Hammer Time: 15,000 Miles in a Civic Hybrid

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang

My wife has probably driven every single minivan and wagon model of the last six years. It all started with the second kid. Before that time, we always kept our rides as sporty and nimble as possible. We love driving. But when the wife was eight months pregnant with kid two, the thought of some ignorant Billy-Joe-Jim-Bob plowing into the progeny became too much to bear and so . . . we upsized. We found cupholders and comfort in the minivans. Flashbacks of sportiness in the Subarus. Luxury and strength in our Volvos. Finally my wife got fed up with playing musical cars and wanted a ‘keeper’. The requirements? The color silver, safe, economical, and . . . a hybrid? Enter the Civic.

I bought it for $6500 at a Carmax sale in August 2008. 102,000 miles and a history fraught with fear and VW-esque maintenance. The engine had self-destructed only a few thousand miles before trade-in and had been replaced with an imported one that had 31,000 miles. The torque converter had been replaced. The battery had been serviced, replaced, and serviced again. In quality terms this car had represented the exact opposite of a conventional Civic. To add insult to injury, the dealership wanted me to pay for a software upgrade that should have been done a long time ago for free.

Hell, Volvo almost always does software upgrades for nothing so I said (unprintable). I put it up on Craigslist for $7900 and received a half dozen calls within a few hours. This was back in the days of $4 gas. But then I got 55 mpg on a drive to Athens, Georgia and, well, that was three times the mileage of my wife’s last ride. I said good-bye to quick profit and hello to a car that, with the almighty’s help, would appeal to our tightwad tendencies.

The Civic has become a tight ride in every respect for us. No rattles. Nothing. It’s as tight as a drum. All the power accessories still work perfectly as does the stereo system which seems to be tuned to an endless array of kids’ books. The cloth seats with side bolsters have no discernible wear and we even managed to remove our son’s name from several of them using plain soap and water. Oh, and what’s this? A thick armrest on the door and an extra one for driver and passenger alike? Honda asked for a premium price at the time and the outcome was an absolutely premium product. So how is the real world mpg’s?

Over 15,000 miles it garnered 42.3. That was a savings of about $800 compared with the typical 20 mpg we get from a homologation of wagovans. But with savings on one side comes spending on the other. The front O2 sensor went south and that would have been $180 right off the top had it not been for a nearby junkyard. Which reminds me: the best way to keep this type of vehicle is to find good junkyards, plan for the uniqueness of its powertrain, and read up on the enthusiast sites so that you know what to do once these problems rear their expensive heads.

The engine and battery? Seamless. The ‘Integrated Motor Assist’ is tuned towards fuel economy and if you have a foot lighter than Sarah Palin’s convictions, you’ll be playing with 50 mpg in town and 55 mpg on the highway. It can scoot when you need it to, and the combo is far more refined than its competition circa 2003. Barring a burst radiator hose which had cooked the prior car’s gas engine, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it last well north of 200k. But the electric battery?

Very different story I’m afraid. In the beginning it seemed to always have enough power in reserves. But now we have to drive the car in Grandma mode after about a half hour of normal driving. You have to literally baby it in order to fully recharge. What used to be a 10% battery drain has now gone to 75%, and I’m already planning on picking a near-new one nearby for $500. When that happens most of our annual savings from the past year will have gone kaput. But then we’ll have another few years of bliss if only the . . .

Automatic transmission will hold up. The 2003 models have absolutely horrendous transmission reliability. The torque converter has been replaced and Honda has already gone through its ‘refurbishment’ of the system. But the future Kevokrian will still sometimes give an off-putting vibration when climbing hills. Truth be told this transmission is really suited to a model that has far less weight . . . like my 1st gen Insight. I don’t know where or when Honda upgraded their tranny or the related software (feel free to respond, Honda) but if the 2004 and 2005 models have the same setup, owners can expect to do what I recommend for most minivans: change the tranny fluid once a year and make sure it’s at the exact level on the dipstick. If you neglect it, you will regret it.

With all these negatives you would think I would hate this car. Nope. It fits our family needs perfectly. My wife likes compacts. I like planning for rainy days. The kids like being able to hit each other, and even our dog has found a home in the middle seat. It’s a great car for a frugal enthusiast who is willing to sacrifice Prius cachet for Honda anonymity. The $2000 discount on average vis-à-vis the used Prius is well worth the risk if you know what you’re doing and like playing the risk game. Most hybrid owners hate risk. My advice is to find one that follows the minivan model of ownership. Find one with a recently replaced tranny, a replaced battery is even better, and keep the remaining cash in a rainy day fund. You may need it.

Steven Lang
Steven Lang

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  • Allegro con moto-car Allegro con moto-car on Aug 22, 2009

    Sounds like the headaches of a Civic hybrid may only make ownership any sense when gas is around $4.00/gallon. Otherwise, no real savings pans out. I will be buying new in the next few years and no hybrid is on my list. Prious is reliable but more suitable for people who drive like grandmothers, and Honda hybrids are nothing but trouble. In my book, there is still no good alternative to all gas/diesel. Allegro

  • Niky Niky on Aug 24, 2009

    The CVT is a real PITA everywhere... which is probably why Honda specced the first-generation US Fit with a torque-converter-equipped automatic. Everyone else got the CVT. Apparently, CVT life has been compromised by poor transmission fluid and the delicacy of the clutch packs when subjected to abuse. Driven gently, they can last a pretty long time, but when they eventually go, they're an expensive replacement.

  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X As much problems as I had with my '96 Chevy Impala SS.....I would love to try one again. I've seen a Dark Cherry Metallic one today and it looked great.
  • Susan O’Neil There is a good reason to keep the Chevrolet Malibu and other 4 door family sedans! You can transport your parents and other somewhat handicapped people comfortably and safety! If someone can stand and pivot you can put them in your car. An armrest in the back seat is appreciated and a handle above the door! Oh…and leather seats so your passenger can slide across the seat! 😊Plus, you can place a full sized wheelchair or walker in the trunk! The car sits a little lower…so it’s doable! I currently have a Ford Fusion and we have a Honda Accord. Our previous cars were Mercury Sables-excellent for transporting handicapped people and equipment! As the population ages-sedans are a very practical choice! POV from a retired handicapped advocate and daughter! 😊
  • Freddie Remember those ads that say "Call your doctor if you still have...after four hours"?You don't need to call your doctor, just get behind the wheel of a CUV. In fact, just look at one.I'm a car guy with finite resources; I can't afford a practical car during the week plus a fun car on the weekend. My solution is my Honda Civic Si 4 door sedan. Maybe yours is a Dodge Charger (a lot of new Chargers are still on dealer lots).
  • Daniel J Interesting in that we have several weeks where the temperature stays below 45 but all weather tires can't be found in a shop anywhere. I guess all seasons are "good enough".
  • Steve Biro For all the talk about sedans vs CUVs and SUVs, I simply can’t bring myself to buy any modern vehicle. And I know it’s only going to get worse.