Saturday, November 13, 2004

The Hybrid Experience

Yesterday I drove a Civic Hybrid. It was a very interesting experience.

I've heralded alternatives to the standard ICU engine, because I feel that there will be fuel shortages in the future. I've seen the Civic Hybrid as one of those alternatives. Of the four hybrids on the market as of this writing, it is the third cleanest, and arguably the most useful overall. Sales have been strong, though not nearly as strong as the Prius, and here in California, they are everywhere.

My friend let me drive it for around 10 miles, mostly on the freeway. The most immediate comparison that came to mind was with my Nissan Sentra. Basically I saw my own car as the "full engine" alternative to the hybrid, which replaces some engine with a battery.

In terms of power, the car felt just as powerful and fast as my car. It's not a sports car by any means, but any fears that the car will be anything less than a regular old compact should be alleviated.

Aesthetically, the car looks just like a regular Civic, but with a small subtle spoiler on the rear, and the word "HYBRID" in chrome. This is a car that is trying to mimic being a regular car, and not using the hybrid powertrain as a gimmick. I think that is the future of the hybrid car. Simply a trim level for a model of vehicle. The interior is much higher quality than my own car, but this is really a top of the line civic. Though it tries to be a regular vehicle, the completely electronic dashboard reveals that you spent a little extra to buy this car. I'm sure future models will do away with that to save money, but for now it looks amazing.

Handling was a little inferior to my Sentra, but I don't think that's hybrid related at all. My main concerns were with power, and overall vehicle feel. Are hybrids here to stay, or are they a passing fad? They are here to stay, completely, and utterly.

All is not perfect. There is one great drawback to the Civic Hybrid, that people may not know about. In fact there are several, and they are all related to the fact that the vehicle is a hybrid. The car makes strange sounds. I would like to drive a high end luxury hybrid, and see if those sounds are still there. But in the Civic, the battery and the electronics make for an incessant humming. Nowhere in the media have I heard a mention of this. I first noticed the humming, and thought that it was an ambulance in the distance approaching the vehicle. It is somewhat loud, but could be easily drowned out by the radio or A/C. But it is an issue.

And when the car is turned off, the battery stays on, whirring quite loudly, as it charges. This could be an annoyance to owners as well.

It's a technology that is in its infancy. It has severe enough drawbacks that I think were it not for the high price of fuel, people would eventually stop buying hybrids. But because of fuel's cost, we are forced to turn to hybrids as an option. I think and hope, as the years pass, that new generations of hybrids will overcome these problems, just as new generations of diesels are less polluting, more efficient, and dramatically quieter. I'm sure it can be done.

All in all it was an intriguing experience, my time with the Civic Hybrid. It showed to a great extent how strange and jarring it will be for most to say goodbye to the standard gasoline ICU engine. But we'll have to adapt.

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