TCS Daily

The Real World

By Brock Yates - July 9, 2002 12:00 AM

They fit the profile perfectly. He was balding, in his early fifties with a salt and pepper beard and a wispy ponytail that struggled for authority. She was roughly the same age, lank-haired and sporting only a dash of makeup to offset her frumpy housedress. But these were hardly displaced Okies. They were affluent suburbanites dining in a trendy Vietnamese restaurant.

There was a shiny new Honda Civic Hybrid in the parking lot. It surely had to be theirs. Like so many aging counter-culturists, their dress, their demeanor, their dining tastes exposed not their haughty attempt at individualism but rather an outdated status slavery as pitiable as the software salesmen who don leathers, paste on tattoos and ride Harley-Davidsons on the weekends.

Conversation with the pair would no doubt have revealed that they purchased the Civic due to concerns about global warming and ravaging of the environment by the Robber Barons in the White house. A better choice would have 10-speed or Birkenstocks, but the realities of our auto-cracy forces the most high-minded citizens to seek out the most economical, practical, gas-sipping vehicle available. The current selection is three-fold, the cramped, two-place Honda Insight, The Toyota Pruis or the Civic (both of which offer more interior room and four seats).

Their Civic Hybrid no doubt cost them something north of $20,000, although a $2000 tax rebate is available for Hybrid purchases. This sounds like a good deal; twenty grand for a four-place sedan that, with manual transmission, will get, according to the EPA's "Official" ratings, 47 miles per gallon in the city and 51 mpg on the highway. (The numbers are slightly less with the optional CVT automatic transmission.)

But real world test drivers tend to dispute these numbers. While Car and Driver liked the vehicle overall, their engineers, using state-of-the-art telemetry, recorded only 38 mpg while Detroit Free Press auto writer Lawrence Ulrich got 37 mpg during his stint with another Honda Hybrid.

Similar mileage numbers are produced by the rival Toyota Prius and the slick, two-seat Honda Insight coupe. The EPA's claims seem hopelessly rosy when compared to actual, on-the-road experiences.

Having driven thousands of miles in an Insight, I found it to be an appealing little machine once the mediocre handling caused by the hard-compound, skinny tires (for high mileage) and the vulnerability to cross-winds is mastered. Like the larger Civic, the Insight utilizes a 13hp electric motor like a supercharger to add power to its 1400 cc, four-cylinder gasoline engine. The system, which re-charges itself under braking and deceleration, involves brilliant, closed-loop engineering that appears, on the surface, to be the hope of the future.

But there are caveats. For openers, it is widely believed in the industry that both Honda and Toyota are losing money on their Hybrids. Both companies deny this, but rival engineers claim that the systems are so complex and expensive that sticker prices in the $20,000 range won't cover the cost of production.

And, if the miles per gallon consumed are closer to Car and Driver's 38 mpg than to the bloated EPA numbers, what are the real benefits? A well-equipped Honda Civic LX with a conventional gasoline powerplant costs over $4000 less than its hybrid counterpart. As C/D noted, driving 15,000 miles a year and buying Regular at $1.50 a gallon will save about $240 annually with the Hybrid as opposed to the LX. If you kept the car for 10 years, you still wouldn't recover the difference in price between the two models. Put another way, if the difference in sticker money was put in a money market at 5% interest, you'd earn about $175 a year in dividends. Even adjusting for inflation, etc. you'd never save enough in gasoline costs to recover the extra cost paid for the hybrid.

Ulrich of The Detroit Free Press put it another way: "Even if they deliver 50-60 mpg, Hybrids aren't big money savers, not when gas is cheaper then bottled water. Figure it out; even if you drive enough to save $300 a year in fuel costs, you'd have to drive for 13 years to balance out a $4000 premium in price."

But surely the Granola couple seated at the restaurant would argue that they are driving their Civic Hybrid for a higher purpose than the grubby quest to save a few pennies. The environment must be saved, and they are doing their part. But the disposal of the toxic, lead-acid storage battery hidden behind their back seat will be somebody else's problem when the car is scrapped. And while their car becomes jittery in cross-winds and in the company of Kenworths on the Interstate (thanks to its skimpy 158/70SR-14 tires) may puzzle them, there is a simple answer: small, narrow rubber reduces rolling resistance for better mileage but adversely effects handling.

This is hardly to suggest that they made a poor choice. The Honda Civic Hybrid is a gallant effort, but it remains light years away from the answer to saving the planet from the OPEC loonies and the Oil Patch barons. Hybrids surely lie in the future, but the debate continues as to when and if they will ever become as useful, efficient and cost-effective as the hated old internal combustion engine. Chew your Sushi on that for a while.



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