There's talking about it, and then there's doing it.

When it comes to production-vehicle hybrid-engine technology, there are plenty of auto makers making promises. But in reality, there are only two global players: Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. Ltd.

Now Honda, with its second-generation Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system that powers the new 2003 Civic Hybrid, has gained the competitive edge when it comes to bringing the technology to the mainstream.

The Civic Hybrid is more important than just an evolution of Honda's Insight, its hybrid electric-powered 2-seater. It shows that Honda has started to seriously nail down the psyche of the average green-leaning American consumer — a consumer group that's growing increasingly stronger and more diverse than environment-minded Baby Boomers who still remember Earth Day, or twenty-somethings who stuck with recycling after connecting with the global warming lessons in elementary school. Now the group of potential hybrid buyers includes those with distaste for manipulated gasoline price-spikes or who are resentful of the U.S.'s reliance on Middle East oil.

But even many self-described “greenies” have something in common with most Americans: a loathing of personal sacrifice.

Americans never have been big on giving up their creature comforts in the name of doing the right thing. This is evidenced by Honda's sales of the science-project-like, pint-sized Insight, which cashed out at under 5,000 units last year, despite its up-to-68 mpg (3.4L/100 km) fuel economy ratings.

But with the Civic Hybrid, consumers can reap the benefits without surrendering the niceties. In short, the Civic Hybrid drives like a “real car,” besides achieving outstanding fuel economy: 51 mpg (4.6L/100 km) with a manual transmission and 48 mpg (4.9L/100 km) with its seamless continuously variable transmission.

Except for the obvious powertrain differences, the Civic Hybrid has very few changes from the standard 4-door Civic. The trunk gives up 1.8 cu.-ft. (50L) of cargo space to accommodate the battery pack, which is sandwiched between the back seat and the trunk, and the nose of the car has a more pointed look for better aerodynamics. The body changes are minor, and the good mileage figures are achieved without the radical light-weighting of the heavily aluminum Insight.

There are other small changes, such as different interior colors and gauges, but those were executed to create a distinct marketing look for the Civic Hybrid and in no way detract from the overall package.

The big changes, of course, are within the redesigned gasoline-electric IMA system, now able to propel a standard-sized 4-door car without significant loss of performance. In the IMA system, the electric motor is positioned between the engine and the transmission, assisting the engine when accelerating, providing a palpable torque kick just when you need it and recharging batteries while braking or decelerating, when extra power is superfluous.

While the Insight engine is a 3-cyl., the Civic Hybrid uses a 1.3L, 4-cyl. gasoline engine with dual and sequential ignition. The i-DSI lean-burn technology uses two spark plugs per cylinder to maximize combustion for economy and power.

A new cylinder idling system adapts Honda's VTEC variable valve timing control system to increase the amount of kinetic energy recovered during deceleration.

The Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle-compliant i-DSI engine is coupled with a more powerful electric motor, achieving 30% more torque without increasing size, as well as with a compact Intelligent Power Unit (IPU). The IPU is new, combining the power control unit and the battery pack for a 42% reduction in volume compared to the Insight, allowing for less obtrusive packaging.

Using both the engine and the motor, the Civic Hybrid achieves a maximum 93 hp and 87 lb.-ft. (118 Nm) of torque at 3,300 rpm, as compared to the standard Civic sedan at 115 hp and 110 lb.-ft. (149 Nm) of torque at 4,500 rpm.

Paired with either the manual or refined CVT, the power deficit scarcely is noticeable. An added benefit of the hybrid system is peace and quiet, silent at stop and at a whisper in motion.

Toyota's got a second generation of the Prius planned, and Ford Motor Co. is studying the hybrid HEV Escape, in volumes of 25,000, for the '04 model year. But Ford — like its Big Three competitors — circles in the “talking about it” phase, while the Civic Hybrid, starting this month, takes it to the streets. Honda plans sales of 24,000 units annually and a price tag of about $20,000.

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door HEV sedan
Engine: 1.3L (1,334 cc) SOHC I-4, aluminum /block aluminum head
Power (SAE net, MT): 85hp @ 5,700 rpm; 93 hp @ 5,700 w/IMA
Torque: 87 lb.-ft. (118 Nm)@ 3,300 rpm; 116 lb.-ft. (157 Nm) w/IMA
Compression ratio: 10.8:1
Bore × Stroke (mm): N/A
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Wheelbase: 103.1 ins. (262 cm)
Overall length: 174.8 ins. (444 cm)
Overall width: 67.5 ins. (171 cm)
Overall height: 56.3 ins. (143 cm)
Curb weight (auto): 2,661 lbs. (1,207 kg)
Market competition: Toyota Prius