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I'm a frequent reader, rare contributor, but I thought I'd share a recent experience:

I stopped by one of the local Honda dealerships last weekend and drove the 2003 Civic Hybrid. Quite impressive technology actually. It doesn't look or feel any different than any of the other Civics on the lot. The instrument panel is completely changed from the conventional models, and includes a ton of information about battery assist/charge rates, battery level, instant fuel economy, etc. in digital readouts. As you come to a stop, you can feel the regenerative braking of the electric motors and actually see the battery guage rise. At about 5 mph, the regenerative braking cuts out, and you find yourself coasting, just like when you mash the clutch with a manual transmission (this model was equipped with the CVT, pretty neat in its own right). This car does NOT pull forward when you take your foot off the brake, either. As you know, the gasoline engine shuts off when the car comes to a complete stop (provided you have the A/C in the economy mode). When you step on the gas, the electric motors start the car moving and the gasoline engine comes to life on its own. The unbelievable part is how smooth and QUIET this whole operation is.

I'm sure everyone wants to know how slow it was. On the contrary, I didn't find a significant difference between the Hybrid and the SOHC VTEC in the EX models. The Hybrid is rated at 93hp, but actually feels better than that. The electric motors are good for some torque, but only at low RPM. Based on the HP = torque*RPM/5500, you can easily see that they're not contributing much to the bottom line hp, but it helps quite a bit getting started. With the CVT you mash the gas, the gas engine spins up to 4000-4500 rpm and stays there, the dash reads full electric motor assist, and the transmission just does its magic to keep the car accelerating at its power peak. I didn't have any trouble getting up to 75 mph to merge into highway traffic.

The Hybrid is priced about 4K above the EX model. Of course, you could argue the gap is larger than that, because you can negotiate a good deal on an EX model, but probably not a hybrid. It does come fully equipped, and even includes alloy wheels, which are extra on the EX. Considering the cost of batteries and the new technology, I wonder if Honda is losing money on every one they sell. I recall reading something last year that the cost of the batteries for electric vehicles typically exceeded the sale price of the vehicle. That should also raise a red flag to potential long-term owners. What happens when those batteries start to wear out in a few years. Will honda warrant them for some length of time? (The salesperson didn't know).

Overall I found the hybrid to be a very interesting car, and I'm curious to see what the future holds. Of course, my wife (the environmentalist) just loves the idea of it, and wants to buy one when its time to replace her car.

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