Undercover 2009 Honda Civic hybrid's a winner

• Sub-par details. Optional navigation system seemed as dated as telegraph compared with what Honda uses in the Pilot SUV and other new models.

Goose-neck hinges on the trunk lid swing down and in, swiping cargo room and possibly pinching your luggage. Plenty of rivals use hinges that fit in the gutter around the trunk opening, avoiding the luggage compartment.

Because of how the electric motor's battery pack is situated, the car's back seat doesn't fold down for expanding the trunk, nor is there a rear fold-down center arm rest.

•Mileage. It's 25% to 60% better than similar gasoline Civics, but less than Prius in city and combined city-highway driving, according to government ratings.

Civic hybrid's rated 40 mpg in town, 45 on the highway, 42 in mixed driving. Prius is 48/45/46.

Toyota will launch a redone Prius this year, and Honda will introduce Insight, a lower-priced small hybrid hatchback this spring. If you're interested in a modest-size hybrid, wait to see if you like those better.

But if that seems too studied, and you prefer a small, fuel-efficient car that looks and drives like a conventional car, discovering Civic hybrid could be like finding a gem.

About the 2009 Honda Civic hybrid

•What? Midcycle freshening of front-drive, four-door, gasoline-electric hybrid sedan.

•When? Sold since Aug. 19.

•Where? Made in Japan.

•How much? Base Civic hybrid is $24,320 including $670 shipping. Top-end, with leather, navigation, XM satellite radio, is $27,530 ($3,195 more than top-end gasoline model).

•How potent? Not very. The 1.3-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine is rated 110 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 123 pounds-feet of torque at 1,000 rpm. Electric motor is rated 20 hp, 76 lbs.-ft. Gas and electric deliver their power at different speeds, so their ratings can't simply be added, and Honda won't specify what the combined peak ratings are.

Gas and electric power plants are linked to a continuously variable automatic transmission.

•How big? Compact, similar to Toyota Corolla or Prius. Civic hybrid is 177.3 inches long, 56.3 in. tall, 69 in. wide on a 106.3-in. wheelbase.

Weight's listed as 2,877 lbs. Passenger space: 90.9 cubic ft.; trunk, 10.4 cubic ft.

Turning circle is a tight 34.8 ft.

•How thirsty? Rated 40 miles per gallon in town, 45 highway, 42 combined. Test car's trip computer showed 34.3 in suburban driving (and was continuing to climb as miles accumulated, suggesting that real-world mpg could be higher).

Regular (87-octane) gasoline is specified. Tank holds 12.3 gallons.

•Overall: Pleasant, if pricey, way to save fuel.

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