Prius Vs. Civic

By Jerry Garrett

August 15, 2008 6 min read


Who will win the battle of the hybrids?

Jerry Garrett

Creators News Service

Which is the better hybrid: the Toyota Prius or the Honda Civic Hybrid?

It's sort of like the old question of Beta or VHS. VHS won the battle of the videotapes years ago, even though most people conceded Beta was the better product.

Right now, the Prius is trouncing the Civic Hybrid by a large margin in the sales battle. Both of these cars have their fans. But as to the question of which is better, the answer depends on how you will use them. Rest assured that each is a fine vehicle and there is no bad choice here. Each has, at various times, been selected by Motor Trend magazine as its prestigious Car of the Year.

In general terms, however, the Prius was designed to perform best in urban driving situations. The Civic Hybrid is more of a road warrior.

The Prius, a five-passenger four-door hatchback, is powered by a very complicated package of electric motor/generators, nickel metal hydride batteries, a 1.5-liter gasoline engine and a continuously variable transmission called Hybrid Synergy Drive, along with various electronic wizardry and computer stuff. At low speeds, it can run on battery power alone before a gas motor assist kicks in.

The Civic Hybrid is a five-passenger sedan with a separate trunk. Its power comes from a 95-horsepower 1.3-liter gasoline engine that is assisted by a NiMh battery pack and a 20-horsepower electric motor.

The Prius' gas engine produces only 76 horsepower, but its electric motors are much more powerful, rated at 67 horsepower. The Prius is faster, even though its fuel economy is rated slightly higher than the Civic Hybrid. In a drag race to 60 miles per hour, the Prius will take 10.5 seconds to 11.3 for the Honda.

Around town, the Prius is rated at 48 miles per gallon, compared with 40 for the Honda. On the highway, each is rated at 45 mpg. (The EPA's new and tougher mpg ratings haven't been kind to previous inflated mileage claims for either vehicle. Originally, Toyota said the Prius could get 60 mpg in the city 51 mpg on the highway. The Civic Hybrid was previously rated at 49 city/51 highway.)

However, those ratings are calculated by machines. In testimonials gathered by the EPA from actual owners about their real-world mileage, the results were closer. Prius owners reported they got between 36 and 56 mpg while Civic Hybrid owners said they got between 35 and 54.

We tested each car on a 125-mile drive between Los Angeles and San Diego in mostly freeway driving as well as some stop-and-go city driving. We tried to drive them as fast as we would have driven non-hybrid cars on the same route.

The Civic Hybrid won, averaging 48 mpg to the Prius' 42 mpg.

In a separate test, we utilized so-called hypermiling techniques to maximize gas mileage, such as accelerating slowly, maintaining steady speeds, anticipating traffic light changes, etc. In the Civic Hybrid we were able to average 61 mpg, traveling at (an average) of 60 mph for 60 minutes. At the same speed, for the same amount of time, we averaged 51 mpg with the Prius.

The Prius has an onboard fuel economy computer that gives readouts in five-minute increments. For those incremental snapshots, it was fairly easy to average 60 mpg on the highway for five minutes at a time, and even up to 75 mpg around the city. But subsequent five-minute intervals almost always returned lower averages, which knocked down the cumulative average, despite continuing to drive in the same manner. The disparate results were difficult to understand.

Both vehicles turned off their gasoline engines when stopped at traffic lights and such, conserving fuel. The Prius could be coaxed by a light touch on the accelerator pedal to remain in electric-only operation up to almost 30 mph.

In other measurements, the stylish Civic Hybrid was a little more roomy and comfortable. Five occupants fit better in the Civic than they did in the blockier-looking Prius, which has a tighter back seat.

The Prius also seemed to corner more precisely, although each seemed equally competent smoothing out rough roads.

The prices are fairly close as well. The Prius lists for between $20,950 for the base model and $23,220 for the plusher touring edition. The Civic Hybrid starts at $24,350 but has much more standard equipment, including a navigation system and satellite radio.

But don't expect to find either one at that price. In these days of $4-plus prices for gasoline, dealers are likely to mark them up; there have been reports of $5,000 add-ons.

A new version of the Prius is expected to be unveiled in January 2009 at the Detroit Auto Show. Toyota has said the next Prius will be slightly bigger, faster, more capable in a wider range of driving situations and a bit more fuel efficient.

The Civic Hybrid isn't ticketed for a major re-design anytime soon. But an all-new Honda hybrid -- not based on any other current Honda model - is due in early 2009. Honda promised it will be cheaper than a Prius and significantly more economical.

The battle? To be continued.

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