Undercover 2009 Honda Civic hybrid's a winner

Honda's Civic hybrid is a good alternative for those who don't need Toyota Prius' distinctive styling to advertise their fuel-saving heroics.

Civic hybrid's a four-door, gas-electric sedan that looks about the same as gasoline-only Civics. Prius, a hatchback, is hybrid-only and unlike anything else Toyota sells.

Apparently most hybrid buyers need to make sure the neighbors know, because Prius outsold Civic hybrid 5-to-1 last year.

The 2009 Civic hybrid shares minor cosmetic and interior trim changes that Honda HMC made to the entire Civic lineup for '09. From the outside, you could mistake it for a gas Civic if you miss the "hybrid" emblem on the rear and the different wheels.

The battery pack and some other elements of the electric-drive system got upgrades to make charging more efficient, but that made no difference in fuel economy or drivability.

Most important, stability control is standard. Also, because Honda wants to position this as a premium Civic, it is available with fancier options, such as heated leather seats.

Honda and Toyota use different gas-electric hybrid systems. Honda relies mainly on a small, efficient gasoline engine. A small electric motor, cleverly packaged between the engine and transmission, kicks in when more power's needed. Toyota and the similar Ford system default to electric power as often as possible.

Honda's hybrid gets better highway mileage, like gasoline-only cars; Toyota-type systems excel in town where they rely more on electric power.

The Honda system eliminates the annoying shimmies present in other systems when their gasoline engines restart and come online while the car's underway. Axing those shudders is a big relief.

Like gasoline Civics, the hybrid test car had a sturdy, tight feel, as if it were modeled after a sport sedan. It didn't have the slip-slidey feel you can get when trying to push a Prius briskly through corners. Thus, the Civic was more fun to drive in the normal-to-brisk end of the scale.

Leather seats were comfortable. The sweeping and swooping instrument panel seemed as eye-friendly and easy to use at it did when this generation of Civic made its debut late in 2005. Most controls were simple, intuitive.

Electric power steering, a fuel-saving feature, felt overly boosted at lower speed, about right going faster.

Brakes got extra grab from regenerative braking, which turns the electric motor into a battery-charging generator. A little brake delivered a lot of slow. Too abrupt for people not used to it. Too artificial-feeling even after you got acclimated.

Monitoring the hybrid system was simple: Bars moved up or down in a vertical gauge, telling whether you were charging the battery (braking or coasting), or draining it by using the electric motor to augment the gas engine (merging, passing or just hustling about).

The video-game persona of most hybrids' gauges is a distracting safety hazard.

Even though the Civic hybrid came off generally quite pleasant, it had its annoyances:

• Marginal power. Sufficient in town, but struggles challenged. Also true of Prius.

• Coarse powertrain. Engine had an unfortunate, bust-a-gut sound when legged hard.

• Choppy ride. Firm suspension and short wheelbase will provoke some complaints. If you're used to stiffly sprung vehicles, you won't mind.

• Road noise. Lots on rough asphalt, not much on smooth surfaces.

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