Environmental car choice?
June 13, 2006 8:32 PM   Subscribe

Car question: a choice among Honda Ciivc Hybrid, Toyota Prius, and VW TDI Jetta. Primary concerns (in order of priority): (1) general safety, reliability and maintenance issues, (2) gas mileage, (3) emissions, (4) pimpin' built-in iPod accessories. The car's used 80% in a daily stop-and-go commute (40-60 mins each way) but road trips are certainly in mind too. Opinions, experiences, venting appreciated.

I know there's like some big difference between the way the hybrid engine functions in the Prius vs. the Civic, but I don't know what it is. The TDI is in there because I'm sort-of thinking about the biodiesel possibilities, and preliminary research indicates diesels do well against hybrids for mileage and such.
posted by xmutex to Travel & Transportation (39 answers total)
1. prius with side airbags gets outstanding crash ratings. without side airbags, not so hot.
2. my dad has the HCH and gets about 40mpg overall. i have a prius and get 50-52mpg, but my driving is mainly freeway.
3. probably prius and HCH are about the same on emissions.
4. 06 prius has a aux input on the stereo, but no built in ipod accessories. there is probably something 3rd party though.

the HCH with navi has a PCMCIA card slot for mp3s!

sorry, i dont know anything about the TDI jetta. i talked to a guy with one once and he said he gets about 50mpg though.

the prius has 2 electric motors and an ICE connected by a planetary gear system, which functions as its (continuously variable) transmission. the HCH is a lot more straightforward. ICE with a very thin electric motor basically where the flywheel is. its not as high tech, and has some other kind of design for a CVT, which may be less reliable.
posted by joeblough at 8:37 PM on June 13, 2006

Is a regular Civic an option? At this moment, at least, it's probably more reliable, and cheaper to maintain, than any of the options you mention.
posted by box at 9:18 PM on June 13, 2006

Stay away from the TDI if you're worried about emissions, it's pretty bad. In fact, it's four times as bad as a gasoline, non-hybrid corolla.
posted by delmoi at 9:19 PM on June 13, 2006

A lot of the people I work with drive hybrids as work vehicles. Hands down the Honda Civic gets the best word-of-mouth for mileage, performance and driver enjoyment.

The TDI seems to have had some reliability issues from what I've heard and personally I hate diesel fumes.
posted by fshgrl at 9:19 PM on June 13, 2006

Oh yeah, biodiesel cars produce more smog then gasoline burning cars. Biodiesel does nothing for the environment, it just saves you money on gas. Biodiesel is worse for the environment then gasoline.
posted by delmoi at 9:20 PM on June 13, 2006

Second a regular civic. The current generation of hybrids don't match up to their gasoline counterparts in terms of cost/benefit when you apply maintainence. I read somewhere the the manufacture of the batteries causes so many emissions that it will offset any you save. Search google on this subject and you will find somewhat of a concensus about this.
posted by milinar at 9:21 PM on June 13, 2006

aarrrgh! Why are hyperlinks so complicated?
posted by hammurderer at 9:23 PM on June 13, 2006

3. probably prius and HCH are about the same on emissions.

The prius is a bit better then the HCH on emissions, from what I recall.

/does some googling.

The Prius and the Civic hybrid are the only gasoline powered cars that are carpool elegable in California.
posted by delmoi at 9:30 PM on June 13, 2006

(4) pimpin' built-in iPod accessories.

Seconing hammurderer, I'd ignore this. Aftermarket stereos with aux inputs are cheap. They're not difficult to install (a lazy Sunday afternoon project), or getting them put in is cheap. I've done it a couple of times with no problems, and I am an inept clod.

If you're going to factor it in, just increase the cost of a car with no pimpin' iPod accessories by $300 or so to take into account swapping out the factory model.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:42 PM on June 13, 2006

I did a lot of comparison between the Civic Hybrid and the Prius before going for the Prius two weeks ago. What ended up making the decision was storage space — the Prius has fold-down seats (and a hatchback), the Civic does not. (Part of the decision also was that I was able to check out a Prius on the lot, while my local Honda dealerships didn't have Civics to look at.)

The Civic was rated higher safety-wise, but if you spring for the side curtain airbags in the Prius the difference was negligible. As far as Ipod-friendliness, I don't know about the Civic but the best the Prius off-the-lot offers is an aux jack and power supply inside the center console (between the front seats) so you can stow your MP3 player in there full-time. There was no fancy interfacing or anything, but I'm sure if you shopped around for a different radio you could find something (hell, people have run Macs on the Prius dash screen with enough hacking) for either car.

I'll let someone more technically inclined speak to your gas-mileage and emissions questions. From my shopping and internet research, the Prius seemed the better bet, but it was a bit over my head and the end-difference seemed like not a huge deal.

The biggest differences seem to be the space-agey features on the Prius. The key never leaves my pocket. The door unlocks when I touch the handle. I get in the car and press "Power." The controls for the CD changer, et cetera, can be a little annoying. There are controls on the steering wheel that are actually quite intuitive to use, but for changing a more advanced setting you have to go to the touchscreen (this goes for the air conditioning, too). As I said, I didn't get to see a Civic in person, but from what I understand the interface is a lot more traditional. The Prius in Europe and Japan can apparently run in electric-only stealth mode which seems awesome — in the US the button is missing but you can add the functionality at home with a screwdriver if you shell out $40 for the part (may void your battery warranty).

From everything I've read online, mechanics see Priuses for oil changes and never see them again. The car just works. No idea whether the same goes for the Civic.

Here's a good place to start, hybrid-wise, and here's a good article from Australia. Be careful while Googling that you're comparing 2006 models (or whatever year you're likely to buy) — these things really improve by leaps and bounds.

By the way, while I'm sure there is some truth to the Prius waiting list complaints, I got mine in less than a week in Northern NJ. I was exacting about the color (and, man, is it gorgeous), but willing to bend a little on the package (the higher-end packages seem easier to get your hands on).
posted by rafter at 9:54 PM on June 13, 2006

Swapping the factory model is not very much an option with cars that use non-standard control designs or integrate with the nav system. Honda certainly makes an iPod link and I believe the new Civic is compatible .. but while owning a Shuffle and Nano I'd never bother with XM and DVD-Audio in my car - seriously.
posted by kcm at 9:56 PM on June 13, 2006

Aftermarket stereos with aux inputs are cheap. They're not difficult to install (a lazy Sunday afternoon project), or getting them put in is cheap.

Take a Prius to an aftermarket stereo installer and you will be laughed at. At least, that's what I've been told.

The good news is that IIRC Toyota this year is making MP3 CD support standard in all its vehicles. I know the just-intro'd Camry has it, possibly they have added it to the other models already as well. Frankly, that's nearly as handy as an iPod. More so, in fact, because you can leave it in your car instead of having to unplug it and take it with you to prevent it from being stolen. You get 6-8 hours of music on an MP3 CD and yeah, iTunes will burn one for you.

I'm not sure what Honda and VW offer in terms of MP3 CD support.
posted by kindall at 10:28 PM on June 13, 2006

If you buy a new Prius and take delivery before 9/30/2006, you get a $3150 credit on your 2006 Federal income tax.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:30 PM on June 13, 2006

Take a Prius to an aftermarket stereo installer and you will be laughed at.

Crutchfield agrees. Huh. Toyota are dicks.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:09 PM on June 13, 2006

kindall: "The good news is that IIRC Toyota this year is making MP3 CD support standard in all its vehicles."

I don't think the most basic Prius package has MP3 CD (or an aux jack), but then it doesn't have the side-curtain airbags or the Smartkey system either. By the time you get to the second or third package up the in-dash CD player will play MP3-CDs that you can browse with the touchscreen interface.

As far as the interface, goes, though, it may as well be an Ipod Shuffle as the only viable playing options are straight through or random. The file/directory browsing is so slow and shows such a little portion of the filename that it's absolutely worthless. Works great for going through all the MP3s on a CD in order or just putting it on random and forgetting about it (you can use the steering wheel buttons to scroll through songs use the radio tuner knob to go through them much faster). That is, it's a suitable replacement for CDs (since you can get several albums on one MP3 CD) but it can't compare to even a basic MP3 player. I find it easier and faster just to use my clunky old Archos MP3 player on Aux when I'm taking a trip of reasonable length.
posted by rafter at 11:12 PM on June 13, 2006

Edmunds put the Civic Hybrid and the Prius head to head in a recent comparison test.
posted by roomwithaview at 11:31 PM on June 13, 2006

It's worth noting that on the Edmunds comparison the Prius scored 77% while the Honda scored 76.3. Seems like splitting hairs, really. Make sure you check out the ratings there -- the Prius really only scored higher on performance, which may or may not matter.

My friend bought a 2006 Honda hybrid 2 weeks ago and it is a beautiful car. We tested the Prius as well. The Honda is very much like a regular car in every way. It doesn't have any real bells and whistles that scream hybrid. The Toyota has a huge flatscreen panel showing stupid graphics which reflects a lot of glare. I'd get really tired of looking at the little battery graphic go around and around, pac-man style.

Driving both, if you get in the groove, the Toyota can be driven slowly arounnd town almost all on electric only. The Honda, if it is moving, has the gas engine on -- just getting variable amounts of assist. First tank through the Honda we got 665 km for 37.5 litres of regular. That converts to 41.7 miles per U.S. gallon in combined city/highway driving, very close to the claimed 42.8 miles/US gallon. From what we read, gas mileage is usually well below the claimed figures for the Prius anyway.

Anyway, it boiled down to them both being good cars, but the Toyota was 5,000$ (Canadian) more expensive, so it was no contest.
posted by Rumple at 12:57 AM on June 14, 2006

Others have said it, but if your #1 concern is reliability, stick with Honda or Toyota, you can't go wrong. German cars are hit or miss wrt reliability. Personally I don't feel like hybrids do a whole lot, for the environment or your wallet, but if someone says he's getting 52mpg in a Prius, that's not too shabby.

Also, all cars made recently are very safe (except SUVs). I don't think there are significant differences between any of the cars you mentioned regarding safety.

Finally, my dad gets 38 to 40mpg consistently in a plain old 2004 Civic DX 5-speed. If a Civic hybrid gets you 42, I don't see it as being worth the cost.
posted by knave at 1:11 AM on June 14, 2006

From what I've heard about VW's TDI engines, it's not particularly good on the engine if you aren't doing a lot of highway driving. This is from my stepfather, who has driven VWs for 20+ years. Reliabilitywise, I have never seen any probems with the 4 or 5 different VWs he and my mother have owned over the last 10 years. I remember the old 80's VWs were particularly unreliable, but I don't think that reputation is really valid any more. I certainly know that I haven't had a single problem with my 2000 Lupo.

You didn't say what years you were looking at, but FuelEconomy.gov lists the Jetta diesel as getting 35 city and 42 hwy mpg for the automatic. Note that the emissions are a 1/10 (0 being the worst).
posted by antifuse at 2:54 AM on June 14, 2006

One other thing--I tried out a Prius last year, and was really, really bothered by the very limited visibility out the rear window. (It's a design feature, apparently; they've styled the thing so it has, like, a huge butt.) I'd pay attention to that in a test drive, and see how it affects you, before making a decision; being unable to clearly see what's going on around you is a major safety issue. (I ended up with a regular Civic sedan and have been very happy.)
posted by Kat Allison at 4:25 AM on June 14, 2006

Regarding the Prius' mp3 CD capabilities on the next model year, I certainly hope it works better than what I have in my Toyota. This March, I leased a 2007 Yaris and got the 6-mp3 CD in dash changer, thinking, "This will be great - I can have ~36 hours of music!" Unfortunately, I found the way the mp3 CD player worked to be infuriating. It seemed to have no sort of memory capacity for the song it had most recently been playing, so when the car was turned off and turned on again, it took 30 seconds for the song to resume playing. I'm sure this wouldn't be as bad in the Prius, considering you can't stall it (ah, the joys of learning standard). I also found the shuffle option strange, in that it would shuffle between songs on its own normally, but I could find no way to skip to the next shuffled song - it would only manually go to the next sequential song. Perhaps there's some way I could resolve this if I wasn't car audio-incompetant, but I've resigned myself to just having 6 audio CDs in my changer. It's enough to make me wish I had spend my $200 on an aftermarket player.
posted by flying kumquat at 4:55 AM on June 14, 2006

This is slightly off topic, but since this thread is here...

I was given a ride in a Prius the other day. Sitting in the backseat, the roof seemed awfully close to my head. (I am only 5'7" but I have a long torso so my sitting height is higher than average.) Can tall adults sit in the back without bumping their heads?

Even now when I look at a Prius from the outside it seems that the "bubble" of the roof doesn't leave much head room for people in the back.
posted by puffin at 5:17 AM on June 14, 2006

I've had my Civic Hybrid for a year and love it. I was unable to test-drive the Prius because no local dealer had one in stock. Having ridden in Priuses since then, as people said above, the lcd screen is annoying and the controls for the AC are impossible to find.

My Civic is exactly like my friends' Civics, except I get better gas mileage and the emissions are lower because it turns off at stop lights. I bought a hybrid because I wanted the gas mileage and low emissions but also because I wanted to encourage the industry to keep trying to make better cars. I hope that when this car finally dies in 10 or 15 years I won't have to buy another hybrid because something better will have come along.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:55 AM on June 14, 2006

Rumple, if you want to maximize your gas mileage, you need to monitor that screen closely. it is by no means "stupid". in fact the HCH just isnt high-tech enough for me - its too much like a regular car. and as i mentioned it does not get as much MPG as the prius in my own real-world tests.

knave, if you care about emissions then the hybrid models do much better. also, the HCH and prius will get much better city mileage than a plain ICE-driven engine.

puffin i am 6'1" and i dont have a problem sitting in the back seat. my legs are probably longer than yours, though. in fact i find the back seat of the prius has more legroom than the front!

flying kumquat - yes, the built-in changer kind of sucks. it doesnt work like an iPod - it makes an on-the-fly decision after every track to calculate the next track. and the next/back buttons don't go to the previously played track, instead they go to the next track in disc order. works okay but using the iPod is better.

finally you can do a hack to the prius that will force it to run on batteries only under 34mph. as others have noted there is no corresponding hack for the honda because the ICE always has to turn (though even if it is turning its not necessarily sparking or consuming gas). the prius hack is considered to be a novelty unless you really pay attention to how you use it - its usually better to let the computer manage the battery. i live on a hill so i get a lot of use out of it in the morning while coming down the hill. i can avoid starting the ICE until i'm on the freeway, where the engine can run at higher (and more efficient speeds) to recharge the battery that i've used up in the flat parts right before the freeway.

one thing that was an issue for someone at work: the prius seat does not have up/down adjustments while the HCH does. if you are really short you may find that you cant see out of the prius.
posted by joeblough at 6:58 AM on June 14, 2006

oh yeah, you should be able to get a tax credit for the HCH as well, but the amount is reduced as its EPA rated MPG is less.

beware though, if you pay AMT the credit does not apply. also you can not reduce your tax liability below your AMT so you may only recieve a partial credit.

also the HCH and prius are both eligible for solo carpool lane driving in many states, california being one of them as delmoi points out. in california when they reach 75,000 stickers the program is over (i think they are around 60,000 right now) and the program is due to expire at the end of 2007 unless extended by the legislature.

another option is the CNG (compressed natural gas) civic. these are carpool-eligible in california also. you get a special pump installed in your house that can refuel the car overnight. not sure what the cost is compared to the hybrid model.
posted by joeblough at 7:06 AM on June 14, 2006

FWIW, I have a regular old 4th generation Jetta (2000 GL). I love my Bessie and she's really fun to drive (even with the teeny 1.8L motor) but man were the first few years a pain in the ass. I know the early 2000 Jettas were particularly bad - I've commiserated with quite a few other Jetta owners - but in general VWs are plagued by problems. On one hand, they drive well and I've never had any problems with the motor or what have you. On the other hand, the list of crappy plastic things that have broken include the cup holder (twice!), glove compartment, door handle, and of course the infamous front splash guard that slowly pulled away and finaly flew off on I-10!
posted by radioamy at 8:00 AM on June 14, 2006

I didn't think it was possible, but you do get used to the weird visibility out the back of the Prius. It's really annoying for several weeks, though. I have very good visibility, though, between the rear and side mirrors.

I've put 6'+ men in the back seat, and the ceiling seems close but there really is room enough to be safe. I don't know if the Civic's got decent knee room in the back. My Prius isn't as good as my husband's xB (best back-seat legroom this tall girl's ever seen), but it's pretty good.

The AUX jack was an important factor for me, but I will say they put it in a stupid place - on the 06, at least, it's inside the armrest console, so you either have to feed the cable out and close the armrest on it, or open the armrest every time you need to fiddle with your iPod. There's a 12v plug in there, too.

I don't watch the battery ("Energy") display go around and around. My default screen is the Consumption display, which shows your current MPG plus 5-minute averages over the past 30 minutes. That's how the car trains you to drive more efficiently, and I like it, though it's true that the screen is reflective as hell and shows every greasy fingerprint you put on it.

I am only getting 42-44 in the Dallas heat with the AC cranked on a stop-and-go 20-mile commute each way. It is not yet time to buy a hybrid if you're expecting to make your money back. There are some pretty wild rumors going around about the capabilities of the 07 or 08 Prius, if you want to buy a gas Civic and bide your time on the technology. I really like my car, though, and I'm glad I bought it and not something else.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:19 AM on June 14, 2006

As far as the interface, goes, though, it may as well be an Ipod Shuffle as the only viable playing options are straight through or random. The file/directory browsing is so slow and shows such a little portion of the filename that it's absolutely worthless.

Well, it's not as if you could reasonably browse songs on an iPod while you're driving either. (I've tried.) I always end up playing my MP3s straight through anyway, whether on CD or iPod. My stereo (a nice Kenwood aftermarket unit) has an iPod input, but I never use it.

The track skip misfeature on the Prius does sound sort of annoying if you shuffle, but you can avoid it needing it by making CDs with only songs you like... why would you make a CD that has songs on it you'd want to skip over, anyway?
posted by kindall at 8:21 AM on June 14, 2006

well i did make discs with songs that i want to hear, but sometimes i get sick of one, or want to listen to one again, and its not convenient to do so.

the other stupid thing is that while the car is moving, lots of MFD functionality is 'greyed out'.. i guess their laywers made them do this. so having an mp3 disc with a bunch of folders is kind of a lose - you cant really navigate the folders while you are moving.

a friend at work has the HCH with navi, and the nav computer is really slow. i dont know why they insist on putting wimpy processors in there. its probably worse than a 1mhz 6502.
posted by joeblough at 8:26 AM on June 14, 2006

the other stupid thing is that while the car is moving, lots of MFD functionality is 'greyed out'.. i guess their laywers made them do this. so having an mp3 disc with a bunch of folders is kind of a lose - you cant really navigate the folders while you are moving.

What's most annoying is that there is a weight sensor in the passenger seat (for the seatbelt warning and the passenger airbag) — why not let you use the display/nav while driving if there is a passenger? (For $100 it looks like you can disable the greying-out — not sure if this applies to the MP3 features, too, or just the nav.)

(By the way, if you go with a Prius, here's how to disable the back-up beeping. You'll thank me later.)
posted by rafter at 8:47 AM on June 14, 2006

joeblough, I heard it on the radio a couple days ago, but I don't have a link to back it up, that the environmental cost over the lifespan of the car may actually be higher with hybrids. Lifetime costs include the environmental cost of manufacturing it, battery recycling, etc.
posted by knave at 10:44 AM on June 14, 2006

the "cradle-to-grave" environmental cost meme is a crock, and was put forward by a PR firm contracted by some american car manufacturer. they actually made the argument that a hummer H2 is better for the environment on these grounds, which is ridiculous.

i think the backup beep disable doesnt work on the '06 prius, nor does the nav override...
posted by joeblough at 11:02 AM on June 14, 2006

If you heard it on the radio it must be true, knave.
I thought there was a thread about this on MeFi but I can't find it. By considering "energy use" including design costs, projecting a 10 year life for a hybrid vs a 20 year life for other cars and other tricks somebody "proved" that we are better off driving nearly anything else. Roundly called Bullshit on it.
posted by pointilist at 11:05 AM on June 14, 2006

joeblough: "i think the backup beep disable doesnt work on the '06 prius, nor does the nav override..."

The beep disable works (I just did it the other day. I didn't mind the beeping but it drove my girlfriend nuts). It's tricky and takes a few tries (supposedly the passenger seat has to be empty). No idea about the nav override add-on — the site doesn't mention the '06, but I don't know if that means it definitely won't work or it just hasn't been tested.
posted by rafter at 11:40 AM on June 14, 2006

joeblough: stupid might have been the wrong word, annoying might be the one re: the Prius screen. It does reflect a lot of glare and has a lot of constant motion, And the HCH has real-time feedback on mileage as well, so you can learn to maximize mpg - its just more subtle.

Tangential -- why the hell don't regular cars have (or do they now?) that real time mpg feedback? -- seems like lots of people could save 10% or more on their normal car just by driving it appropriately. And the technology can't cost more than a hundred bucks.

My impression is that in town, the Prius probablly gets significantly better mileage than HCH, while on the highway it is probably a wash.

Also, the HCH mp3-CD stereo is good. The car is very quiet which helps, and the stereo adjusts volume according to what the engine is doing. It remembers tracks and so forth, no problems. It is so completely built-in that I can't imagine replacing it with an aftermarket, to be honest.

Lots of headroom in the civic rear seats. Essentially, the HCH is almost identical interior to the regular civic (probably one reason it is cheaper), so if you can't test drive one you can test drive a regular civic for the same interior sensation. Left side shoulder checks are slightly awkward/low visibility but that would depend partially where you put the seat.

Regarding the overall hybrid vs non-hybrid cost-efficiency -- when will it pay for itself in gas mileage improvement, etc. -- I really think this is a red herring. Peple pay excess cost for all kinds of reasons on new cars -- leather seats, little spoilet thingies, etc. -- and they sure don't expect to get their money back on those little perks. It seems to me that paying a premium to do a teeny bit to make the world cleaner is worth something, and is real, and calculating down to the nth degree whether one makes the money back is not really the point with these cars, not yet. If you really want cost-benefit, buy a 12k Yaris, get good mileage, and put 10k in the bank. Or into your stereo. Or hookers and blow.
posted by Rumple at 11:43 AM on June 14, 2006

If you heard it on the radio it must be true, knave.

Way to condescend. I specified because I wanted to be clear about my sources. I'm not personally making a claim one way or the other, I just felt that it was appropriate info to share.
posted by knave at 12:14 PM on June 14, 2006

pointilist: "By considering "energy use" including design costs, projecting a 10 year life for a hybrid vs a 20 year life for other cars and other tricks somebody "proved" that we are better off driving nearly anything else."

The study was done by CNW Marketing Research (and the word "marketing" should tell you how much to trust them right off the bat). All the news articles I've found seem fairly thin on details, but the first commenter here seems to shed some light on the sheer level of the BS. And, from this interview, "the study includes the energy put into research and development, which Art said is much higher for the hybrid than it is for the ICE" (oh really?) and "The study uses expected lifetime mileage of the vehicles. Hybrids are only expected to live for 100,000 miles, but trucks are expected to live for 250,000 miles" (does this correspond to any real world numbers?).

Googling turns up a lot of disappointing blog entries and news write-ups that seem to have bought in hook, line, and sinker — for instance, this CBS piece called The Hybrid Hoax has pull-quotes like "About 58 percent of hybrid drivers say they aren't happy with their fuel economy (compared with 27 percent of conventional vehicle drivers)." Because "happiness" with fuel efficiency is an objective criteria by which to compare Prius and Hummer owners.

And here's the original MeFi thread discussingthe hybrid energy cost study, which has a lot of insightful comments.
posted by rafter at 12:25 PM on June 14, 2006

Prius....Toyotas are unbeatable for reliability.
posted by onepapertiger at 1:40 PM on June 14, 2006

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