My Civic Hybrid Experience!

By Christopher Todd

Baltimore, MD 21211

Updated: 8/7/2008


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 $4.00/gallon (but has been as high as $4.11), 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 uses: 0-w-20.)


Current Stats and Repair Summary

Type: 1st generation IMA mated 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

Fuel Economy at 125,000: 42.0 MPG

Ending Mileage: 137,700 Miles

Age: 6 years

Cost: $19,900

Total Emergency Repairs Required: 1

Total Recalls: 2

Total Warranty Repairs: 4

Total Paid-for Repairs: 3

Total cost of non-ordinary repairs 1: $769

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 137,700 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-emergency fixes.


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 original capacity.


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 under warranty.


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 drive.


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 recalibration.


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.


116,000 Miles: The defogger doesn’t work anymore and the remote keyless entry stopped working. Some of the instrument panel lights have burned out.


120,000 Miles: Just standard maintenance required. It must have done the car a lot of good, since I got 47.3 MPG on a tank of gas for the first time in over a year. A few more instrument lights are starting to function intermittently (the thermostat and fan knobs don’t light up all the time any more). On the bright side, the batters gauge showed 90% for the first time in a really long time.


122,000 Miles: There was a recall on the ECM, the computer that runs the car’s diagnostics and hybrid functions. After the computer was reflashed, it stopped believing that the catalytic converter was dead. I did, however, have to also replace the fuel oxygenator sensor. That part cost $270. After these items were replaced, I got 53 MPG on a 3 hour drive home. It is the city mileage that has decreased as the car aged.


126,000 Miles: The heater control module failed. You’d think that a bad heater controller would mean that the heater wouldn’t work, but you’d be wrong! The heat got stuck on full blast. Lovely. The car was about 90 degrees inside after 5.10 minutes. I was very happy to get the module replaced. As a side bonus, the part also fixed the rear-window defroster. This repair cost $419. Oh, and I got the car alarm fixed too. A $5 buttery was all it needed.


137,000 Miles: The catalytic converter and air conditioner pretty much failed at the same time. The IMA warning light began to illuminate intermittently. Since AC, CAT and an IMA would have been a very expensive set of repairs, I traded in the car.


Summary: I loved the car, and I would have no reservations about buying another hybrid in the future.


Trade-in value: $2,000. Now, before the hybrid-haters can say “Seeeeee! He got nothing for his trade!” It should be noted that I’ve had quite a few fender-benders in this car over a six-year period, and a negative CarFAX report can really slice down the value of a trade. I also totally pigged out the interior of the car since I am a totally shameless slob. Between the myriad dents and scratches, and they fact that the interior is coffee-stained just about everywhere, the $2,000 trade is understandable. What the heck. I don’t feel that the car owed me a dime. I’m not complaining one bit. I replaced the hybrid with a Scion xD, since my drive to work in my new job is so short that some days I just ride a bicycle.


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). Other things went wrong with my car before the battery failed.


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 lasted over 100,000 miles.


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! I didn’t buy a hybrid to replace my car because for my new job my drive is so short that I take a bicycle to work when the weather is good.
  • 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 “work” hybrids.
  • 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. 


Looking Forward

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 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 hybrid. It was previously deployed in the Honda Insight, a small 2-passenger car that got over 65 MPG and the V6 Accord. 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, Highlander, and Camry (as well as 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 vehicle 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 system.

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, 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 (Chevy Tahoe Hybrid) 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 initially 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. The Volt could be given the exoskeleton from the Malibu.

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 limited-lease Honda Clarity 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 for quite some time.

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 two new hybrid car from scratch (an econobox and a sports coupe), 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 re-inflated the tires at a service station.