Honda's pleasantly redesigned 2006 version of its four-year-old Civic Hybrid represents one of the machines of the moment, with incentives for hybrid drivers mounting and pump prices remaining high.
Its system – Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) – mates an electric motor to a 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine (110 h.p. combined). Stop and the engine shuts down; let up on the brake and, with a slight shudder, you're running again. (You can't creep along in full-electric mode.) In mixed-use driving, our test Civic achieved better than 40 m.p.g. (Some hybrid drivers learn to squeeze out even more mileage; see blogs.csmonitor.com/weekend_zone/.)
Mash the accelerator and the electric assist adds low-end torque, though after that the car still revs like any earnest little four-banger. Brake or decelerate and a gauge shows the regenerative charge to the battery, which is stored upright behind the rear seat (preventing that seat from folding down).
The roomy interior has that spaceship feel that hybrids impart: A digital speedometer, tucked deep near the windshield, is flanked by a real-time m.p.g. indicator and a gas gauge that stays pegged for days. Controls are intuitively arrayed. Audio system is XM-ready. Green car, high safety ratings, and a price in the low- to mid-20s? Yeah, that works for us.