The evolution of the gas-electric hybrid car has been ongoing in the United States since the advent of the first Honda Insight hybrid coupe in December of 1999. Toyota soon followed with its four-door sedan, the Prius, which came to these shores in 2001. Honda countered in 2003 with its Civic hybrid sedan, while Toyota produced a far more usable second-generation Prius, also in 2003 as a 2004 model.
The initial Insight and Prius were definitely on the severe side, offering air conditioning, maybe power steering and space for people, but very little space for peoples’ luggage, particularly with the Insight coupe. There was certainly a feel of being a pioneer when one purchased or leased one of these early cars; the same held true for the second-generation Prius initially, and for the Honda Civic hybrid sedan.
These manufacturers also began to produce hybrid sedans for their larger nameplates, the Accord and Camry. Both have been upgraded throughout the times they’ve been offered to consumers and both are still offered today, although Honda dropped the Civic hybrid after 2015; it had been on the market since 2001.
Last year I became the conservator of a 2003 white Honda Civic hybrid five-speed sedan, which had just over 115,000 miles on it when I signed on to be its caretaker. I named the car Fridge – just another white appliance – and expanded my view of this sedan from the time I drove it for a single week as a review vehicle back in the day, to becoming an owner.
As with the earlier Prius, my Civic wears a “hair shirt” and has very few feature comforts. It has alloy rims for less unsprung weight, cruise control, and AM/FM/CD audio, along with remote opening and closing of the doors. Nothing more; nothing less. The interior is a pale cloth environment (all the better to soil itself) and trunk space is acceptable, if slightly smaller than the comparable LX or EX Civic sedans, thanks to the battery pack.
So much has changed since then in the realm of hybrid vehicles. They’ve become accepted everywhere and by almost every single manufacturer that engages in the United States market. What were austere little cars have now become luxo-barges. The two sedans I recently drove, both the Kia Optima Hybrid EX and Honda’s Accord Hybrid Touring attest to that. They’ve got every feature a buyer might want or need – and a vast array of driver aids.
Are they worth it?
That seems to be the prevalent question about hybrid vehicles – will they pay for their added initial cost through fuel savings? Is all this environmental cleanliness offset through the technological doodads that are prevalent on these cars, trucks and SUVs that feature gas-electric hybrid power? Will it even matter once our current POTUS decides to roll back every environmental law we’ve passed in the last 50 years?
That’s hard to tell, but it’s quite good that mainstream manufacturers like Honda and Kia are producing hybrid sedans that are mainstream, even up-market cars, rather than forcing those that are ecologically motivated in their car choices to endure something other than the luxury they’re admittedly paying to have. No more hair-shirt hybrids these days.
While I regularly achieve 46-48mpg with my smaller, lighter – and older – Honda Civic, even while driving both the Kia and Honda sedans in sedate manner I wasn’t able to duplicate those numbers in the more modern cars. Both sedans had reasonable mileage on them – from 3000 to close to 6000 overall miles – and should be getting the EPA standard, but on my watch they did not. Honda’s Accord is rated at 49/47/48 and the Kia has 39/46/42 ratings.
Is that good for economics? I’m not sure, nor am I certain that the added features are going to make a big difference in mileage, although they’ll likely help resale value. Along with the leather, sunroofs, power interior accessories comes the government-imposed use of “nannies” like lane departure avoidance, radar cruise control, blind spot monitoring, brightly aggressive collision warnings in the windshield, heads-up displays and more. Some of these are useful even to the luddite that wants complete control of a vehicle – like me. I like blind spot monitoring. Period.
The cost of these two hybrid vehicles is similar and they have complementary features. In fact, there’s a $50 difference between them, the Kia Optima Hybrid EX being more expensive than the Honda Accord Hybrid Touring. So it comes down to which features you prefer on your hybrid sedan and which you don’t.
While I was a bit turned off at first by Honda’s very bright dual displays, after a while it became much easier to look at them and use the information to my benefit. Same thing with the lack of in-mirror blind-spot monitoring. These days Honda has a tendency to approach driving with a sense of “we’re in charge here” and not rely on a driver’s abilities, such as with the lane departure mitigation. Many cars have this “feature” but it appears to me that Honda is adamant about taking charge.
The Kia is more traditional in its layout and presentation of features, which makes it easier to jump in and simply drive the car. Everything feels familiar and there are no signs, other than markings on the exterior of the car that announce it’s a hybrid. No congratulatory flowers, either. For the stealth flyer, that’s the way to go. Strangely enough, for a company that doesn’t promote its motorsports activities nearly as much as Honda, the Kia’s sport mode was much easier to live with and enjoy, changing steering heft but not forcing artificially high-rev gear changes. I also prefer the use of a traditional automatic transmission to a continuously variable unit.
After driving both of these cars, getting back into Fridge, the 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid was kind of a relief for me. It doesn’t tell me what to do or how to do it; having a five-speed manual transmission forces me to pay attention to what I’m doing and where I’m going.
If I’m forced to choose one of these modern luxo-barge hybrids over the other, I think I’m sticking with the Korean brand. Kia has taken an early marketing tagline formerly used by Japan’s Honda, even with a fully optioned and kitted-out hybrid sedan, and articulated that “we make it simple.”
By Anne Proffit