Despite being the first and closest rival to the Toyota Prius, Honda's Civic Hybrid has never been a serious competitor to the car who's name is synonymous with gasoline-electric transportation. True, it's never been close enough in the fuel economy race to ever make a threat, but Honda would tell you it was never intended to be a direct rival either. The Prius is a hybrid. The Civic Hybrid is a Civic first and a hybrid second, with everything that that entails.
Now in its second generation, one of six new 9th generation Civic models, the hybrid is closing the gap on the Prius with an impressive 44-mpg claim. That's not just 44-mpg highway either, but 44-mpg city, resulting in (you guessed it) 44-mpg combined.
That's still 6-mpg short, but the 7 percent gain is enough to push it past the Insight and the Lexus CT200h to earn the Civic Hybrid the title of 2nd Most Fuel Efficient car in America; that is, if you exclude cars like the Volt or Leaf due to lack of availability, price or range anxiety.
Perhaps most surprising is that Honda managed to achieve this result while relying on its less advanced Integrated Motor Assist hybrid system; a more rudimentary arrangement than the two-mode hybrids used by almost every other automaker and popularized by Toyota. The big difference, however, is that Honda opted for a high-tech Lithium-Ion battery pack – quickly becoming the norm over the old Nickel Metal Hydride units. The new Li-On pack makes 7 more hp than the old model for a total of 27-hp, plus it's roughly a third smaller in both size and weight.
The other factor is that like when Toyota moved from the 2nd to 3rd gen Prius, Honda has decided to opt for a larger displacement engine. Gone is the old 1.3-liter in favor of a larger 1.5-liter 4-cylinder. Total power output does remain the same at 110-hp, although it comes on 500 rpm earlier at 5500 rpm. A total of 127 lb-ft of torque is now also available, up 4 lb-ft from before, and it's offered over a wider rpm range. In general this is designed to deliver added power for real world driving conditions, and while it is a step in the right direction, the difference is mostly negligible from a driver's perspective.
More: 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid Review [video] on AutoGuide.com