Cruising California 1 By Civic Hybrid
By Bill Moore
I thought driving the new 2003 Civic Hybrid down California's Big Sur coast would be a great way to test the mettle of this newest gasoline-electric addition to Honda's most successful car line.
I was wrong! Flat out wrong.
Not that the Civic Hybrid isn't everything you want in a fuel-efficient, low emission, five passenger vehicle. It is. The trouble is driving it down Highway One from Monterey to Santa Barbara is just the wrong place to do it.
Imagine the most perfect weather one could possibly ask for along some of the most beautiful stretches of two lane anywhere in the world with panoramas of the blue Pacific tempting you nearly every mile of the way. My wife, who accompanied me on the trip, and I were simply in sensory overload. One minute we were climbing up the north face of a Big Sur escarpment and the next we were plunging down its southern flank, just inches from a sheer drop to the ceaseless surf hundreds of feet below.
And everywhere along the road grew wild fronds of pampas grass and yellow flowering anise, plus a hundred other varieties of plants I simply couldn't identify.
Then there was the California Coast 2002 Road Rally with six of the world's most advanced fuel cell vehicles racing at the head of a long convoy of support vehicles and police escorts, of which we were a part.
The bottom line is, I only just began to get to know this delightful little car when I had to turn it in to Valet Air Park, adjacent to Los Angeles International Airport five days after the valet parking attendant handed me the keys at the Marriott Hotel near the airport in San Francisco.
The weather was so perfect, I only turned on the air conditioner once and then only briefly as we drove south out of San Francisco. We drove with the windows down almost the entire time, enjoying the refreshing ocean breezes. I never once turned on the AM/FM radio/CD player combo. There was just too much to see and smell and taste and feel, that listening to the pointless patter of some talk show host or the jangle of radio jingles would have somehow tainted the moment.
In fact, apart from my wife flipping briefly through the owner's manual, I never even bothered to set the odometer to check my fuel economy until the very last day, and then only because I was feeling guilty, knowing EV World readers would want to know how the car performed. 49.5 mpg if you must know.
I can tell you that I came very close to being able to drive the Civic Hybrid from San Francisco to Los Angeles on a single tankful of gasoline covering something like 585 miles from start to finish. I might actually have made it all the way to LA without refueling, but I was down to the last two bars on the fuel gauge, which is similar to that on the Insight, as we were passing through Thousand Oaks. I didn't want the last hour of our trip wrought with apprehension as I worried my way down the 405 towards Century Boulevard and the airport. Besides, leaving a half-tank of fuel in the car was really the polite thing to do for whoever Honda sent to pick-up the car.
When It All Starts To Go Wrong
The approach into San Francisco International Airport is always a delight... when the weather's good, that is.
You descend over brightly colored evaporation ponds that remind you of a artist's giant pallet dappled with burnt umber and cerulean blue. The sky over the Bay that first morning was brilliantly clear, but off towards the west hung a thick bank of cloud that seemed poised like snow about to avalanche down into Silicon Valley. It's looming presence worried me as I quickly changed my plans to drive across the Santa Cruz mountains to Half Moon Bay and then down the coast to Monterey.
I asked the United captain, as we deplaned, what he thought the chances of it clearing. He confidently predicted it would break by noon, so I decided to drive down the 101 instead, staying in the sunshine until I was well south of San Jose.
A Marriott courtesy van dropped us off in front of the hotel where the valet promptly produced a titanium metallic 2003 Civic Hybrid with a five speed manual shift and 8147 miles on the odometer (Base MSPR: $19,550). I asked to take his picture with the car before setting off, a wise decision it turns out for later that day we discovered a minor ding in the left rear fender. We worried that someone might have hit the car while we were parked at Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey.
It was only when I took a closer look at the photo I took that morning that I saw the ding was already there before we took possession. Not that Honda would have made a big issue out of it, but it was more for my peace of mind. I hate to have a car company loan me a vehicle and then damage it.
So, with our three suitcases neatly and easily stowed in the trunk (boot), we set off down the 101 following directions to Monterey the hotel had print up in advance. Obviously a lot of people make this same trip.
This was my first time down the 101 and traffic was, I suspect, relatively light. The car easily accelerated and maintained station keeping in the flow of Audis, Lexuses, Porches, delivery vans and beat-up pickups scurrying through now famous computer citadels of Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, and Cupertino. We kept up a steady 65 at about 2200 rpm, my wife acting as navigator and commentator.
"Look dear, there's Levins, where we bought our dinning room set." Actually it was a Levins in LA, but she recognized the chain and felt slightly less the stranger.
The last time we'd been in San Francisco together was 1991, just a few weeks after the untimely death of our son, Ari who passed away from cancer at age 19. In fact, this very day was his birthday, a coincidence that would have a surprising, if not downright mystical significance later in the day. A colleague who lived in Oakland at the time kindly invited us out to spend a long weekend as a form of grief therapy. We still cherish that brief visit, which included walking through the redwoods near Santa Cruz, eating chocolate at Ghirardelli's on Fisherman's Wharf and overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco from the Marin County side.
As we left the hustle and bustle of the Bay Area behind, we began to see fields of vegetables and fruits and even the occasional winery, something we would come to appreciate more fully as the trip progressed, for California is uniquely blessed with an abundance and variety of food that almost singlehandedly feeds the entire nation.
Getting Off the Beaten Track
So, rather than take the normal route into Monterey, I clicked off the cruise control and turned west on Highway 129 towards Watsonville, cutting through the small range of hills that separates the interior valley through which 101 runs north of Salinas and the ocean. This provided me with my first real opportunity to discover how refined the new Civic Hybrid's Integrated Motor Assist or IMA is compared to the first version in the Insight.
As I would come to appreciate many times on the trip down the coast, this improved electric drive system gives the manual version the closest thing to an automatic transmission you could want while still retaining the driving control of a stick shift. The torque provided by the IMA drive meant that I only infrequently had to down shift the car from fifth gear, and this often times only to slow the car for sharp curves instead of using the brakes.
It was also the first real chance to test the handling of the car as we nipped and tucked around tight curves that all too soon opened onto the flat, fertile fields surrounding the town of Watsonville. It was here we would see our first fields of artichoke plants and strawberries and colorful carpets of cultivated flowers.
Spying an interesting farm shed covered with graffiti, I pulled off the road to take some "glamour" shots of the Civic. It was really too far into the morning for any really dramatic photos, but it gave us a chance to stretch our legs and talk briefly with a field hand returning with a huge shock of purple amaranth over his shoulder. My wife, who spent a number of years as a floral designer, observed that these would be dried for use in floral arrangements.
The Beckoning Blue Ocean
From here, we headed west towards the beckoning ocean, through the south end of town, eventually turning south on Highway One. The offshore fog and low clouds constantly teased us as we passed through Castroville and Marina, drifting inland only to recede and then return. I was never sure whether it was going to clear or rain at any moment.
We also experienced the mystery of Northern California's fickle coastal climate where you need a jacket one minute and a short sleeve shirt the next. But for now, the cool winds off Monterey Bay felt refreshing and invigorating.
There is something positively primordial about man's fascination with the ocean, at least there is for me. Having lived most of my life far inland, I find seeing the ocean, hearing the surf, smelling the salt air again after so long an absence an almost religious experience.
That's why when I had the chance to pull off the highway and stop briefly at what I now think was Elliott Slough National Wildlife Refuge, I took it. Here, amidst the sand dunes, I spotted the first elephant seals I'd ever seen in the wild sleeping on an open stretch of beach alongside a broad waterway. A small fishing boat churned quietly past. I was enthralled.
But my wife was growing hungry and so was I, airline breakfasts being meager rations at best. So, I took a few photos, turned the car around and headed back down Highway One towards Monterey, the starting point of the California Coast 2002 Road Rally.
To Be Continued. . .
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