Honda sets high sales bar for Civic Hybrid

TOCHIGI, Japan — Honda Motor Co. Ltd. unveiled a hybrid-electric version of the five-passenger Civic last week and said it plans to sell 25,000 to 30,000 a year in the United States beginning next year.

That would be more than six times the number of Insights — Honda’s other hybrid — the automaker sold in the United States last year. Through September, Insight sales are up 37.5 percent from the same period a year earlier to 3,901 units.

Scheduled to appear in U.S. showrooms in March, the Civic Hybrid is powered by a 1.3-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine mated to a single electric motor and has an EPA highway rating of 59 mpg. Price will be announced closer to launch, Honda officials said.

At Honda’s r&d center here north of Tokyo, both versions of the car — one with a continuously variable transmission and one with a five-speed manual — were made available to reporters to drive.

Although the engine in the Civic Hybrid will be one of the smallest on the U.S. market, the high-torque electric motor, which Honda claims is 30 percent more powerful than the motor used in the Insight, provides plenty of backup thrust upon acceleration.

During deceleration, three of the cylinders in the gasoline engine shut down to reduce engine drag, which aids regenerative braking by allowing the car to coast longer.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Civic Hybrid is the seamless performance of the drivetrain. The driver feels no sensation when the electric motor cuts in and out. The CVT works especially smoothly, never letting the gasoline engine rev high enough to get noisy.

Except for the lightweight alloy wheels and a reconfigured grille with a more prominent Honda badge, the Hybrid exterior is nearly identical to the standard model. Engineers reduced the size of the drivetrain and battery pack, which fit into the standard Civic body.

The hybrid will be built in Japan only. Richard Colliver, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co., said Honda will price the hybrid against the Toyota Prius, the only other hybrid sedan on the market. The Corolla-sized Prius is priced at $19,995.

“It’ll go head to head with the Prius — Prius is the target,” he said. Asked if Honda would subsidize the Civic Hybrid as it has the Insight, Colliver said Honda expects the car to be profitable, but added, “You have to invest in technology.”

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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