Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Thinking About Cars: Hybrids

I've already written about that most iconic of the modern hybrids, the Prius.  But since then I've bought a 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid, and can speak a little more on the subject, having a bit more firsthand experience than just driving one at work a few miles at a time.

Firstly, while I was shopping I tried a few Prii.  I drove a first-gen Prius and liked it well enough, and the second-gen model was even better.  But for some strange reason all the Prii at the dealer where I was shopping had suffered a sort of sandblasting treatment, so that the paint of their hoods was peppered with chips in the paint.  Only one hadn't experienced that treatment and we were ready to deal on it, but the bank didn't like the price vs. the Kelley Blue Book valuation, so we stepped away from it.  In fact, body damage of one sort or another was a defining factor of the cars at that dealer, so I've decided I'm not keen on them, though the prices they ask are really quite low otherwise.  If you can repair paint or bump dents, you could have a cheap ride in return for a little weekend bodywork.

My '03 Civic brings home a few features I hold dear: it has a cruise control.  That's pretty important to me.  I like the cruise control because when I set the speed to my specification, I can then freely ignore tailgaters.  It becomes so much easier when an automatic control dictates my speed, and not the looming grille in my rearview mirror.  I try to ignore the looming grilles, but sometimes they feel awfully aggressive, and it becomes difficult.  The cruise control, however, will not be cowed.

My Civic has a manual transmission.  I have already written at length about my preference for manny trannies, and I cannot help but laugh at the fact that car thefts and even car jackings have been thwarted by that third pedal on the floor.  On top of being mechanically simpler and more efficient, my car is safer from criminal activity, by virtue of the fact of that simplicity.  On top of that, Honda didn't build many of these with the manual.  The vast majority of Americans purchase only automatic transmissions, but there's still a hard core of us who prefer to stir the gears for ourselves, and Honda is one of the few manufacturers that still caters to us.  Interestingly, in the bread-and-butter midsize market, Ford offers a manual transmission in the Fusion, but Chevrolet does not in the Malibu.

It's a four-door.  The Civic is one of the most variable of vehicles, available at various points in its history as a coupé, a four door sedan, a four door hatch, a tall wagon, with front and all wheel drive, slowing growing through the years from a subcompact to a surprisingly roomy compact.  It's almost amazing to realize that there's another 15 cubic feet of interior space to go before my car reaches the space of a midsize.  But with four doors, a compact is comfortable enough for all four of us, including two of us at 5'10 and 6'0, to spend an hour or more just cruising around, getting our shopping done and having plenty of room for everyone.

It has air conditioning.  Now, my truck never had air conditioning and I have called that out as a plus.  But I'm old enough and earn well enough to afford air conditioning, and I don't intend to go without if I don't have to.  East Tennessee's heat won't kill you, but the humidity might make you wish it would.  When it just gets too steamy, I like being able to turn the AC on for a few miles.  Having AC in the Civic and our Subaru, neither Sweetie nor I will just turn it on and leave it.  Generally we turn it on for downhills, and off again for uphills.  It only gets left on nonstop when all four of us are riding together.

Plus, I don't think you can own a Civic built in the last 20 years without AC, so there's that.

Honda was caught napping when the Prius was introduced, and wound up rolling out their show car the JV-X in 1997 even as the Prius was already available to Japanese buyers. They didn't dawdle too long, however, as they got the Insight onto the Japanese market in December 1999, and beat the Prius to the North American market by over six months.  So while we were hearing faint rumblings from across the Pacific about a car that was sometimes gas, sometimes electric, we suddenly found, tooling about in our urban traffic, this tiny little two-seater runabout that got ridiculous mileage and made no sound whatsoever when paused at stoplights.  I had been reading about them and remember stopping to watch one go by one day, grinning from ear to ear as I listened and heard nothing but the faint crackle of the tires.  Its engine was off even as it was going 25 miles per hour.

In just a few years Honda got a lot better with hybrid drivetrains and increased their output to drive a bigger car, like the Civic.  That caught on in a big way with people who wanted hybrid thrift without having to drive hybrid looks.  Nobody would mistake the Prius or, for that matter, the Insight for anything else.  But the Civic Hybrid looks exactly look contemporary conventional Civics.  The only outwardly identifying feature is the Hybrid badge on the rear.

Hybrid cars aren't new technology, not by any means.  Back in 1898 - the late Cretaceous of automobile history - Ferdinand Porsche built a series hybrid, a vehicle with an internal combustion engine driving a generator, and the generator powered four hub motors.

This, by the way, is how really big machines are driven, when there just aren't clutches and transmissions that can take the load.  You drive a big genny and power several motors with the electricity.  Works for trains, works for especially large earth movers, ships, submarines.  Turns out it scales down and works for cars, too.

As early as 1916 parallel hybrids, vehicles in which the electric drive and IC drive can work together, were available.  Top speed was poor at 35mph, but the fuel efficiency - 48mpg - was comparable to my Civic right now.  And in nearly 90 years of development, the fuel economy hasn't changed.  Shameful.  At least, having plummeted to dreadful, nearly single-digit performance, it's on its way back up.

In 1979 the magazine Mother Earth News talked to a guy who had built his own series hybrid using a tiny gas engine, decided his results sounded too good to be true and built their own using a larger compact diesel engine.  The engine ran at nearly constant speed to keep topping up the batteries as necessary, while the batteries provided surge power and extra current as required for higher speed travel.  Mother's diesel version whistled up, as I recall, about 84 miles per gallon.  That's pretty good no matter how you slice it.  And their results were better than the original example, more power, bigger car, better mileage.  This isn't a unique result, Toyota got the same with their Prius.  Funny how it works out.

Knowing that all these efforts are so old, it's amazing that it has taken so long for hybrids to gain such prominence in the marketplace.  Well anyway, here we are at last.

I'm a participant at the hypermiling website,  More than just hypermiling - driving with high fuel economy in mind -  the participants at ecomodder also modify their vehicles to improve their fuel mileage.  I've done a couple of little things to my truck, which can be reasonably expected to get 22mpg combined.  It is currently averaging just a little under 32mpg, which is pretty good even for a new truck.  So far my Honda has only one fill under its belt - a single fill lasts an awful lot longer than I'm used to, and the tank is even smaller than anything else I drive, so I haven't had to fill it up but once at this writing - but that fill yielded a little better than 47mpg.  Since the Honda is supposed to deliver about 40 in combined driving, I'm doing pretty well.

But I bet I can do better.

No comments:

Post a Comment