphere. Engine stop/start technology is present, when paused at a stoplight it will deactivate, firing up again once your foot is removed from the brake. Braking and coasting contribute charge to the battery packs, and when no throttle input is used, three out of 4 cylinders completely close their valves, eking out a further decrease in consumption. Various aerodynamic improvements are made over the normal Civic, most notably on the lower part of the car and undercarriage, making the car more slippery than Gucci Mane’s tenuous grip on the English language. Hydraulic power steering is replaced with an electric system, to minor chagrin of the spirited driver, with an MPG fragment gained in return. All told, this fanatical devotion to efficiency nets you almost 50 miles to the gallon at highway speed, and low 40s around town, provided you drive like a political science student who needs a boyfriend to remind her when oil changes are due.
But hybrid vehicles have always been chastised for their lack of driving feel. When all of your time is spent trying to figure out how to make an engine run as lean as the staff at a Subway franchise without melting itself, you rather forget about things like steering feel and excitement. Especially when you know your target market is comprised of people who lean towards the steering wheel when driving, for whom the fentanyl-laced voice of Ira Glass meandering across the radio waves is a daily high point. But the Civic does an admirable job of maintaining a decent feel about town, mainly due to the ability to play around with the 5 speed stick. The shifter assembly is now a little vague with age, but has held up better than the most disappointing car I’ve ever driven and the one from a Ford Escort Sport, both of a similar vintage and mileage. Gears are as well defined as rural property lines, no one quite knows exactly where the separation is, but there’s never an argument. If there’s one complaint, it’s ridiculously heavy clutch pedal, which requires as much effort as that of the Corvette C4 I had. The only reasoning I can fathom behind this seemingly contradictory choice is the fitment of a more resilient clutch than necessary, because the Civic is difficult to smoothly get off the line. The stop/start engine is part of the reason for this, but even with the vehicle at idle, decent clutch slip is often required, strange on a car with the added torque of an electric motor.
Once you’re on the move, it drives like a Civic that’s put on a few pounds over the years, but that’s okay. As every middle aged Men’s Health reader knows, there’s some fat you just can’t lose at a certain point. The electric steering doesn’t feel quite as good as the hydraulic system, but if you’re pushing a Civic hard enough to really notice this, it’s not the problem. You are. Where it really falls down is flat out acceleration, mostly due to a 3.6 final drive ratio, tall gearing for a 4 cylinder. With the electric boost, the car never feels dangerously slow, but winding it all the way through second or third gear flat out is uninspiring, and leaves enough time for you to ponder the idiosyncrasy of strip mining, shipping, and refining battery materials to make a “green” car. The manual does allow you to keep the car in it’s powerband, but you can tell that it doesn’t really want to be there, and not just because the dash is telling you to shift up.
So far, it’s just like a less sporty Civic to drive, which is expected. But that’s with the IMA charged. If you do a lot of highway driving in hilly areas, you’d better stay in the right lane. You’ll run the batteries down faster than they can be recharged. All of a sudden you’re driving a Chevette, downshifts beget downshifts until the crest. The other highway related qualm is tires with high rolling resistance. These produce more background droning noise than your girlfriend when you come home from the bar drunk at 3 A.M, when all you can focus on is repeating the last verse of the classic G-Funk hit Regulators while Charles Barkley and John Madden analyze replays of your winning pool shot from behind a tiny Sportscenter desk located near your pituitary gland.
On the inside, it’s completely and totally uninspiring. Honda tried to get all edgy on us with the center stack, like that one time your dad tried to switch to snowboarding. “Oooohhhh look at us, we offset the stereo from the center and moved all the HVAC knobs to the driver’s side! Kids like being different for no reason, asymmetry is in! Looming wealth gap increases, one strap backpacks, pencil grips, nonsensical pop band names, Frank Lloyd Wright!”
Gauges are the only place where this car stands out. Regular Civics came with a boring red/black gauge face, because red=sporty in the mind of some focus group analyst. So he pulls on the design team’s leg, and then the accountant sneaks in and cuts their hamstring, and in the end you get a boring bloody mess that makes a lot of noise but doesn’t move very fast. The point is, if you don’t have the budget to make a sporty cluster, you’ll end up making a laughing point for some shitty internet writer who writes insane, rambling, barely coherent metaphors cultivated by time spent in mental hospital, from which he stole every issue of Motor Trend contained in the library.
Anyhow, where the normal Civic overreaches it’s budget and ruins one of the few things you have to constantly look at during a drive, the Hybrid nails it. This is mainly accomplished through the IMA monitor cluster, which looks like it came from one of those futuristic Tom Cruise movies, with its circles, and digital gauges with sharp incremental units displayed when a linear would be more appropriate. It’s the future, it doesn’t have to make sense. Why do magnetic levitation cars sound like laundry dryers? Regardless, it’s fun to put your foot down and watch the IMA Assist gauge go all the way up like an impotent boost gauge, and it lends a bit of personality, which the Civic is otherwise lacking.
The Civic was the first time I ever sat behind the wheel of a Hybrid, and overall I found myself pleasantly surprised. I still would never buy one, but I wouldn’t balk at borrowing it for a few days if I one that’s as adequate to drive as the Civic Hybrid manual. Shame, then, that Honda only saw fit to offer the manual transmission from 2001-2005, especially considering the relatively high take rate on the stick. 20% of all first generation Civic Hybrids were five speeds. Never did I conceive that such a market could exist: Thousands of engineers and archeologists asking each other “Didja hurt em?!” every time their conversation partner mentions “running into (a mutual acquaintance)”. Thousands of model train enthusiasts comparing fuel mileage, optimal throttle position, how close one can slipstream behind semi trailers, and upshift timing. Countless young women knowing nothing about the vehicle their father gave them, only that it doesn’t use much gas and she wishes it had an automatic. Suburban families, vainly trying to offset the consumerist guilt brought on by the Four Winns and accompanying Honda Pilot occupying the opposite side of their driveway.
And all of them own a great car. A hybrid that doesn’t drive like a microwave. An honest vehicle that rarely pretends to be something it isn’t, that still does it’s best to please you when you feel like having just a bit of fun. Like an honest girlfriend, the only faults with the Civic Hybrid five speed are the ones you knew you were getting into, the ones you accepted because the trade off was worth it for you. She’s not the prettiest girl you’ve been with. She won’t give you the ol’ Alaskan Iceberg in bed. She won’t snort ketamine from a KA-BAR blade and then cut your boxers off with it. But she’s smart, reliable, sensible, has a bit of a funky streak, and genuinely wants the best for you. For most men in the world, she’s not the first girl they’d choose to go home with, but she is the one they’d choose to wake up next to.