In automobile terms these days, "hybrid" means a vehicle powered by a combination of gasoline engine and electric motor; one that does not need to be plugged into an electric outlet to be recharged.
Japan's Honda was the first company to sell a hybrid car in the U.S. Honda brought a two-seater coupe, the Insight, to market in late 1999 and is selling between 4,000 and 5,000 Insights per year. In March, the company will expand its hybrid technology to the popular Civic sedan.
Dan Bonawitz, Vice President of Corporate Planning and Logistics at American Honda, explained why the Civic was chosen for this next step. "It's an entry level into the brand for us. So it introduces many consumers to the possibility in the Honda brand," he said.
Dan Bonawitz has said his company gained valuable experience by marketing the Insight over the past couple of years.
"When we introduced the Insight, it was a technology test-bed, a lot of new manufacturing methodologies, and of course the hybrid powertrain. We wanted to introduce the hybrid technology to the American public on a limited scale and learn from the use of that technology in the real world," he said.
By bringing the Civic Hybrid to market, Honda moves beyond that "limited scale." The international marketing information firm, J.D. Power and Associates, has done a study of the hybrid market. Thad Malesh, director of alternative power technology for the research firm, sees the Civic Hybrid as an important step.
"That's one of the advantages that we're going to have here shortly with the Honda Civic. It's going to be sold to mainstream new vehicle buyers. That's when the real test of this technology will come about," he said.
Mr. Malesh has said American consumers will not buy risky technology just for the sake of having something new and different. "Consumers aren't really willing to put up with quality problems, satisfaction problems. Something like breaking down or failure to operate is just unacceptable to American consumers today in the automotive market," he said.
Apart from the Insight's two-seater coupe size and styling, we asked Dan Bonawitz how the Civic is different.
"Well, it uses a little bit larger gasoline engine. The battery pack, the control unit are lighter weight, smaller. They're located behind the rear seat now, instead of taking up a significant area of storage or passenger compartment," Mr. Bonawitz explained.
Official fuel economy figures are not yet final for the new Civic Hybrid, but it's expected to be about 4.7 liters/100 km., making it the most fuel-efficient five-passenger sedan sold in the world.
Both Toyota and Honda reportedly lose money on every hybrid they sell. The new Civic Hybrid will be priced around $20,000, which is the price of the Toyota hybrid, the Prius. Honda's Dan Bonawitz acknowledges hybrids are not yet profitable, however, "it's an investment now, but one we expect to pay off in the not-too-distant future."
J.D. Power's Thad Malesh predicts a solid future for hybrid vehicles. By 2006, he expects U.S. sales of a half-million hybrids per year, with 20 or 25 models available. And they won't just be small economy cars. Ford plans a hybrid sport utility vehicle next year and Honda will introduce a high-performance hybrid for its luxury Acura line in the near future as well, featuring 400 horsepower and 72 kilometers per U.S. gallon.