The model for people who don't want to call attention to themselves
by: JAIME VALDEZ, The 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid: So good you forget it's a hybrid, except at the pump.

Honda, we have a problem - a problem trying to decide between your two small hybrids.

Honda scored a marketing coup earlier this year when it released the 2010 Insight, only the second unique-model hybrid after the iconic Toyota Prius. Both cars are built from the ground up to be driven by electric motors and small gasoline engines.

The base Insight costs thousands of dollars less than the entry-level Prius, however, giving it a competitive advantage among potential new car buyers who are concerned with the bottom line.

But the low price also gives the Insight a competitive advantage over Honda's own Civic Hybrid, which costs approximately as much as the Prius, depending on options. So why would anyone be interested in a hybrid version of a Civic over the Insight - or even over the Prius?

The answer is, the Civic Hybrid is different enough from either the Insight or the Prius to be considered on its own merits, which are substantial.

For starters, the gasoline-powered version of the Civic is one of the best small cars made today. It is solid, drives well and features high quality interior materials. Our test model came with several options that gave the car a luxury feel, including heated-and-cooled leather seats and an easy-to-understand navigation system. Their availability shows how far Civics have come since they were first introduced as inexpensive but well-designed economy cars in 1973.

On top of that, the Civic Hybrid gets excellent mileage. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates it at 42 miles per gallon in mixed city and highway driving, about the same as the Insight. That's around 10 miles per gallon better than the gasoline-powered Civic. Although the Prius is rated at around 50 miles per gallon, both of the small Honda hybrids are better than all other hybrids on the market today.

The Civic Hybrid also drives more like a conventional car than the Insight or Prius. Although it is mechanically similar to the Insight, the Civic Hybrid is smoother off the line and stopping. The gas engine does not seem to shake as much starting up and the regenerative brakes are firmer. And the Civic Hybrid has more road feel than the Prius, which is best described as having a comfortable ride.

On the other hand, road noise was far more pronounced on Civic Hybrid, especially on textured freeway surfaces.

Compared to the Insight, the Civic Hybrid also has more interior room, especially in the back seat. Although the Prius is roomier than both, the Civic Hybrid has a more conventional dash layout than the other two, which helps reinforce its conventional car persona. The forward-mounted hand brake grip is also a nice touch.

The Civic Hybrid is also a more conventional looking car. With their similar wedge styling, both the Insight and Prius seem to be trying to call attention to themselves. That may be important to some hybrid owners, but the 2009 Civic is simply a good-looking small car that is available as a hybrid.

The Civic Hybrid's conventionality may also be its biggest drawback, however. Hybrids get their best mileage when driven gently. Slow starts and gradual stops help boost mileage and keep the electric motor's batteries charged. But because it feels looks and feels so normal, remembering that is harder in the Civic Hybrid than either the Insight or Prius.

Of course, that will be a lot easier to remember if gas prices climb back up to $4 miles a gallon or more again, as many experts predict.

Facts and figures

• Test Model: 2009 Civic Hybrid.

• Manufacturer: Honda.

• Class: Compact.

• Layout: Front front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four passenger, five door.

• Power train: 1.3L inline-4 cylinder w/permanent NiMH electric motor (110 hp, 123 lb-ft torque net).

• Transmissions: Continuously variable transmission (CVT).

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 40/45 mpg.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $23,650 (as tested $26,850).

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