Hybrid Vehicles

The first two gas-electric hybrid vehicles to hit the American market -- the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius -- were greeted with a collective yawn. It wasn't that the vehicles weren't good. Indeed, they were remarkably good, especially when compared to the nearly useless pure electrics like the GM EV1 that preceded them. But neither Honda nor Toyota was prepared to blanket America with hybrid vehicles. In the first place, they didn't have the production capacity to sell more than a few thousand Insights or Priuses a year. And, second, theY wanted to keep the introductions fairly quiet just in case one of the cars turned out to have terrible technical teething trouble. (Say, that three times real fast.)

Certainly Honda and Toyota have impeccable engineering credentials, but a relative quiet launch seemed to be an intelligent course of action. General Motors took the opposite course with the EV1 and then saw its technical travails and lackluster sales results splashed across newspapers and magazines throughout the country.

Now, though, Honda appears ready to let the hybrid cat out of the bag. Just before Christmas, American Honda Motor pulled the wraps off its new gas-electric Civic Hybrid model in Washington, D.C. The highlight of the announcement was the revelation that sales are expected to average about 2,000 vehicles a month. If our math skills are correct that means Honda plans to sell about 24,000 Civic Hybrids in the U.S. per year, around 10 percent of overall Civic sales in this country. That's big news.

By placing the gasoline-electric hybrid system in its mainstay Civic line Honda is proclaiming that its system is ready for mass production and mass consumption. Unlike the low-volume, two-seat Insight, which has limited mass-market appeal, Honda is betting the Hybrid Civic will become a substantial part of overall Civic volume.

Will the market accept it? Aside from a relatively high suggested retail price -- Honda says it will likely be around $20,000 -- there is no reason the Civic Hybrid shouldn't do well, because the Honda hybrid system, like Toyota's, results in a car that acts and feels much like a conventional car. For one thing, to re-fuel you fill its tank up with gasoline; you don't plug it in. And its road manners are much the same as a gasoline-powered Civic. The bonus in the deal is excellent fuel economy, although we you consider the lower initial price of the gasoline-powered version, the payback period of the hybrid will be a long one.

How does the new Honda work?

The Civic Hybrid uses a small gasoline engine coupled with an electric motor to provide excellent fuel economy and good performance. Compared to the Insight, the Civic has a new, more advanced version of Honda's patented Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system. The 1.3-liter i-DSI 4-cylinder engine features two spark plugs per cylinder, allowing for a more complete combustion process. A newly developed cylinder de-activation system uses Honda's VTEC technology to idle three of the engine's cylinders during deceleration. This system reduces engine friction by 50 percent and greatly increases the amount of energy recovered during deceleration. That energy, stored in electric batteries, provides added power when needed for acceleration.

Another significant advancement from the Insight's IMA system is the combination of the Power Control Unit (the computer "brains" of the system) and the battery pack into a central system called the Intelligent Power Unit (IPU). The compact unit has minimal impact on trunk cargo volume and no impact on the Civic sedan's interior volume.

EPA fuel economy figures for the Civic Hybrid have not been finalized yet, but are expected to be about 50 miles per gallon for both city and highway driving. That's about a 30 percent improvement compared to other Civic sedan models, and would make it the most fuel-efficient five-passenger sedan sold in the world.

Blessed with an electric personality, Tom Ripley observes and reports on the world's automotive scene from his home near Paris.