The 2012 Honda Civic range, launched at last month's New York Auto Show, includes two models devoted to wringing out as many miles as possible from every last drop of gasoline.
The one with the highest gas mileage is the 2012 Civic Hybrid, rated by the EPA at 44 mpg on all three test cycles: city, highway, and combined.
Three days, 400 miles
We spent an hour with the new Civic Hybrid at an April press preview, and wrote a brief review when the Civic range was formally introduced to the world.
Now, we've had the opportunity to spend three days and almost 400 miles in a 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid, and can provide you with a proper drive report.
More than 45 mpg in "Econ" mode
First things first: How did it do on mileage?
Over 394 miles, we recorded interim readings consistently between 42 and 44 mpg. But with a final spurt of freeway driving (often using the cruise control) to get back home, we registered an overall mileage of 45.3 mpg.
Two things to bear in mind: First, we left the car almost entirely in "Econ" mode. We figured that if we were going to stretch our gasoline as much as possible, we had to take advantage of the car's built-in ultra-economy mode.
2012 Honda Civic Hybrid, road test, Spring 2011Enlarge Photo
In Econ mode, by the way, the car lost significant speed on uphill stretches--which were the only time we reverted to regular mode, just to keep up with traffic.
Second, our usual test cycle is roughly two-thirds Interstate highways and one-third suburban and urban stop-and-go driving.
Those differences may be less important in the Civic Hybrid, given its identical city and highway ratings, but for most cars, duty cycle matters.
It's also worth commenting that our little Honda registered a remaining travel distance of 131 miles, meaning well over 500 miles per tank of gasoline. On long trips, your bladder will give out long before your gasoline does.
The restyled 2012 Honda Civic is far from the design leap that its 2006 predecessor represented. The front two-thirds of the car are recognizably Honda Civic, with taillights that vaguely echo those on the larger midsize Honda Accord.
And aside from slight differences in the wheels and the front fascia, plus a small spoiler on the trunk lid, you'd have to read the badges to know that this 2012 Civic was a hybrid. It's the antithesis of the Toyota Prius identity, and virtually invisible as such.
2012 Honda Civic Hybrid - Integrated Motor Assist electric motor cutawayEnlarge Photo
The hybrid hardware consists of a very thin 15-kilowatt (22-horsepower) electric motor, inserted between the 1.5-liter engine and Honda's continuously variable transmission (CVT).
The motor does fundamentally three things: It restarts the engine after it's stopped when the car comes to a halt; it adds electric torque to the engine output; and it regenerates electricity under braking, charging the lithium-ion battery pack.
Mild hybrid (with an asterisk)
Like all of Honda's hybrids since 1999, the 2012 Civic Hybrid is a "mild hybrid," meaning it can't move the car on electric power alone.
With the latest generation, there's now an asterisk to that statement: Under certain circumstances, the electric motor alone will move the car when it's at constant speed on level roads under light acceleration.
2012 Honda Civic Hybrid - cutaway of lithium-ion battery packEnlarge Photo
We observed this happening several times, for up to 30 seconds at a time, at speeds between 20 and 38 mph.
But the engine doesn't switch off when this happens; it continues to rotate, even though the fuel supply has been cut off, so it's using no gasoline.
This is also the first-ever Honda hybrid fitted with a more compact lithium-ion battery pack. It takes only about 6 or 8 inches out of the trunk depth, unlike some full hybrids, whose trunks are significantly compromised.
2012 Honda Civic Hybrid - cutaway showing trunk spaceEnlarge Photo
Awkward in creeping traffic
Because the Civic Hybrid has to restart its engine to move away from a dead stop, it's not as smooth to drive as a Prius-style full hybrid.
We learned to anticipate imminent green lights, lifting our foot off the brake enough to restart the engine to avoid the second or so of lag before the car surged away once its engine had fired and transmission had engaged.
In creeping traffic, drivers have to rely on the car's ability to continue rolling forward at up to 6 mph once the engine has switched off.
But with the constant stops and starts--and no ability to accelerate, even at low speeds, solely on electric power--the 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid isn't particularly pleasant to drive in heavy traffic.