In late 1999, Japan's Honda Motor Company became the first automaker to introduce a "hybrid" car to North America. A hybrid combines a gasoline engine with an electric motor to increase fuel efficiency and reduce air pollution. Honda now offers a second-generation hybrid in the U.S.
Honda's first hybrid was the Insight, a streamlined, small coupe with room for two people and not much more. But it shows off Honda's patented Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) technology.
The new car is the Civic Hybrid, Honda's best-selling small sedan with added hybrid features. One big advantage of a hybrid over an all-electric vehicle is the hybrid never needs to be plugged-in to a power source for a battery re-charge.
The IMA powertrain uses a small, highly-efficient gasoline engine and supplements performance with an electric motor. The electric motor assists the engine when accelerating and recaptures energy when braking or decelerating. That process is called "regenerative braking." The electricity is stored in a battery pack.
Honda's Kevin Bynoe explains the Civic's advances over the older Insight. "The [IMA] unit actually is a bit more compact than on the Insight," he said. "On the Insight, actually the battery pack takes up most of the rear of the vehicle, where on the Civic Hybrid, it kind of resides right behind the rear seat. Also, the [gasoline] motor on Civic Hybrid is larger. It's a 1.3 [liter] four-cylinder as compared to the Insight's 1.0 liter three-cylinder."
New technology is great, but how does it drive in the real world? Road & Track magazine's Shaun Bailey has tested the Civic Hybrid and likes the car, which he describes as "the basic Civic with a few extra gauges and a little less performance. However, it is perfectly adequate for daily driving," he said.
A little less performance pays off in superior fuel economy. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates the Civic Hybrid as achieving 74 kilometers per U.S. gallon (3.78 liters) in city traffic and 82 kilometers per gallon on the highway, making it the most fuel-efficient five-passenger sedan sold in the United States. That translates to 5.5 liters per 100 kilometers.
For a price of $20,000, the Civic Hybrid is equipped with front and side air bags, anti-lock brakes, automatic climate control system, a good sound system, power steering, windows and door locks and alloy wheels. "I'd say [buyers] get more than their $20,000 worth," said Road & Track's Shaun Bailey. "The car's engineering feats are worth more than that. The reason the car is so cheap is because they [Honda] want to sell the hybrid. They want to sell the public on the fuel-efficient vehicles. So, what you are getting is a $20,000 Civic with a lot more technology."
Toyota was the first in the world to bring a mass-produced hybrid to market, beating Honda by about six months. But Honda has caught up with the Civic Hybrid, now beating out the Toyota Prius for top fuel efficiency in the U.S. Meanwhile, Detroit lags behind with their hybrid technology, still in the "maybe next year" development stage.