The Honda Civic Hybrid was only the third hybrid model sold in the U.S., starting way back in 2003, and it was the brand's first mainstream hybrid.

It's been a solid member of Honda's Civic lineup ever since, consistently returning the best gas mileage of any Civic model.

Now in its third generation, the 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid is by far the most advanced yet.

It's the first-ever Honda hybrid to use a lighter, more powerful ltihium-ion battery pack, which occupies relatively little space toward the back of the trunk. The new pack weighs far less than the older nickel-metal-hydride battery in all previous Civic Hybrids, but drivers would never know the difference without being told.

The new Civic Hybrid's EPA-rated fuel economy is the best ever: 44 mpg city, 44 mpg highway, and hence 44 mpg combined.

Five new Civics, three for MPGs

2012 Honda Civic Hybrid

2012 Honda Civic Hybrid

It's one of a new lineup of five different 2012 Civic models, three of which are focused on gas mileage or green fuels.

In addition to the Civic Hybrid, there's the high-mileage gasoline Civic HF model (rated at 29 mpg city, 41 mpg highway and 33 mpg combined, versus the standard model's 28 city, 39 highway, and 32 combined) and the Civic Natural Gas, which will roll out later this year.

The 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid uses a 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine paired with the latest generation of Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) mild hybrid system. A new, larger 15-kilowatt (20-horsepower) electric motor provides torque to supplement that from the engine.

The IMA system also switches the engine back on when the driver wants to move away from a stop.

Sporty handling retained

Under certain very, very limited circumstances, it may also propel the car exclusively on electric power at light loads on level roads at steady speeds, but we observed that only a handful of times--usually at speeds between 20 and 40 mph.

2012 Honda Civic Hybrid

2012 Honda Civic Hybrid

The Honda Civic has always been known for its sporty handling, and It's still probably the most enjoyable of all compact entries to drive--though other entries are starting to catch up, and certainly the Mazda Mazda3 model overall is far sportier and eager to be driven hard.

The Civic Hybrid may be the least sporty of the Civic line, but it's still more pleasant to toss around corners and drive tightly than, say, the 2011 Toyota Prius. The roadholding is flat, giving the driver confidence that the car will go where pointed.

Driving a pre-production 2012 Civic Hybrid last month, we noticed a few stumbles and rough spots that seemed to call for some fine-tuning in the software that integrates the regenerative and friction braking systems.

We experienced an occasionally irregular brake feel when switching from acceleration to braking and back rapidly, as might happen in unpredictable traffic.

2012 Honda Civic Hybrid

2012 Honda Civic Hybrid

That said, though, the 2012 Civic Hybrid behaved otherwise very much like its predecessors, with the continuously variable transmission (CVT) letting the engine run at its most economical speed while supplemented by electric torque powered by the battery.

Lacking the distinctive shape of the Prius, or Honda's own subcompact Insight hybrid--you have to look closely to ID the Civic Hybrid as anything other than a standard model--this is the Honda hybrid for buyers who don't need to show off their hybrid affiliation.

Unadventurous styling

In general, the styling of the 2012 Civic line isn't particularly adventurous. From the front and side, it's clearly identifiable as a Honda, though we found the taillights to be a sharp break from previous Civic generations.

It's hardly as daring as either the 2011 Hyundai Elantra or the 2012 Ford Focus, though, to name just two of the competitors it will face.

Honda has sweated over the details; the new car occupies the same footprint as the previous model, but has more interior space, better aerodynamics (for lower fuel consumption), and even better visibility around a slimmer, redesigned windshield pillar.

2012 Honda Civic Hybrid

2012 Honda Civic Hybrid

The company spent a great deal of time on the instrument panel, widening the upper level at the base of the windshield to include not only a digital speedometer but several new features.

Those include, routing information if the car has a navigation system, and many screens for infotainment systems, including Bluetooth phone connection, digital music player integration, satellite radio, and other frequently used functions.

The driver uses a multi-directional button on the left side of the steering wheel, similar to the Toyota Prius "Touch Tracer" controls, to navigate through the menu sequences while keeping both hands on the wheel.

As well as the standard display screens, the hybrid model includes screens showing energy flow, gas mileage over various intervals, and other aids to economical driving.

Evolving from Insight and CR-Z

The Hybrid model adds EcoAssist, which leads the driver through tips for more economic driving, offering up an Eco Score at the end of a drive or journey segment. The better-driving instruction is strictly optional, however, for those who don't particularly want to be nannied.

The new displays and colors, as well as Eco Assist, are similar to those on the 2011 CR-Z two-seat hybrid coupe--which themselves were expanded from those on the 2010 Insight five-door hybrid hatchback.

And like those two models, the 2012 Civic Hybrid also includes a green "Eco" button that slightly dials down the responsiveness of the engine under normal usage, slowing its acceleration a bit but using even less fuel.

More options for Hybrid

And the Civic Hybrid model is now offered with an optional navigation, as well as a leather interior. Honda is clearly trying to respond to customer desires for a high-mileage hybrid model that still offers the creature comforts of standard models.

2012 Honda Civic launch, New York Auto Show, April 2011

2012 Honda Civic launch, New York Auto Show, April 2011

Overall, we think the timing of the 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid couldn't be better. With gas prices rising, and both hybrids and clean diesels rapidly gaining popularity, it's a brand-new vehicle in a trusted hybrid model line, and it delivers better mileage than its predecessors.

And that's the key here: the 44-mpg combined gas mileage rating. While increasing numbers of compacts and subcompacts have reached the magic 40-mpg highway number, their combined ratings are usually in the low to mid 30s.

The new Civic Hybrid's 44-mpg is fully one-third higher than the 33-mpg anticipated combined rating of the 2012 Nissan Versa, to name another vehicle that also made its debut at the 2011 New York Auto Show.

Small step forward

if we have a concern with the hybrid model of the 2012 Civic, it's that the car doesn't seem like a huge advance on the model it replaces. The styling is evolutionary, the entertainment systems just bring it up to par with the best of other entries, and competitors like the well-received 2011 Hyundai Elantra pose formidable competition.

We were particularly dismayed by the hard plastic surfaces of the dashboard. At the media drive a few weeks ago, pretty much every reviewer mentioned the appearance and quality of the plastic surfaces on the top of the dash.

2012 Honda Civic launch, New York Auto Show, April 2011

2012 Honda Civic launch, New York Auto Show, April 2011

The issue may be epitomized by a highly visible join line between the two large moldings that make up the dash top. It's just subpar, and it looks almost like an assembly error. And we didn't see such a join line on either the 2011 Elantra or the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze we recently drove, to name two cars with noticeably nicer interiors than the new Civic.

In the end, Honda will likely do fine with the new Civic--and the 2012 Civic Hybrid offers good gas mileage without shouting, "Hey, look at me, I'm a hybrid car!"

The roadholding remains good, the hybrid system will likely be further sorted before buyers get behind the wheel, and the gas mileage benefits are undeniable.

But the new 2012 Civic line isn't as far ahead of its competitors as we might have expected, and in the compact class--perhaps the most important car sector globally--Honda faces tougher competition for this ninth generation of Civic than ever before.

All models of the 2012 Honda Civic except the Natural Gas version went on sale last week at Honda dealers. The 2012 Civic Hybrid model starts at $24,050 plus a $750 delivery charge, and tops out at $26,750 for the Civic Hybrid model with leather seating, navigation system, and XM satellite radio.


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