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Robert Bienenfeld - EVAA 2001 Conference
Robert Bienenfeld introduces the new Civic Hybrid at the 2001 EVAA conference. The newest hybrid achieves an EPA highway mileage of 51mpg with a manual transmission.

2003 Civic Hybrid: A New Level of Refinement

Interview with Robert Bienenfeld, Alternative Fuel Vehicles Marketing Manager, American Honda Motors.

By Bill Moore

Of the two gasoline-electric vehicles currently available for sale in North America, the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight, both are purpose-built vehicles designed from the ground up. Both have done reasonably well in terms of sales, with some 18,000 Priuses sold in North America (70,000 worldwide) compared to 9,000 Insights.

The introduction this week of the 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid marks the first time that a traditional, mainline automotive platform will be available in a gasoline-electric hybrid edition. So, to mark the occasion, EV World asked Robert Bienenfeld to talk about the newest hybrid-electric vehicle to enter the American and Canadian marketplace.

"We are in a unique position with the launching of the Civic Hybrid," he explained. "We have done the yeoman's work when we launched the Insight, which was an all new vehicle with an all new power plant. So we had a chance to build some brand awareness for our Insight and also some brand awareness for our IMA, Integrated Motor Assist hybrid technology.

"By putting that power plant into the Civic brand, we're leveraging both the effort that we've made on the Insight, as well as the great brand reputation of the Civic." The Civic, he pointed out, has been in the North America marketplace for 30 years and is now in its seventh generation.

Watershed Event
According to Bienenfeld, the introduction of the IMA drivetrain is a watershed event for the Civic brand. In Honda's view, this is a match made in heaven, so to speak. They are counting on the solid reputation and brand awareness of the venerable Civic to help raise the awareness level of the company's hybrid-electric technology, as well as raise the confidence level of consumers in this new fuel-efficient, emissions-reducing technology.

Not only do consumers need to be educated about the advantages of the IMA system, but Honda dealerships also have to be brought up to speed. And here again, the launch of the Insight in 2000 helped Honda break new ground, though it wasn't without a few stones here and there as Bienenfeld discusses in Part Two of our interview.

"This is our second hybrid," Bienenfeld explained. "Our dealers are well prepared. The whole organization has the confidence of marketing a hybrid. And so the special effort that's put into this is primarily launching just another new model, which means we've got advanced sales training, and service training and parts training. We've got to make sure the web sites are updated and there's a good advertising plan. It's really just part of our model line up."

No Plug In Required
We touched briefly on Honda's advertising plans for the Civic and how the company plans to differentiate it from the conventional gasoline engine model. Bienenfeld stated that Honda has a couple of different themes in mind for the car, one of them highlighting the fact that while the car has electric assist, it doesn't need to be plugged in to recharge the batteries.

As most early adapters of hybrid-electric technology can attest - - induding EV World's editor who owns Insight number 938 - - most consumers are still unfamiliar with the technology and assume that these cars have to be regularly plugged in to recharge their batteries. While there are actually some advantages to a charge-depletion hybrid technology, currently available models like the Prius, the Insight and now the Civic Hybrid utilize a different approach which enables the gasoline engine and a regenerative braking system to keep the battery pack recharged. This approach is called "charge-sustaining" and eliminates the need to plug in the car at night.

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You can win $1000 down payment on either the new 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid or Honda Insight by entering our month-long contest, which ends May 1, 2002.

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So, part of Honda's advertising efforts for the Civic Hybrid will be to educate consumers as to the difference, removing yet one more obstacle to the wider acceptance of electric-drive technology.

Improved Fuel Economy
Honda has always been out front in the race to develop low-emission, fuel efficient vehicles. The Insight is currently the world's cleanest, more fuel efficient gasoline-powered vehicle in production. Both the Civic DX and LX models with manual transmissions are rated as Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (ULEV) and get 33 mpg in the city and 39 mpg on the highway, according EPA measurements.

The Civic Hybrid, which is rated as ULEV, moves the fuel economy bar up 30% to 51 mpg on the highway, again using a manual transmission.

"I think the main thing most people will notice when they drive the Civic Hybrid is that it is a much more sophisticated, refined driving experience. The engine tends to stay in a tighter RPM band and therefore [it's] not as noisy because you're going to get the supplemental performance from the electric motor."

Like the Insight, the Civic Hybrid will also feature "idle stop" or "auto stop" as it is also called. The engine automatically turns off when the vehicle comes to a stop at a light or when stalled in stop and go traffic jams. It this automatically turns itself back on in a fraction of a second. This strategy saves additional fuel and reduces emissions during the time when most gasoline engines are at their polluting worst.

Bienenfeld pointed out however, that there are times when the engine will continue to run so the vehicle's air conditioning compressor will continue to operate on hot summer days.

The Civic Hybrid will also come with a CVT (continuously variable transmission) which offers an infinite range of gear ratios. CVTs are significant improvement over the automatic transmissions in terms of their efficiency and smoothness. Toyota's Prius comes standard with a CVT.

"[It] allows us to always maintain the best fuel economy and performance when you're driving the CVT. So it's quite smooth. It's quite refined and performs really well," Bienenfeld told EV World.

He added that the manual transmission version will get the best highway mileage, while the CVT gets better fuel economy in the city. So, potential customers will want to evaluate where they will be doing most of their driving and choose accordingly.

Civic Hybrid's New and Improved IMA
While the Insight sports a 3 cylinder, 1 liter gasoline engine mated to an electric drive motor, the engine in the new Civic Hybrid is a 1.3 liter, 4 cylinder engine. Since the introduction of the Insight, Honda engineers have moved forward at a rapid pace improving the IMA technology. For example, while the electric motor is the same size as that found in the Insight, its is now more efficient and produces greater torque. In addition the power control unit and battery pack are 40 percent smaller, in terms of volume without negatively impacting energy storage capacity.

"It's the next generation," Bienenfeld said. "It's quite refined. Efficiency is better. Packaging is better. The feeling is of a much larger engine."

According to Bienenfeld, the only negatives of the new Civic's hybrid-electric system in terms of vehicle packaging is the fact that you lose a small amount of trunk space and the rear seats won't fold down. This is because the battery pack, like the early version of the Prius, is located behind the rear seat. For now, you won't be able to run to Lowes or Home Depot and shove a bunch of 2x4s into the trunk and through to the back seat.

CONTINUED NEXT WEEK...

Times Article Viewed: 4599
Published: 30-Mar-2002

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