IN the two years since I began working for the Los Angeles Times, hybrid automotive technology has matured dramatically. I can't say as much for the automotive consumer.
In a strange analog to the culture wars over abortion and gay marriage, a debate is raging in the automotive blogosphere over the value and credibility of hybrid technology. You would hope that such a technical debate would be nonpartisan. You would hope in vain. One correspondent derides the economics of hybrids, dismissing the technology as an emotional sop for liberals, "pure tree-hugging feel-goodism for the 'Save the Whales' and 'Free Tibet' folks."
I encourage you to visit websites such as http://www.autoextremist.com or http://www.autoblog.com to see for yourself, but let me summarize: Hybrid doubters complain that the cars don't return real-world mileage anything like the fuel economy numbers posted by the EPA; that diesel powertrains are inherently cheaper, more durable and efficient; that there are far too many unknowns regarding hybrid battery life and the costs of replacing or recycling these batteries; that too often, this technology is used to make cars bigger and faster — e.g., the Honda Accord V6 hybrid — and that it helps "greenwash" the image of a company such as Toyota that, like mean old GM, makes thousands of large trucks and SUVs; and finally — this is a big one — that the extra cost of a hybrid vehicle over a conventional vehicle (the hybrid "premium") cannot be recouped in fuel savings in a reasonable amount of time.
Energizing all of these objections is a larger, darker suspicion that hybrids represent some sort of fraud — "magical thinking," one calls it — and that insufficiently critical mainstream journalists are complicit. One note-poster summarizes the mood with perfect concision: "green=liberal=enemy."
Once you cut through the political animus, you find these are all reasonable concerns. For example, hybrid cars typically do not deliver EPA-rated fuel economy; the reason is the government's testing regime, which predates hybrid powertrains (the EPA is preparing new testing standards now).
Meanwhile, manufacturers are responding to this objection. The EPA rates the 2006 Honda Civic hybrid at 50 miles per gallon city and 50 mpg highway. Honda's testing puts those numbers at more modest 47/49 mpg and suggests real-world results of around 44 mpg, which is still pretty amazing.
As for the larger objection — that hybrids don't pay for themselves — that objection was certainly true two years ago, when gas was $2 per gallon, but it's a much closer call now that gas is roughly $3 per gallon.
Pull out your calculators. Let's say I was interested in a 2006 Honda Civic — because, well, I am — and I was debating between the sedan and the hybrid. With a navigation system, the hybrid costs $23,350; a similarly equipped Civic EX sedan costs $20,560. The hybrid premium equals $2,790.
The combined fuel economy of the non-hybrid is 35 mpg; the hybrid, 50 mpg, a theoretical difference of 15 mpg. In five years of average driving (15,000 miles per year), I would save 643 gallons, or $1,929 (assuming a gas price of $3 per gallon), with the hybrid. Combined with the current tax deduction (a savings of $580 in my tax bracket) I recoup 90% of the hybrid premium in five years. If I were to buy the Honda Civic hybrid in January 2006, the numbers look even better. The federal tax deduction becomes a credit worth $2,100. Combined with my fuel savings I actually come out about $1,200 ahead.
Now, put your calculators away, because the point is not whether I, or you, will recoup penny-for-penny the hybrid investment, since the compensations are not exclusively monetary. The hybrid haters actually have a valid point when they declaim the technology as touchy-feely. Its appeal is emotional, but that's not the same as irrational.
The reason hybrid cars are flying off dealers' lots is not because they make such a galvanizing financial brief. It's because people of goodwill, conservative and liberal, are growing weary of the moral calculus of gasoline. What people are learning is that private choices have public consequences. Sure, I'll make my money back, but the more important thing is the 643 gallons of liquid crack I will save. Now that's conservative.
Almost lost in all this is just how amazing these machines are. The Honda Civic hybrid is a five-passenger, full-featured sedan measuring 176.7 inches long; it's packed with safety features, everything from compatibility-minded body structures (helping to protect occupants in collisions with heavier, higher vehicles such as SUVs) to an energy-absorbing hood to help lessen impacts to pedestrians. And yet, loaded like Tara Reid on Ibiza, the car weighs only 2,875 pounds, aces Honda's internal tests mimicking the government's frontal and side-impact resilience, gets in excess of 40 mpg and has almost immeasurably clean emissions. Such a car was the stuff of science fiction 10 years ago.
And it looks really cool. Not as cool as the Civic Coupe, mind you, but this is still a handsome car, cinched up in a wind-tightened leotard of glass and steel. Its defining characteristic is its 21.9-degree windshield rake, which forms an almost straight line from the nose of the car to the crown of the roof.
THE slicked-back windshield look is often used on concept cars but is discarded in production cars because it creates an unmanageable flat space behind the steering wheel. Honda designers turned this space to their advantage, creating a beautiful two-tier instrument panel limned in organic shapes.
The upper panel, situated at the base of the windshield, holds digital readouts for speed, fuel and instant mileage. The nearer panel behind the steering wheel displays the tachometer against a beautiful blue corona, like the one in Honda's fuel-cell vehicles. This array looks better with the optional nav system. The switchgear is tight and clean. The seam tolerances are tick tight. The two-tone seating surfaces (the upholstery and hard-shell plastic are contrasting colors) look great. The Q-factor of this interior is through the roof.
Under the stubby hood — and also spread out under the rear seats — is the car's powertrain. The engine is a 1.3-liter four-cylinder with variable-valve timing; the electric motor is one of Honda's Integrated Motor Assist units, a 20-hp magnet sandwiched between the engine and the continuously variable transmission. New for this edition is full-cylinder deactivation: Under light-load cruising, the gas engine can shut down entirely so that the car is being propelled only by the electric motor.
As an advanced-technology partial zero-emission vehicle (AT-PZEV) rated at 50 mpg, the Civic hybrid is one of three cars currently eligible for unrestricted high-occupancy vehicle lane access.
I had a couple of issues with the car. First, acceleration: I timed the car to 60 mph in 11 seconds, which is not horrible, but in Los Angeles that kind of anchor-dragging pickup requires a fair amount of advance planning to pass and to merge onto freeways. Also, on our test car, whenever I hit the brakes I heard a high-pitched electrical tone — almost a beep — associated with the regenerative braking system. That would certainly warrant a trip to the dealer's.
Doubters are welcome to their opinion. Meanwhile, these cars just seem to be getting better, and their logic — emotional and arithmetic — grows more irresistible. Honda hopes to sell 26,000 Civic hybrids in the U.S. this year. Do I hear 30,000?
Dan Neil can be reached at email@example.com. *
2006 Honda Civic hybrid
Price, as tested: $21,850
Powertrain: 1.3-liter, 8-valve, single-overhead cam inline four with variable-valve timing and cylinder deactivation; 20-hp integrated electric motor; continuously variable transmission; front-wheel drive.
Horsepower: 110 at 6,000 rpm*
Torque: 123 pound-feet at 1,000-2,500 rpm*
Curb weight: 2,875 pounds
0-60 mph: 11 seconds
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Overall length: 176.7 inches
EPA fuel economy: 50 miles per gallon city, 50 mph highway
Final thoughts: Now more than ever, a Civic duty
*combined gas-electric output
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Miles to go
EPA fuel economy ratings in miles per gallon in city/highway driving of gas/electric vehicles on the market and, where applicable, their gasoline-only counterparts. Vehicle Hybrid Gas Toyota Prius 60/51 NA Honda Insight 57/56 NA Honda Civic 50/50 30/40 Ford Escape/4WD 33/29 19/22 Lexus RX400h 31/27 18/24 Toyota Highlander 31/27 18/24 Honda Accord 29/37 20/30 Source: Automakers