Honda's Civic Hybrid: Part 2
By Bill Moore
With the 2003 Civic Hybrid, Honda has introduced a number of improvements in the IMA drive system, noted Robert Bienenfeld, American Honda's manager of alternative fuel vehicle marketing.
"We were able to make the [electric] motor more efficient and powerful. The electronics got smaller, lighter [and] easier to cool. The battery pack has better packaging, as well."
Improving the electric-drive system isn't the only changes you'll find in the Civic Hybrid compared to the IMA system used initially in the Insight. Honda also introduces, for the first time, a new feature it calls "cylinder idling." Bienenfeld explains.
"When you lift your foot off the accelerator, there is something called 'pumping losses', which is when the pistons are going up and down, even though you have a very small throttle opening. . . you're not putting gasoline into the cylinders but you are pulling air in and pumping it out ... Those pumping losses can and do slow down the car.
"What we've done is put in a kind of V-Tec technology that allows us to shut the valves when you're decelerating and idle all but one cylinder. So, the engine is operating on deceleration, but the valves are not opening and closing, and you're not pulling air through and pushing it out."
This approach prevents the car from slowing due to 'pumping losses' and enables the IMA system to work more efficiently in its recharge mode, providing the battery pack with a greater amount of electric energy.
Bienenfeld estimates that Honda has sold some 9,000 Insights in North America and another 5,000 in Japan. "The car's done very, very well for us," he stated. "We didn't have huge sales number targets for this car. It was much more a high benchmark for the industry and for fuel economy; what a car is capable of doing. Nobody has come close to seventy miles per gallon with a car that performs the way the Insight does. And it [not only] opened up a lot of doors for us with consumers, but also with environmentalists, journalists, to really get a feel to where this technology can go, and to really pave the way for technologies like those in the Civic Hybrid."
Honda plans, initially, to sell about 2,000 Civic Hybrids a month. "We're not going to flood the market. We're going to build up to it," he explained. "It will be sold nationally through every Honda dealer just like every other car. We don't expect waiting lists on the car."
Bienenfeld added that all 1,200 dealers will be getting the car and that many of them should have the cars on hand to test drive by mid-April.
As for the Civic Hybrid's EPA mileage numbers, he explained that he was quoting from memory but that the CVT-version is rated at 48 mpg city and 47 mpg highway. The manual transmission version is rated at 46 mpg city and 51 mpg highway. Emissions are rated at Ultra Low Emission or ULEV, which is about 1/10 the emissions of most current production vehicles, which are rated LEV or below.
Bienenfeld candidly explained that there were distribution problems with the Insight in its first year. High initial demand and two oil price spikes caused sales of the car to be, in his words, "erratic." Some dealers had more cars than they needed while others couldn't get them fast enough, often charging premiums over the sticker price. This left a few dealers less than enthusiastic about the Insight and hybrid-technology.
This time around, Honda dealers seem more enthusiastic about the Civic Hybrid, according to Bienenfeld, stating, "The dealers are absolutely thrilled with this car."
Survey Says. .
Within the last month, two firms - - JD Power and Associates and Autobytel.com - - conducted consumer surveys to ascertain what the potential market for hybrid-electric vehicles might be. Both indicated strong consumer interest in the technology.
We asked Bienenfeld if Honda now has the right product at the right time.
"Absolutely, we do," he immediately responded. "I think that our research has shown broadening consumer interest in hybrids is a real positive result of the efforts by Honda with the Insight and Toyota with the Prius." He also credited the "pioneers" who have bought these cars and drive them on a daily basis. Because of their grassroots, person-to-person marketing efforts, the technology is gaining wider acceptance, Bienenfeld believes.
He also thinks that the time is right for a vehicle that - - apart from some minor identifying cues - - looks essentially like any other Civic model. He stated that most people "aren't enthusiasts that want to stand out."
He admitted, however, that in his view it won't be the technology itself that will make the car a difficult sell, it will be the added cost of that technology as reflected in the sticker price. The hybrid version will be some five to six thousand dollars more than the baseline Civic DX, which starts around $14,000. If however, you compare trim levels and features, the difference drops by half, but it's still several thousand dollars more for the hybrid technology compared to a comparably equipped Civic.
"Gasoline is so cheap in the United States that you've got to drive the car for quite a while before the fuel savings will pay for the incremental price. It's a function of the cost of the technology and the inexpensive nature of gasoline or the price of gasoline in the United States. That's why we're not forecasting 300,000 sales a year; we're just forecasting 24,000."
Here the US government could be "very helpful" by clarifying current tax code and allowing for a $2,000 to $3,000 tax deduction on hybrid-electric vehicles. While there have been various bills proposed in Congress to do just this, there are already provisions within current IRS code that could be interrupted to permit a $2,000 deduction already.
"Let me be clear. There are not tax benefits available for hybrids right now.," stated Bienenfeld. "There are some tax deductions that it is unclear whether they apply to hybrids."
Bienenfeld told EV World that Honda requested clarification on this issue when it introduced the Insight in 2000. The IRS has yet to respond. But in his mind, such incentives would be of enormous benefit in boosting hybrid-electric vehicle sales.
He pointed out that customers who choose to buy a hybrid are paying more for the technology than they will realize in gasoline cost savings. He believes, however, that they are contributing a social benefit to society - - in reduced emissions and less imported fuel consumed - - as a whole and should be entitled to some benefit beyond ownership of the car, itself.
Honda: The Lone Dissenter
While most other carmakers have lobbied hard to prevent increases in CAFÉ fuel standards, Honda has taken another road. It has continually told Congress that it is in favor of increasing CAFE standards.
Bienenfeld stated, "This is the one reason Honda is a not a member of the AAM, Association of Automobile Manufacturers. They have a rule that if you join their association, you cannot oppose their position on CAFE. We don't agree."
"Some automakers have testified there is a correlation that higher fuel economy cars are lighter weight, are more dangerous, [and] not as safe as bigger cars and we've been testifying to the effect that that is nonsense.
"In fact, we commissioned a study from a respected. . . engineering research firm, DRI, who reported that statistically there was no difference between crash statistics, [and] fatalities. . . for vehicles based on a hundred pounds of weight difference."
Bienenfeld commented that one Honda engineer pointed out that putting a 100 pound bag of sand in the trunk of a car doesn't make the car any safer.
"We think that lighter weight design like some of the Honda products are as safe or safer than the competition because of the way we try to use intelligent structure, what we call 'g-force' technology to manage crash energy in a safe manner for customers."
Clarification or Retrenchment?
Bienenfeld wanted to clarify one "misperception" on EV World's part. We asked if Honda was on track to meet its goal of having the IMA system available in all its model lines by 2005. He corrected us by saying that Honda has never publicly stated this goal. A keyword search of EV World's news archives didn't turn up such a public announcement, though we still believe one was made, possibly prior to our beginning to archive news stories and press releases in a searchable database, a process that began in late 2000.
So, in lieu of written evidence we have to accept Bienenfeld's explanation that Honda plans to move steadily but cautiously in introducing its IMA technology into other vehicle lines beyond the Insight and now Civic model. Regardless, we believe that introducing hybrid-electric drive technology into the Civic line is a logical and admirable next step for a relatively small, but highly respected automaker.
"The reality is we have to go step-by-step," he stated. "We have to make these early steps successful. We're very happy with the results of the Insight. The Civic Hybrid is an important launch, not only for Honda but I think for the industry. We all need to see how successful this vehicle is that has almost no trade-offs and yet has this great power plant and hybrid-technology at what is a pretty reasonable incremental cost.
"And of course, we have future product plans that I am not at liberty to talk about, but we do have considerations that we are making and plans that we are banking on. But the proof is always going to be in the marketplace. That's where we get our real answers and that's where we're going to find out where the future of this technology lies."
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