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Sent to me by Mike Tebo, American Honda Motors

Winnipeg Free Press
By Kelly Taylor

OK, that's it. I give up.

There's no way I'm going to burn an entire tank of gas in one week driving the Civic Hybrid.

It's been cruising along at about 5.4 litres (1.42 gallons) per 100
kilometers (62 miles), which is about a million miles per gallon. OK, maybe 63. But it seems like a million. On Thursday of last week, after four days of driving on combined city and highway routes, I had clocked up 250 km (155 miles). The gas gauge hadn't yet fallen to 3/4 of a tank. Until Wednesday, the fuel gauge hadn't fallen from Full despite putting more than 190 km (118 miles) on the car. And all this is without paying slavish attention to driving style.

Will someone please let me drive an Excursion? Once around the block.
Please? I'm going through fossil fuel withdrawal. The shakes are going to start anytime now, I'm certain.

The Civic Hybrid eats fuel the way Calista Flockhart eats food. Very little at a time and then goes into a regeneration routine that transfers excess energy into the battery for use later.

The amazing thing, however, is how it does this while still driving very
much like a Civic. There are four seats (Honda, optimistically, says five). A trunk. ABS, auto climate control, a half-decent sound system, cruise control, air conditioning and continuously variable transmission. It handles well, accelerates briskly and stops sharply.

It's environmentalism without the burlap clothing.

The Hybrid is the next evolution of the technology pioneered in Honda's

The Insight gets better fuel economy but exacts a stiff penalty: there's no trunk to speak of and only two seats.

Where the Insight used a puny three-cylinder gas engine, the Hybrid has a four banger. The Hybrid's electric motor is also a little beefier.
Combined, the powertrain offers acceleration that lets you keep up with
traffic but won't let you win many drag races.

You won't leave anyone eating your fumes, but you won't be leaving many
fumes anyway.

We had all the details about the Hybrid system a few weeks ago, but here's a quick recap: the gas motor provides the bulk of thrust with a boost of torque coming from the electric motor sandwiched between the gas engine and transmission. On deceleration, the electric motor switches into recharge mode and siphons otherwise lost energy into the battery. Honda's VTEC (Variable Timing and Engine Control) technology is employed to turn off three cylinders on deceleration, eliminating their pumping loss to reduce engine drag and allow more energy to be recovered as electricity.

The engine shuts off automatically at stop lights, except when the air
conditioner is on. It restarts instantly and quietly as soon as the brake pedal is released.

Caught in a traffic jam on Nairn Avenue with about 50 other cars and
trucks, it struck me that if every car did this, global warming would be
less of an issue.

(Then again, being in Winnipeg, maybe that's not a good thing.)

The combined 105 ft.-lbs of torque is a little below average for this size of car, however because of the nearly flat torque curve of electric motors, the peak torque is reached at a nicely low 3,000 rpm. The effect is a Civic that's only slightly less peppy than its conventional sibling.

(In comparison, the 1.6-litre engine in the Civic LX turns 115 hp @ 6,100 rpm and 110 lb-ft. of torque @ 4,500 rpm. So even though the Hybrid has five fewer foot-pounds of peak torque, that it arrives 1,500 rpm earlier helps make up the difference.)

The Hybrid uses a 144-volt, 6 amp-hour nickel metal hydride battery pack. The logic in combining a gas and electric motor goes like this: it can be refilled anywhere that any other car can, has greater range than any gas-only vehicle and doesn't need a special charging station or massive battery.

By comparison, the General Motors EV1 electric car requires a battery with 60 amp hours capacity and has a maximum range (with an optional upgraded battery) of 200 kilometers (124 miles) on one charge, at which point it can only be recharged at a compatible charging station.

The drawback to the Hybrid scheme is that it still burns fossil fuels,
albeit slowly. It qualifies for California's Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle
(ULEV) standards, but still has emissions. Small emissions, but missions all the same.

In the driver's seat, there are few signs this is anything but a standard Civic. The most obvious is the battery level indicator and the
Charge-Assist indicator, which indicates to what extent the electric motor is either charging the batteries or assisting with acceleration.

At steady speed, the Charge-Assist light reads neutral: the electric motor is neither charging nor assisting. On deceleration, it swings left to indicate charging and on acceleration goes right to indicate assist. The only time the electric motor recharges the battery while cruising is if the battery level falls to half.

The three indicators have a curious psychological effect: you find yourself deliberately coasting in a bid to top up the battery. On acceleration, you find yourself being as docile with the gas pedal as possible.

It's almost like there's a prize for getting the battery full up. That
effect, I'm certain, has a significant impact on fuel economy.

Yet here I am, a week later, with a half tank of gas and a failed
objective. Despite manufacturing excuses to burn gas, I couldn't drain the tank.

But I did enjoy driving it. The Hybrid uses a continuously variable
transmission that varies gear ratios from 2.367:1 (roughly equivalent to a tall first gear) to 0.407:1, which is taller than most fifth gears. It also varies gearing in reverse from 4.226:1 to 3.214:1.

There is a logic to offering the CVT in the Hybrid that goes beyond
differentiating it from other Civics: the CVT has no torque convertor, with its inherent losses, to bog down acceleration or hinder recharging on deceleration. It's the best way to provide an automatic transmission in a Hybrid car.

This could be the best CVT yet, too. There is none of the elastic-band feel that many people associate with snowmobiles and their centrifugal clutch. The ratios change smoothly, though it may delay a "downshift" on kickdown momentarily. It's as close to as "normal" a feeling as possible with a CVT. You don't feel any upshifts, and often the tach will remain steady while you accelerate (a weird feeling), but you also don't feel like the engine has to race before it kicks in (a complaint with older CVTs).

The only concession the Hybrid makes to the Civic is in cargo room. The
rear seatback doesn't fold, natch, since the battery pack is mounted to its backside. And that the battery is mounted to the back of the seat means trunk space is reduced.

And then there's price. This technology isn't widely accepted, so economies of scale hit the Hybrid hard. It's priced at $28,500 (Canadian) to start, almost $7,000 (Canadian) more than a comparably equipped Civic LX sedan. Honda Canada spokesman Richard Jacobs points out that $7,000 (Canadian) isn't just for the hybrid technology, but includes automatic climate control and the continuously variable transmission.

Comparing payback time (how long it takes before you save in gas the extra $7,000) is difficult, but here's a stab: when in normal service, my 1996 Civic Si requires on average one $28 fill (at 70 cents per litre or eight cents per kilometre) per 350 km of mixed city and highway driving. Based on freelancer Haney Louka's refill at 733 km, its $35 fill (from empty, also assuming 70 cents per litre) is 4.7 cents per kilometre.

I wanted to see how far one tank of gas could go. I couldn't. I handed the keys to Haney with 520 clicks on the clock and a half-tank of gas. "Drain it and I'll buy you dinner," I told him. Little did I know he'd actually do it.
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