Cars are a major contributor to pollution in cities. This is made worse by the traffic jams that plague many large cities, as not only do cars spend large amounts of time polluting without going anywhere, but they spend most of their time stopping and starting. A car's fuel consumption is highest when it is moving off from stationary and every time the car stops it loses hard earned kinetic energy.

There are many more environmentally friendly alternatives to the traditional petrol or diesel guzzling engines, some of them more viable than others, for example solar cars, fuel cells, natural gas or electric cars. Another alternative is the hybrid petrol/electric vehicle. The main difference between the hybrid car and the other alternatives mentioned is that Honda makes a mass produced hybrid car, whereas the others seem to feature mainly in documentaries and car shows.

Electric cars

Battery powered electric cars have some nice points. They are quiet (some say too quiet, making accidents more likely because it is more difficult to hear them coming). They release no gases or particles. An electric motor, unlike a petrol one, can start and stop at will, so there is no penalty in having the engine automatically turn off when the car is motionless. The one killer is that they have very limited range, usually around 100 miles before needing a lengthy recharge. You will often also lose all of your boot space to rows and rows of heavy batteries.

Best of both worlds

Hybrid cars, like the Honda Civic Hybrid try to get the best of both worlds. They have both an electric and a petrol motor.

The electric motor is always used to assist the petrol engine. Honda call this the Integrated Motor Assist or IMA system. Petrol engines are less efficient at low RPM, for example when accelerating from stationary so the electric engine will help out. At 1000 RPM, the electric motor increases torque by 66% compared to the same engine without IMA. If your speed drops below 10 mph, if battery levels are sufficient and engine temperature is high enough, the petrol engine will actually switch off. This usually happens at traffic lights and stop signs. The car is however clever enough not to turn off during stop and go driving. When you eventually move off, the electric motor acts as a starter motor and automatically gets the petrol engine going, and assists it during the initial, fuel guzzling acceleration.

And then I plug the car in and wait for 8 hours? You never need to plug this car in to charge the batteries. The batteries can recharge in 3 ways:

  • Braking: why waste your kinetic energy by turning it into heat, when you could be using it to recharge your batteries? In this car when you brake, the electric motor acts like a dynamo, slowing the car and charging the batteries. If you need to brake sharply, the Hybrid Car also has "classic" brakes that will be used if necessary.
  • Coasting: When you are coasting, a small part of engine power will be diverted to recharging the batteries. The faster you are going, the more power is diverted, the reason being that petrol engines are normally more efficient at higher speeds.
  • Acceleration: Now this may seem pretty stupid, as here it isn't "spare" energy that is being used. Why use energy to charge the batteries when it could be used to turn the wheels? This actually works out because it will only kick in if the car is accelerating in an RPM range where the engine is efficient. This ensures that the electric motor will always have enough power to assist during the less efficient periods.

The car's computer is programmed to never let the batteries go flat, if power levels drop too low, one of the recharging methods will kick in. All this means that you don't lose too much space to the batteries. A standard Civic Sedan has 12.9 cubic feet of cargo space, a Civic Hybrid has 10.1.

Other features

  • Interesting gauges: In addition to the usual set, the Honda Civic Hybrid also has a gauge to show you whether the batteries are being recharged (in which case the gauge glows green) or if they are being used by the motor (the gauge glows red)
  • Intelligent engine: For once this isn't all hype. The petrol engine used can actually switch off individual cylinders if they are not required, thus saving fuel.
  • Continuously Variable transmission (CVT): An automatic transmission normally just does what a human driver would do, shifting gears as needed. With CVT however, there are no shifts: The gear ratio changes in a continuous manner, in such a way that it is always optimum.

All of this doesn't come free. To be precise it costs $20,550 ($19,550 if you can do without the CVT). A normal Civic Sedan can be acquired for only $13,000 dollars. On the other hand one of those will be doing 32 mpg in cities, and 38 mpg on motorways, whereas the Hybrid is rated at 48 and 47mpg. These figures are actually quite interesting as you can see the job the electric motor has been doing, the Hybrid is just as efficient in both driving situations.

In all likelihood, unless you do a lot of driving you probably won't win back the difference on fuel savings. However depending on countries there are a number of government subsidies for purchasing "clean" cars. And of course the warm cuddly feeling you should get from being kind to your planet! You don't even have to look like a freak: the Hybrid Civic is very similar in appearance to a normal Civic.

http://www.hondacars.com/models/model_overview.asp?ModelName=Civic+Hybrid
http://www.hondacars.com/models/ model_overview.asp?ModelName=Civic+Sedan
http://arstechnica.com/reviews/02q3/civic-hybrid/2003-civic-hy-1.html

I actually own one of these amazing cars, and I'd like to report that it is fantastic. The fuel economy is excellent (I get slightly better than the advertised figures, on average - sometimes as high as 60mpg if driven sensibly). The ride quality is good. The interior trim is impeccable (mine is cream leather - a nice contrast to the midnight blue exterior). The overall experience of owning one is simply a joy.

If I have one minor niggle, it is the amount of luggage space - not quite as large as one would hope for in a car of this class. However, the amount of interior space is excellent - I am quite tall (over 6 feet) and often find cars cramped (particularly in the rear seat) - but the Honda Civic Hybrid has plenty of room for me in whichever seat I use.

The cost was not too bad either - I bought it second-hand (6,500 miles on the clock) for under £13,000 (non-UK people - bear in mind the UK car market charges massively inflated prices compared to continental Europe, never mind the US). Running costs are very low, and servicing is straightforward.

Oh - and this machine is stylish! When I told my work colleagues (who all drive Mercs and BMWs) that I'd got a new car, they were interested - when I told them it was a Honda Civic, they stopped being interested - when they saw it, they were all "Oh, it doesn't look like a Civic - it's pretty cool!". Most of them agree it's closer in looks to an Accord than a standard Civic (which is seen as an old person's car in the UK).

All in all, I love my Civic Hybrid, and will be looking out for another one when I have to trade in my existing one. They're quite rare in the UK, so I might have to search, but the superior quality and economy of this car make it worthwhile.

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid

A Non-Scientific, Subjective Review

(or, I Never Thought I'd Be This Green)

Even as of this writing, Hybrid cars are few and far between in the United States.1

The test vehicle was acquired for the express purpose of making a daily round trip of about 100 miles, each half of which takes between 45 minutes and an hour and a half to complete, dependent upon traffic density. The secondary purpose was that it was a spare vehicle for the people from which it was purchased - and taking it off their hands for a bit over what it'd go for at a dealership got some (much needed) cash into their pockets and made us feel good about helping them out.

Appearance

The car's attractive (for a subcompact). From the rear, some observers have mistaken it for a baby Benz. Perched on the trunk-lid is a factory-installed ersatz airfoil. Suffice it to say that this car will never go fast enough to necessitate such a device. Additionally, isn't it rather queer that for appearance's sake, extra weight was added to a car intended to be the model of efficiency. What's so attractive about the car is that some attention was paid to aerodynamics - yet it doesn't resemble the futuristic, "alien"-looking Toyota hybrid offering, the Prius. (Why on earth, I ask you, would someone want to buy a car named quite similarly to the Greek or Roman God with the enormous phallus - look at priapism?!) Honda decided to go mainstream, not overboard. The alloy wheels (standard) could have been a little more attractive, especially given the sticker price. There're big holes in them; as if one would ever need the brake-disc cooling that they seem to be intended for.

Front styling includes a generous dollop of chrome trim and ground effects. The ground effects, while esthetically pleasing, get hung up on steep driveways, the cement "logs" in parking lots, and other embarrassing places, making an unsettling crunching noise. Side trim is kept to a minimum. Door handles are attractively painted the same color as the car.

Comfort

The car is small, but intelligently laid out, making it rather comfortable to drive. When in low position, however, the tilting steering wheel plants itself right over the most important part of the speedometer crescent - a minor annoyance. The vehicle lacks power seats (not an option in this model year) and the adjustment is limited. Now, most people don't choose to sit straight-backed with the seat at a 90° angle. This driver misses the extra "upright" detent in the seat adjustment. The controls are all really easy to find and well within reach. The "smoking" option was not ordered, leaving this smoker to keep a butane lighter handy in the car. A glass with a small amount of water, soda, etc. in the right-hand cupholder serves as an ashtray most of the time.

Driving

Putting the key in and turning the ignition to "start" is the first thing that amazes people about this vehicle. Instead of the chirping of a DC starter motor, the car powers up with a slight whirring sound. Even the gasoline engine, at idle, is quite quiet for a small four-cylinder. Engine noise is further attenuated by Honda's liberal use of sound insulation of some sort. Apparently, the electric motor powers up the gasoline engine.

Engage the "CVT" (Continuously Variable Transmission) and off you go. The pep of this little car with its minuscule engine is quite remarkable. To steer it is to love it; the tightness and accuracy of the steering, combined with the delightfully "heavy" feel of the car despite its low curb weight, makes curves fun. More fun than on some sports cars I've driven that cost more than twice the price. Maneuverability is great due to the small size combined with a very, very tight turning radius. This would be a great car for New York City trips, were it not for this writer's fear that a wayward truck would crush the car and driver. Airbags and seatbelts are fine; I just like a lot of steel around me should the worst happen.2

Deceleration without braking gives one the feel of a Tiptronic transmission; the clutch is engaged all the time; the charging effect of deceleration slows the car. This adds to the overall feeling of control and performance without the hassle of clutch and shifter. A good driver should not need to use the brakes at all on the highway but for sudden maneuvers or sudden stops. Encounter a blue-haired old lady in a Buick going 40 in a 65 mile-per-hour zone? Lift your foot off the pedal and the car slows down sufficiently to avoid braking altogether until you can signal and get around her.

Creature comforts abound. The stereo is serviceable (although I will soon replace it with something a bit more powerful). The air conditioning is not just a hot/cold knob; it's intelligent, and has a thermostat (astounding in such a small, economical car). And unless one utilizes the "economy" button, the thing blows up a storm. (The economy button turns off the a/c intermittently, and when the gasoline engine is stopped.) This writer found it curious that my wife's Accord LE (a sports car with a big 6 and every conceivable creature comfort)  was seriously lacking in the air-conditioning department; but that one was an '01 model. Perhaps Honda's changed their tune about a/c. As the weather's been getting cooler, the air conditioner chooses to send warmer air to the footwell vents, and cool, dry air out of the dash vents. Very, very nice. Especially on rainy days. The cost in mileage of using the a/c is about 2 mpg.

When the engine is stopped? Yes, you saw that if you read the paragraph hereinabove with care. Now, I'd been warned by the previous owner that there are times the efficient little gasoline engine stops altogether (under braking to a stop). The first time I drove the car, surely enough, I arrived at a stop sign and the gas engine stopped. If the radio is not playing, this can be extremely unsettling for a person old enough to remember the days of carburetors. Silence - complete silence - surrounds the driver. Running through my head for a split second was a recollection of every moment that my first couple of cars, purchased in youthful poverty, would occasionally stall, necessitating at best an embarrassing moment of cranking the engine whilst the drivers behind me tapped their fingers; at worst, the need to actually get out of the vehicle to find out what was wrong. Upon releasing the brake on the Honda, however, the little engine sprung to life (spun by the electric motor) and off I went. A red lamp on the dash, under the tachometer, indicates that this "auto stop" feature is in effect. It took this writer a long, long time to get used to this phenomenon. Worse, in the heat, the a/c stops altogether (fan and all) if the "economy" button is utilized - kinda like the Honda's way of reminding one that saving natural resources requires concessions in comfort.3

Efficiency

Which brings us to miles-per-gallon. The car's rating when new is around 46-48 mpg. The best I've gotten under optimal conditions is 45 mpg. Speed has a lot to do with it. The speed/miles-per-gallon plot looks something like this:

     MPG
     46 *
          * * *
     44        *

     42         *
                  *
     40             *
                      *
     38                *
                        *
     36                  *
                          *
     34                    *
                            **
     32

        45 50 55 60 65 70 75 80
             S P E E D (MPH)

Perhaps the reason that my mileage pales in comparison to the stated mileage for the car is that the particular car we acquired had already been driven for 60,000 miles. I'm certain it needs a tune-up, and will alter this write-up appropriately after that task has been performed, should mileage improve. The '06 model is rated at a whopping 60 mpg highway.

Paying to be Green

If one goes to www.automobiles.honda.com, one can find the sticker prices and mpg ratings of the '06 Civic Hybrid. Honda's own "savings calculator," a handy tool that saved me having to spreadsheet fuel economy against the difference in price between the Hybrid and standard models, proved, however, that one has to pay to be green. Even over ten years, and even with the high daily mileage I'd put on the car; the savings in gas doesn't surpass the difference in cost. However, their handy calculator told me that I'm saving $3,200 annually over using the Toyota Sienna we now own for making the same trip. (The savings were about $4,100 over the Lincoln that the little Civic replaced.)

Fun with dials and indicator lamps

Fans of gadgets, bells and whistles will thoroughly enjoy this car's instrumentation. The odometer "trip" meters A and B also show miles per gallon (estimated by the car's computer). I try to beat my mpg by taking things easy; resetting trip "A" to zero after every fill-up. The "B" trip-meter is measuring performance overall. Until I read the owners' manual, I was a little taken aback by the huge "battery" meter on the right, and its tendency to go from low to high and back down at any given time; without relation to speed, engine rev or lack of either. It turns out that this indicates how much battery for the electric motor is left; and has no relation whatsoever to the battery hooked up to the starting battery (which also powers the accessories, headlamps, etc. and is charged independently of the big thing in the trunk that powers the electric motor).

The "Assist" and "Charge" meters remind me of the reverse of a vacuum-actuated gauge on an old Pontiac I owned many, many years ago. The function of the Pontiac's gauge was to indicate how much power (in horsepower) one's engine was delivering. The "Assist" side of the Honda's power gauge is apparently there to remind one when hard driving is losing one precious miles-per-gallon. The "Charge" gauge increments as the electric motor's battery is being replenished, during deceleration, going down hills, etc.

All in all, I'm quite fond, now, of this little buggy with its 13 gallon gas tank (which I refill only about every three days or so, despite high-mileage daily driving). On the highway, the Michelin tires that are on it hug the road. In hard turns, there's little over-steer and it recovers immediately. The ride is comfortable with a sports-car feel about it.

Finally, satisfaction is indeed derived from the fact that fossil-fuel is being saved not just for money's sake; I'm doing my bit to use less oil. The vehicle is also a certified ULEV (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle), so I'm leaving only CO2 and water in my wake. (The cigarette smoke's another thing, let's not go there.) I am exploiting the "green-ness" of the car also by parking it right in front of my business. When I see people looking at the "Hybrid" logo on the rear, I take the time to discuss it with them more often than not. (I have been admonished by more than one Birkenstock-wearing, patchouilly-reeking tree hugger for not installing solar panels in my place of business as a result.

Hybrids are now available in SUV versions (from Ford) and from manufacturers other than Honda and Toyota. Would that we could all go this way (and drive a little slower in general; what's the hurry?) the world would be healthier, and, I think, happier.

FOOTNOTES:

1. Now, if one seeks to purchase a hybrid, you can count on waiting; the dealerships sell out of them frequently. Additionally, because of the minimal supply, it's apparent that if I sell this vehicle I'll get my money back.

2. Rootbeer277 has informed me that Honda's web site makes a big deal about how the car was designed to survive impacts with larger vehicles. Regardless, when betting with my life I'll take a three-ton Cadillac Escalade over a well-engineered "crush cage" in a car so light it could be lifted single-handedly by a muscle-bound power-lifter any day.

3. The a/c fan doesn't cut off in the '06 model. Perhaps Honda got too much griping from folks who paid dearly for their green cars only to have to come to grips with what it actually feels like? Ever been in a wood-heated house in the dead of winter? Now, that's giving up creature comforts for the sake of saving fossil fuel.

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