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First Drive

New Honda Civic Hybrid Means Motorists Can Be Both Green and Unseen

April 17, 2002|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is weird, sitting at a stoplight with the engine off and the tachometer needle resting motionless on 0.

But that's motoring in the brave new world of hybrid vehicles, in which a combination of gasoline engine and electric motor offers high mileage and reduced tailpipe emissions but often not as much comfort and drivability.

Fortunately, the 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid also drives like a standard Civic.

And unlike the first gas-electric hybrids to hit the U.S. market--the futuristic two-seat Honda Insight and the gangly five-seat Toyota Prius--the Civic Hybrid uses a conventional body.

So for those who don't like to be gawked at and questioned by passersby about their car's technical data, driving the Civic Hybrid means it is possible to be green and unseen.

The Civic's hybrid power plant is tucked beneath a standard hood, and other than a slightly different front fascia and a Hybrid badge beneath the right taillight, from the outside it is just a Civic.

Owning one will cost a bit more than having a comparably equipped conventional Civic. The Hybrid's $21,010 price tag (including Honda's destination charge) is about $4,000 more than that of a Civic LX sedan. But the Civic Hybrid comes with special alloy wheels, a CD player, upgraded seats, side air bags and remote entry--items that are options on the LX model.

The Hybrid's instrument panel, which has cool electric-blue lighting, holds the normal gauges as well as one for Integrated Motor Assist. The IMA display includes a gasoline gauge, a battery power indicator and a bar gauge that illustrates when the electric system is being recharged and when the electric motor is working.

A fuel economy indicator under the speedometer lets me know when I am being a gas hog, and it kept a running track of my gas mileage.

One model also comes with a continuously variable transmission, or CVT. This is a relatively new type of automatic that doesn't shift gears but keeps the engine running at the optimum revolutions per minute for whatever the driver demands of it--accelerating, hill climbing or hauling heavy loads.

The Environmental Protection Agency rates the Civic Hybrid with the five-speed manual transmission at 46 miles per gallon in the city and 51 mpg on the highway, the automatic version at 48 and 47. But EPA mileage is achieved by computer simulation, and few drivers get close in everyday motoring.

When I picked up a test car at American Honda Motor Co. headquarters in Torrance, the digital readout said it was averaging about 39 mpg.

When I returned it four days and about 300 miles later, I had dropped the average to 34 mpg. That's probably because, as a test driver, I do a lot of fuel-gulping maneuvering, accelerating harder and passing more than if the car were mine and I wasn't trying to discover its pluses and minuses. And my drive home includes a steep, mile-long grade that would hurt any vehicle's fuel economy.

I didn't take the car on a long highway trip, sticking instead with normal daily commuting and weekend shopping trips. So I never got to see if the Hybrid could hit 50 mpg while cruising at a steady 60 mph on the flat highways through the Mojave Desert.

But based on other drivers' experiences with the Insight and Prius, I'd expect most Civic Hybrid drivers to report average fuel consumption of 40 to 42 mpg.

That's not bad, though, and the car's credentials shine even greener when its hydrocarbon emissions are taken into account.

The Hybrid gets the same ultra-low-emission vehicle rating from the California Air Resources Board as the standard Honda Civic with a 1.7-liter gasoline engine. But the Hybrid's 1.3-liter engine produces less than half the smog-causing hydrocarbons of its conventional sibling, according to CARB data.

Vehicles such as the Civic Hybrid are relatively rare. Honda has sold just 10,000 Insights since the model was introduced in December 1999, and Toyota has sold about 20,000 Priuses since launching in July 2000.

Several recent studies have found that most people don't understand how a hybrid works and often confuse them with electric cars that must be plugged into a recharging unit.

Hybrids, in fact, combine two or more types of power units, usually an internal-combustion engine and an electric "helper," in a single self-charging package. The only refueling is at the gas or diesel pump.

The Civic Hybrid combines a small gasoline engine with an electric motor that provides an extra boost when needed.

In Toyota's case, the electric motor in the Prius also provides zero-emission electric power for creeping along in freeway traffic with the gas engine off, a feature Honda does not offer. As a result, the Prius has slightly cleaner overall emissions than the two Hondas. (The EPA compares the three hybrids at www.fueleconomy.gov.)

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