Green Car Expert Gets Real about Honda Civic Hybrid MPG

by John DeCicco

From the time the first hybrids hit US roads a decade ago, some hybrid owners have complained about not achieving advertised MPG numbers. The latest huff involves some disgruntled Honda Civic Hybrid owners acting on that all-American maxim of “Sue the bastards!” Last week, Honda proposed to settle the resulting class-action lawsuit, which would reap a cash windfall for the instigators and a bigger bundle for their lawyers. As a Civic Hybrid owner myself, I just shrugged when their legalese showed up in the mail.

I’m not a hyper miler, and no, neither do I get real-world mileage as high as the original 2003 Civic Hybrid’s window sticker ratings of 46 city and 51 highway MPG. But my wife and I kept careful gas logs since acquiring our hybrid, counting ourselves among the earliest of its early adopters in late March 2002.

Apples to Apples

We also ended up keeping our 1997 Civic LX sedan. That car, now fondly known as the “beater,” had sticker values of 32 city and 38 highway and we kept pretty good gas logs on it, too. Thus, we have close to an apples-to-apples comparison, both being 4-door sedans with 5-speed manuals and air conditioning. We drove the two cars fairly interchangeably, predictably favoring the newer and nicer model for longer trips, although always using the beater for the 90-mile round trip to the airport when leaving a car for several nights in a parking garage.
So what kind of tale do seven years of gas logs tell? As shown on the graph, the Civic Hybrid averaged 42.2 MPG. That’s 12 percent lower than its original EPA composite (city-highway average) rating of 48 MPG. But it’s a 30 percent improvement over the 1997 Civic LX’s average of 32.5 MPG, that latter value being only 6 percent lower than the older car’s 34.4 MPG average sticker rating.

Honda claimed “up to a 30 percent improvement in fuel economy” over other Civics according to a brochure from the time of the Civic Hybrid’s launch. Our observed mileage matches that efficiency gain dead-on even though it falls short of the original EPA numbers. Our main mileage-related complaint is the dashboard fuel economy readout, which gives numbers 3-4 MPG higher than reality. Honda acknowledged this bias and fixed it in later versions of the vehicle, though it leaves early Civic Hybrid owners such as ourselves reliant on gas logs (based on presumably accurate odometers and filling station pumps).

The EPA has since adjusted all MPG label values downward by varying amounts, docking the Civic Hybrid by 15 percent, for example. Applying EPA’s new formulas to our cars, the composite ratings become 30 MPG for the 1997 Civic LX and 41 MPG for the 2003 Civic Hybrid. Our gas logs beat the new EPA numbers for both cars, though by a bit more for the older vehicle.

Within the Probable Range

It’s natural for the most efficient vehicles get the most scrutiny on fuel economy. It turns out, however, that mileage-rating inaccuracies are much worse for gas-guzzlers. The consumer fuel use data collected through the “YourMPG” feature on the FuelEconomy.gov website show that nearly one-quarter of consumers driving vehicles rated at 20 MPG reported real-world values of 14 MPG or less. Over a year with 12,000 miles of driving, that corresponds to excess fuel consumption of more than 250 gallons. By comparison, the 12 percent shortfall of our Civic Hybrid compared to its 48-mpg average label translates to an extra 35 gallons of gasoline over the same distance.

In fact, over all the thousands of YourMPG readings analyzed, the reported mileage has a statistical variation (based on the standard deviation) of plus or minus 33 percent compared to window sticker values. Our Civic Hybrid’s mileage wasn’t nearly that far off, and the low-30′s MPG range reported by the folks who sued Honda falls within the probable range of MPG discrepancies expected for any vehicle.

Mileage Varies

Beyond the averages, our gas log graph also reveals how much mileage varies in the same car with the same drivers. A seasonal pattern is also apparent, with fuel economy averaging about 3 MPG higher in summer than in winter for both cars. However, the long-term fuel economy is stable; while the gas log plot certainly bounces around, there’s no evidence of a drop-off through time. That’s a notable point for the hybrid, which shows no degradation in average gas mileage over the 7 years and 75,000 miles we’ve driven it.

So where does that leave us? Perhaps we just need to keep in mind another maxim that any all-American should know. Whether it comes to dating or driving, “Your mileage may vary.”

Contributed by John DeCicco, senior lecturer at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment. He is a pioneer in developing consumer-oriented automotive eco-ratings as the creator of ACEEE’s Green Book and as designer of the Yahoo! Autos Green Ratings.


  • tw8s

    Thanks for a well-written and “efficient” article (more light with less heat). My experience with a 2006 Prius is similar: lifetime mileage is lower than the original EPA numbers on the sticker, but higher than the revised EPA numbers for the 2008-2009 models; and Yes, the on-board displayed mileage is optimistic by a little over 2mpg.
    Regarding the probable range, I have been suspicious of the class-action claim of average in the low 30s. I have to agree with a comment made a couple of years ago on this forum that the only way to get mileage that low is to drag a boat anchor everywhere. For me, mileage in the 30s happens when maintaining 80mph against STRONG head-winds on long trips across the desert southwest.
    My Total Miles divided by Total Gallons equals 50mpg for 65,000 miles; close to one-third of that is out-of town trips.

  • J

    I Agree with many of your observations and conclusions.
    I have driven a prius for over two years and can get 50 mpg as a bottom low even on long trips.

    With careful driving and a little luck I can usually average around 60 mpg.

  • Patrick

    Some thoughts:

    1. Stop thinking in mpg. Use gallons per 100 miles.
    You pay for the gallons your car consumes, e.g. each 100 miles. The higher the number the higher the fuel consumption and the higher the cost.

    2. Real traffic fuel consumption never is the sticker rating
    In real traffic one drives a different pattern than on the chassis dynamometer in the lab.

    3. Driver responsibility
    Driver style as well as car care (tyre pressure, …) affect fuel consumption. Just look on HybridCars.com for the article dealing with the effect of driver training on Prius mpg.

    4. Also consider gas guzzler real traffic fuel consumption
    Consider a gas guzzler with 20 mpg sticker rating and real traffic 16 mpg fuel efficiency. This car has a fuel consumption of 6.25 gallons per 100 miles instead of 5. This 1.25 gallons per 100 miles difference is enough for a 40 mpg car to cover 50 miles.
    So first start complaining about real traffic fuel consumption of gas guzzlers.
    By the way, if a hybrid or any other fuel efficient car with 50 mpg sticker rating only gets 40 mpg the difference in fuel consumption is 0.5 gallons per 100 miles.

    SO SUE THE GAS GUZZLER MANUFACTURERS FIRST (or don’t buy them) AND BE GLAD SOME MANUFACTURERS DO THEIR BEST TO MAKE FUEL EFFICIENT CARS

  • john Collins

    I rented a 2009 Prius for a trip from the west coast to the east coast the day after Thanksgiving 2009 which my son and undertook. We traveled from Orange Co, CA to Boston, MA and down South to New Orleans. We drove over the Rockies, Smokies and the Appalacian Mts thru NYC, Atlantic City, Atlanta, Biloxi, MS, New Orleans, Dallas and Vegas before landing at our doorstep. This driving included freezing temps thru NM, TX, along with rain, snow normal seasonal weather. We logged all mileage and gas consumption. We put on 7676 miles. We observed mileage as high as 58 mpg and as low as 32 mpg (severe headwinds thru TX), but when all was said and done our average over these varied conditions was 48 MPG. My next car is a Prius, hands down, as I don’t see too many trips as vehicle demanding as this trip was.

  • veek

    Thanks for your useful, well-documented information. Still, it is a case study (although it seems a good one) for a single family. Larger sample sizes, like the YourMPG tabulations, are not at all scientific or demonstrably reliable. The EPA or Consumer Reports figures also depend on the type of driving they do on the tests, which may not come close to your conditions. All mileage figures are hard to generalize and should be taken with some skepticism, but also common sense and regard for the laws of physics.
    It’s hard to debate, though, that the trial lawyers will do pretty well for themselves in this case, and Truth be ____ed.

  • chiludo67

    I have to drive like a Grandma to get barley over 40mpg in my 2007 Civic Hybrid. My 1990 Honda CRX HF got well over 50MPG without the Hybdrid badge!

    I find so interesting the EPA didn’t downgrade the Prius MPG! All these hybrids are SCAMS, SCAMS SCAMS until they can achieve 70+ MPG!!!

  • DaveR

    I recently crossed the 50,000 mile mark in my 2005 Prius and I calculated that I averaged a bit over 52 MPG from my gas and mileage records. I believe this is better than any other car available in the US today and quite a bit better than anything of a similar size, past or present.

    The Honda CRX HF was about the same weight as a Smart Fortwo, and was more than 600 lbs lighter and 1 foot shorter than the Honda Fit. The Prius is two feet longer, 1000 lbs heavier and can comfortably fit 4 regular sized adults, and can fit 5 without extreme discomfort.

  • Lost Prius to wife

    chiludo67, your problem with your 2007 Civic Hybrid may be that you drive it like a Grandma. The Honda Civic Hybrid is a mild hybrid (a gas engine with an electric assist; the gas engine never stops except when turned off). Therefore, the Honda Civic Hybrid is best driven like a gas engine vehicle and just allowing the electric motor to assist like it is designed to. Mild hybrids are not designed the same as full hybrids and, therefore, should not necessarily be driven the same as full hybrids to maximize mileage.

    And hybrids are not a scam. If I was to treat our Prius as a Ferrari and try to race every single vehicle at every stoplight, I am sure that I might be able to get my mileage well under 35 mpg. If I would optimize my driving like my fellow associate does, I would never have a tank of gas go less than 50 mpg even in the winter (he averages 55+ mpg overall). My fellow associate’s highest round trip average is over 75 mpg meeting your able to achieve “70+ mpg” requirement. And hyper-milers feel terrible if they get a tank of gas that goes less than 80 mpg.

    My wife, who drives the Prius just like it was just another ordinary car, averages 48.5 mpg. I get 1 mpg better than that by just using cruise control (she never uses cruise control). By using just a few other full hybrid techniques, I can easily have an average over 50 mpg.

    My only complaint with the “YourMPG” feature on the FuelEconomy.gov website is that too many people stop after a short time of inputting their mileage data. This skews the data somewhat. My wife and I will have three years of real data in February on our 2006 Prius and 1994 Celica and almost one year on the 2002 Suzuki XL-7. My hat is off to John DeCicco’s 7 years of data.

    And EPA claims that my wife and I can only average 46 mpg! Should I be suing EPA for a “scam” because I am able to get 2.5 mpg more then EPA says I can? Should I be suing Toyota if I should drive my Prius like a Ferrari and get less than 35mpg? Or should I sue Toyota because I do not get the 55+ mpg that my associate gets? Or maybe John DeCicco is correct in stating “Your mileage may vary”, especially depending on how one drives?

  • FamilyGuy

    We have a 2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid. The car’s display is usually higher by about 2-3 MPG then I actually calculate. I don’t have a log, but was simply recording the mileage and the gas it took at a fill up. Do the math and sigh that the computer is misleading. I talked to the Nissan Dealership about this when it was in for some routine maintenance and they told me that the computer was “just an estimate”. Either way, the best the computer tells me is 38-40 MPG in the summer and as low as 32 MPG or so in the winter. The car definitely does better off the highway where the EV mode can kick in under 40 MPH and really never gets that chance on the highway. The car is driven by two different people. My Wife just drives it like a car while I tend to coast more under 40 MPH to engage the EV mode (but I don’t practice hypermiling). In the end, I feel good that the Altima Hybrid is getting the advertised 34-35 MPG overall.

  • Jeff

    I have a 2005 Civic hybrid and have averaged 55.1 mpg lifetime. I threw the lawsuit letter in the trash. The only one’s who get any money are the scum bag lawyers.

  • Willa

    Looking for a simple answer to a simple question. I drive 100 miles round trip 4 days/week for work. Should I invest in the 2010 Escape Hybrid? Friends have said the higher cost is not made up in the $$$ saved on gas.

  • Dave – Phoenix

    I have a 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid.

    I’m getting the same mileage. Here in Phoenix, I get 44-45 mpg in the winter and 38-39 in the summer, and have averaged 42.2 over the life of the vehicle…

    In my previous car (Chrysler Sebring Convertibel rated at 22/30) I only got 20 mpg.

    I like to think in terms of gallons per month, and dollars per month……

    In my HCH II, I fill up twice a month at 11.5 gallons per tank. That adds up to 23 gallons per month. In the Sebring, I filled up 15 gallons, 4 times a month. That adds up to 60 gallons per month. That’s a savings of 37 gallons per month, 444 gallons per year, a 60% reduction.

    At today’s price of $2.50 I save $92.50 per month, $1110 per year. That is the equivalent of getting free cable/Internet.

    If gas goes up to $4.00, the savings is $148 per month. $1776 per year… That is free cable/Internet and free phone service.

  • pendoctrjd

    I have had my 2006 HCH three years on New Year’s Eve 2009. My biggest mistake was to install Michelin tires when the OEM Bridgestones wore out after 48,500 miles. I lost 10% of my gas mileage. The next tires will be the OEM tires.

    I, too, almost threw the lawsuit away when I got it.. and I have a law degree. While my gas mileage is less than expected, I am pleased with the vehicle.

    In my case, I have California HOV/”Diamond Lane” stickers which allow me to use the HOV/”Diamond Lane” by myself. Unfortunately, they expire at the end of next year, 2010, unless the state renews them (doubtful). As an outside salesman covering all of California, the stickers make the car well worth the price regardless of the MPG being off.

    2007 39.98 MPG
    2008 40.43 MPG
    2009 36.88 MPG with Michelin tires

    I have always kept my tire pressure at 38-40 PSI and use synthetic oil (0W20, occasionally 5W20). I do drive 70-80 on the open road. If I “hypermiled”, the world would be my oyster!

    One other thing… when checking the miles driven odometer vs. GPS, it seems that the odometer reads about 2% high. If that is true, the real gas mileage is actually slightly lower than shown above.

    Money aside, I’d consider a Prius to replace it. I’ve rented GenII Prius’s twice for the trip to Northern CA. I like them.

    Nonetheless, I do love my little HCHII.

  • DaveR

    Willa,

    Simple answer. No hybrids do not yet pay for themselves with gas savings, especially not at $2.50/gal gasoline. The Prius is closest to paying for itself because it cost only $3,000 to $5,000 more than comparable non-hybrids and yields the biggest fuel economy savings.

    The Escape hybrid provides only a 25% better fuel economy over the non-hybrid based on the EPA mileage estimates, and it adds $9,000 to the price. Over a 200,000 mile life, the hybrid would save about 2000 gallons of gasoline. To make back your investment (without interest) would require $4.50/gal gasoline.

    The price of hybrids will fall over the coming years (to as little as $1,500 above that of non-hybrids according to previous articles posted here) and the cost of gasoline will rise, so in a few years hybrids will pay for themselves in fuel savings.

    There are many good reasons to buy a hybrid but for now, overall cost savings is not one of them.

  • Dave – Phoenix

    “The Escape hybrid provides only a 25% better fuel economy over the non-hybrid based on the EPA mileage estimates”

    I suggest you use the EPA “city” estimates when comparing vehicles. On the average, if you closely monitor a vehicle’s mileage through a lifetime of use, the mileage will be very close to the city rating, as less than 10% of the driving of a vehicle is spent on the freeway using cruise control at 55 mph (which is how the highway mileage estimate is determined).

    I have closely monitored all of my vehicles over the years, tracking the fuel economy each time I refill the tank. I have found, that with the exception of long road trips of over 300 miles, that my mileage was “spot on” with the EPA city mileage each time I filled up the tank.

    If you use the EPA “City” numbers, the Escape Hybrid gives you a 36% to 48% improvement depending on which Escape model you buy.

    While that still does not equal a fast ROI on a $9000 increase in cost, it does bring the numbers a little closer.

    The Honda Civic on the other hand, gets even closer with EPA city ratings of 25 mpg for the Civic and 40 mpg for the Civic Hybrid, with an increase in price that is between $3000 and $5000. If you keep the Honda Civic Hybrid for 7 years, you will get your money back….

    I agree with you that with costs for hybrids continuing to come down, and the cost for gas continuing to rise, we will see cost savings becoming a factor sooner rather than later….

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Great case study. I personally, think that the reason people whine about hybrids not getting the EPA mileage while they don’t whine about pure ICE missing the mark is because they care and actually look at the MPG readout on the display.
    As far as buying an FEH to save money: The others here are probably right that it may not save you money if you only look at gas money. The reduced maintenance costs (FEH has been awesomely low in maintenance needs) may offset it however.
    If you believe that gas prices may go up in the future and you’re a long-term thinker, however, you might want to consider it for that reason.
    IMHO, however, if you have a car that is running well today and meets your needs, I recommend you keep driving it and save your car payments. Good plug-in vehicles will be available in a few years and they’ll be far superior to today’s wimpy hybrids that still require gas.

  • HybridDan

    DaveR – Where are you getting your numbers on the Ford Escape?

    According to Kelly Blue Book, the 2WD Escape Hybrid gets 32% better gas mileage than the 2WD XLT and costs $5600 more.

    (Comparing the 2WD Hybrid to 2WD XLT, which the Hybrid is closest to in options.)

  • GirishLaikhra

    Hello everyone i am completely new to this forum.
    Interested in learning many new things. Hope we all will share our
    knowledge and talk about different concepts in this forum.
    ——–
    Girish
    ——–

  • Lost Prius to wife

    Welcome to this forum. You will find many different opinions, many thought processes, facts and figures as can be seen in above comments. Almost all that are regulars to this site are pushing hard to get further away from the oil / gas vehicle economy as fast as possible; we varied on what is the best route. It is nice to receive the many gathered facts from this site and extrapolate them as to what is to be the future, both good and bad. Feel free to have a go at the crystal ball.

  • agapemike

    Driver education is the key. I own an ’03 HCH and get around 10-20% better MPG than my wife when she drives it. This is true for our non-hybrid ’04 Malibu Maxx and the ’02 Windstar the Malibu replaced.

    Regardless of what side of the discussion you find yourself on, you can save fuel by planning for a reasonably small addition of time to your commute. Seriously, folks, is the gas burned in a jackrabbit start off the traffic light really worth arriving at work 3 to 5 seconds earlier? Does it make sense to save 2 minutes by taking the freeway if you drive a few miles farther and lower your mpg by driving 70 mph or faster?

    Another minor cost savings to think about is brake liner replacement. I have driven my HCH over 65,000 miles (since buying it used with around 60K miles) and still have enough thickness left on my brake pads that the dealer didn’t suggest replacing them at last scheduled maintenance check. I attribute this to intelligent approaches to stops and corners, using “engine braking” with very little use of the brakes.

  • Bob Caruso

    Thank you very much for that article. It is vert refreshing to hear a person of reputbable credentials confirm that you don’t get advertised MPG in these cars. I have a 2007 Prius that was advertised at 52/60. I don’t drive it hard and do my share of coasting but I avg 44 MPG, a figure that is in line with what the rating was dropped down to in 2008 under the new formula. It aggravates me to no end when persons on this site talk about getting 60+ miles on their same gen Prius and talk down to us normal people with this MPG as if we don’t know how to drive & are gunning our Prius as if we are trying to win the Indy 500. I have no doubt that you can get 60 MPG if you drive like Mr. Magoo holding up traffic thereby forcing people to pass, which is dangerous. Driving the always mentioned here 55 especially dangerous on a 65 MPH highway which is why driving below the limit by that much is illegal. I drove nothing but 55 as an experiment once & got the 52 MPG but most states allow for 7-8 MPH over the speed limit before issuing a ticket & people use it. So forcing people to pass all the time is going to happen quite frequently.

    The 44 MPG I get is great but you can’t expect me not to be disappointed with the 52/60 advertised. I had dreams of filling my my car once every 500-600 miles for crying out loud!! Sure you can get it, but instead of advertising MPG will vary, it should state it is only obtainable if you drive no more than 55 MPH which is the reality. SO STOP TELLING US THAT AMERICA DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO DRIVE IF THEY DON’T GET ESTIMATED MPG BECAUSE THIS EXPERT’S ARTICLE JUST STATED THE CONTRARY!!

    SO STOP TE

  • Barbara

    After a year and a half of ownership I am getting less that 35 MPG on city AND Highway driving.

    We’ve been had and yes Honda should compensate.

  • bob skincell

    my hybrid sucks

  • tapra1

    the newer and nicer model for longer trips, although always using the beater for the 90-mile round trip to the airport when leaving a car for several nights in a parking garage.Tutorials

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