Driving the Hybrids

There are two hybrid cars in my driveway at the moment. There’s my new 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid but there is also my Dad’s 2005 Toyota Prius. The latter sits in our garage until he gets back from California where he is visiting his sister. I’ve driven both cars and I can tell you that driving a hybrid takes some getting used to.

In many ways my Honda Civic Hybrid seems more conventional. The Toyota Prius feels really out of this world. For example, at least in my Dad’s version of the car, there is no place to insert a key to turn on the engine. Want to turn it on? It’s pretty simple, just not intuitive. First, put your foot on the brake. Second, press the Power button. No key needed!

To get in the car you normally use the remote control. The car assumes that anyone who can get inside it should be okay to drive it. According to my Dad you have to have the remote control with you to actually start the car. I guess the car detects its presence through some sort of wireless signal, and will only start it if it detects it.

Many of the controls are not where you would expect it. If you are looking for the speedometer over your steering wheel, forget about it. You have to glance to your right and up a bit at look at the little monitor that tells you the current status of your car. Need to go into reverse? Don’t look for a lever between the front row seats. Instead, look for an odd lever built into the dashboard itself and look at the monitor to verify you are actually in the gear you think you are.

Backing out of the garage with the Prius does not necessarily mean starting the engine. Battery power will usually kick in to push it out of the garage. The motor seems to come on transparently when you need it. It is very quiet so it’s hard to know it is there sometimes.

In short what Toyota has done to the interior of the Prius is a little like what VW did when they introduced the Beetle. It’s like “What the heck is this?” It would deter, or certainly slow down most car thieves. I feel sorry for valet parking attendants for the next couple years. It’s going to be confusing for them.

My Dad has ridden in both hybrids. Even he noticed that the Honda Civic Hybrid coveys less road noise. It also rides a lot smoother. But having driven them both it is clear to me that the Prius is the cleaner car, simply because it seems to use the engine less. On the Honda Civic Hybrid the engine always kicks on when I start the car.

The Honda Civic Hybrid though feels much more like a “normal” car. There’s a lever to put the automatic transmission into drive or reverse, and it’s right there where it should be: between the passenger seats. I don’t have to hunt for the speedometer. It’s in my face above the steering wheel as I expect, however it’s an electronic display. There seems to be neither rhyme nor reason on when the engine will kick off. I get a feeling that in the morning the car waits until it is hot enough before the engine will kick off at stoplights. Releasing my foot from the brake kicks on the engine again instantaneously. The Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system (which indicates how the battery is helping the motor, and visa versa) is impressive. For a four-cylinder car this thing is surprisingly peppy. It does not have the power of a V-8 but the battery adds a larger than expected oomph to the acceleration that to my mind makes it feel more like a V-6.

It’s starting to feel normal to be at a light and have the engine shut off. And this is good. It seems strange that there are so many cars queued up on all sides of me with their engines running while I sit serenely inert through the three minute traffic lights.

I don’t know how many miles per gallon I will get yet. In the two weeks I’ve owned the car I have yet to refill the tank! Yes, my driving needs are modest. I have put about 250 miles on the car and the tank is still about 40% full. It seems likely I will average over 40 miles per gallon.

Some of the features, now standard in most cars, are annoying. I’m already annoyed by the optional security system. I have to use the remote to enter the car and to lock it. If I don’t the security alarm goes off. The car chirps every time I lock or unlock the car. I’m sick of it. There is a way to turn it off. I’ve read the manual but I still can’t figure it out because it refers to a switch that is not in my car. I need a less hassle security system.

And I guess electronic keys are standard now. But they are new to me. I can’t get a new car key cut at the Sears Hardware, that’s for sure. I have to go to my Honda dealer and I better bring in my key code with me.

But so far at least the Honda Civic Hybrid is a neat car. It may be a hybrid but unlike the Prius when you drive it you don’t feel like you are sacrificing much. It’s definitely smaller than the Prius and I wish it were a hatchback. But for a small car it’s quiet and fun.

I look forward to the day when hybrids are mainstream. But hybrids still have to seriously catch on. I would think more people would be interested in them, not just because they care about the environment because you can get a tax credit for buying a new hybrid. It’s disturbing to read reports that hybrid SUVs aren’t selling well. The hybrid technologies certainly seem viable enough to me. I hope more Americans will see their virtues. It won’t solve the global warming or air pollution problem, but it’s a start.

One response to “Driving the Hybrids”

  1. Technical question, Mark, on your Civic, does the engine always kick itself off at stoplights? How about when there’s a real load on the electical system, say a hot day when the AC is running full bore or at night with lights, wipers, heater-defroster and probably radio on. Seems like it would be counter-productive not to have the engine-generating system in there to help that poor battery with the extra load. Frank


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