Hybrids Rule: 2008 's Top Five (Part 2)

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Honda Civic — Base Price, 24,350; Safety Features, Dual front, front side and side curtain airbags; Fuel Mileage estimates, 49-51 mpg; Warranty, Bumper to bumper, 3 years/36,000 miles; Powertrain, 10 years/100,000 miles, Corrosion, 5 years/unlimited miles.

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Economy to design, functionality to comfort, the country’s second most popular hybrid has as much to offer as any car on the road and at any price.

The 2008 edition (the Civic’s 36th year) is the third year of the second generation of the hybrid and is part of the ever-expanding array of one the most enduring enduring vehicles on the road today.

Long gone is the Civic’s former staid appearance. It’s now a sporty, full-sized sedan that comfortably seats five. And it has a new overt quality — quietness.

During stops it seems like the Hybrid’s engine has stopped. Instead, it’s the engine operating solely on electric power. The hybrid Civic is equipped with a 110-horsepower, 1.3-liter engine with two relatively new features largely known by acronyms, IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) and CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission). A five-speed manual transmission was previously available, but now the hybrid is only offered with an automatic transmission.

The IMA allows the vehicle to operate solely on electric power in certain situations. The CVT feature replaces conventional gears with a belt-and-pully system that continuously and automatically adjusts to provide a more efficient and nearly unlimited number of drive ratios.

The Civic’s near-futuristic instrumentation panel offers a unique visual.  The odometer and speedometer cluster panel is narrow, horizontal and contoured for the driver’s vision just over the curved top of the steering wheel. It’s a unique look, and it’s one more reason why the Civic Hybrid just works.

Mercury Mariner — Base price, $25,655; Safety Features, dual-front, front side and side curtain airbags; Fuel Mileage estimates, 29-27 mpg (AWD); Warranty, Bumper to Bumper, 3 years/36,000 miles; Powertrain,  8 years/100,000 miles; Corrosion, 12 years/unlimited miles.

Now in its third year, the Mariner hybrid received a refreshed interior and exterior for 2008, and with its re is available with three engine options, with the hybrid teaming an all-wheel-drive, four-cylinder gas engine with a battery-powered electric motor, and it uses a continuously variable automatic transmission.

The Mariner’s hybrid system automatically runs on one or both power sources. The hybrid and the larger V6 option also include four-wheel disc brakes and an antilock braking system (ABS).

Like most SUV’s, (hybrid or gas) the Mariner provides good visibility and versatility. It offers a surprisingly adept turning radius and a smooth, steady ride . Likewise, like its hybrid brethren, the Mariner is particularly quiet during stops when the electric motor dominates.

Hybrids aren’t known for swift acceleration or power to spare, and that’s holds true for the Mariner. It’s not slow (it has a 0-60 mph rating of 9.6 seconds). But accelerating does take an extra effort, and the hybrid could use some extra horsepower on steady inclines.

The Mariner has a handsome exterior with nicely contoured edges, a complementary front grill and well-designed front and rear lights. It has room for five adults, good leg and head room, and good cargo space with individual window and rear hatch opening

It’s available in one four-door body style with either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Standard features include: air conditioning, power steering, tilt leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, cloth upholstery, front bucket seats, center console, cup holders, split folding rear seat, power mirrors, windows and door locks, remote keyless entry, keypad entry, AM/FM/CD/MP3 player, digital clock, tachometer, variable-intermittent wipers, visor mirrors, map lights, rear defogger, rear wiper/washer, floor mats, theft-deterrent system, fog lights and rear back-up hazard detection system.

The Mariner’s leather trim, navigation system, side airbags and heated power mirrors are all part of the nearly $4,000 “premium package.”

With its option costs and delivery and destination charges, the Mariner’s final approaches $33,000. That’s more than many of its competitors, but Mercury hopes the vehicle’s good looks and steady marks in most categories will help it attract a good share of the crowded SUV market.

Toyota Prius — Base price, $20,950; Safety Features, dual-front, front side and side curtain airbags; Fuel Mileage estimates, 45-48 mpg; Warranty, Bumper to Bumper, 3 years/36,000 miles; Powertrain,   8 years/100,000 miles; Corrosion, 5 years/unlimited miles.

It’s not only the most popular hybrid, it’s among the best-marketed and now among the country’s top-10 best-selling cars.

And what did Toyota do with the Prius as the dominant hybrid on the market? It further slammed the competition by lowering the price.

The Prius is also among the industry’s most deceiving offering. It looks small from the outside, but it’s really a midsize sedan with a wondrous design.

In short, how does a angular-shaped body style provide so much room for passengers and cargo alike?

Spaciousness aside, the Prius has built its reputation as the country’s most fuel-efficient hybrid, although its EPA mileage estimates have been lowered to just under 50 mpg in 2008. Still, it’s common for owners to boast substantially higher averages, particularly among those with primarily city driving routines.

The Prius can operate on electricity alone in combination with its four-cylinder engine. It’s available in three body styles — standard, base and touring. The new standard model features 15-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry, full power accessories, tilt steering wheel, touchscreen controls, a hybrid system display and a six-speaker stereo with CD player. The base model adds cruise control, different wheels and heated side view mirrors. The Touring model adds a sportier suspension, 16-inch wheels and Xenon headlights.

The Prius’ options list is extensive, with five distinct packages that combine rearview camera, keyless ignition, HomeLink, foglamps, an auto-dimming mirror, leather upholstery and steering wheel, auxiliary audio jack, MP3 playback, Bluetooth, a navigation system and a nine-speaker JBL premium sound system with an in-dash six-CD changer. Satellite radio is also a dealer option.

A 1.5-liter gasoline engine and two electronic motors, respectively, for the front wheels and as a generator to recharge the battery pack, power the Prius.

Regardless of electric or gas usage, however, the Prius, now in its third generation, is smooth and steady, although never peppy. It’s also loaded with standard safety equipment: antilock brakes with brake assist, traction control, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Stability control is a package option.

Non Prius converts still scoff at the vehicle’s unique look. But Toyota has little concern. From its humble worldwide debut in 2001, the Prius is now among the auto industry most talked products — with good reason.

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