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California Cruising by Civic Hybrid - Part 4

Day Two of fuel cell rally confronts California's Big Sur country.

By Bill Moore

Thursday, September 5, 2002 -- Carmel Mission sits behind a stone wall covered in ivy and purple Bougainvillea, its centuries old bell tower just visible above the enclosure. The early morning light gave its sun-washed surface a tawny gold glow against a bright, azure blue sky as we began Day Two of the California Coast 2002 Road Rally.

In the small, asphalt covered parking lot where horses and carriages once had been tied, sat six glimming, state-of-the-art fuel cell prototype vehicles, along with an entourage of police escorts, support vehicles and our 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid. We were about to begin the most arduous part of the three-day rally.

Day One had involved an easy cruise around the Eden-like environs of the Monterey Peninsula where the vast, blue Pacific meets the cedar and oak clothed coast just north of Big Sur country. Today, it would be this rugged, expansive coastline that would test the stamina and performance of these hydrogen-fueled EVs.

One vehicle however would not make the trip down the coast to San Luis Obispo. The GM Zafira had experienced some sort of problem the first day and been forced to withdraw. I never discovered the reason, but I had also been told that GM had only planned to do the first day due to a fuel compatibility issue. All of the participants had agreed to use compressed hydrogen during the rally. Presumably the Zafira couldn't use this fuel, but that was only speculation. Since the GM team wasn't on hand that beautiful morning outside Carmel Mission, it wasn't possible to confirm this.

I had sensed something wasn't quite right about the car as it drove past me out of Monterey's historic plaza at the start of the rally. Unlike the other six cars, which slipped past me as quietly as my daughter's cats, the Zafira emitted a curiously high-pitched whine, presumably coming from some on-board pump or compressor. I had learned after years of watching Electrathon vehicle competitions in Nebraska that the more noise an EV makes, the more inefficient it is. Something told me then this particular car wasn't ready for "prime time." Unfortunately, that assessment proved true.

Hopefully, the next time the rally is run, GM will be there through the end.

It was just about the time the GM car was breaking down Wednesday afternoon that my wife and I were trying to bluff our way through the gates of Seventeen Mile Drive. Earlier in the day, the rally had driven this road as it wound around the western and southern flanks of the Monterey Peninsula. I wanted to retrace that route and see what made it so special.

Despite showing the gate guard my press pass and rally flag, he insisted on collecting the $8 visitor's fee. This is more than it costs to get into a state park back in Nebraska, but we handed it over and drove through, wondering what was so special about this particular stretch of coast. We soon found out.

Imagine owning a piece of some of the most beautiful and exclusive property on the Pacific coast and having the money to build your fantasy dream home nestled either in a shaded cedar forest or perched on the edge of a rocky cliff overlooking the infinity of the restless Pacific Ocean. And hidden here and there are some of the finest golf courses in the world, including famed Pebble Beach.

Winding through this shadowed forest is 17 Mile Drive, a narrow, two-lane ribbon of macadam that slips between towering cedars and sweeps past heart-stopping ocean vistas. A hundred years ago, tourists would drive carriages over this very same path on all-day excursions. Today the drive now links scores of expansive and expensive private residences, most costing in the millions of dollars.

But despite the $8 entrance fee, the drive still attracts thousands of tourists a day as cars and tour buses slowly motor through this secluded neighborhood, often in long lines at speeds not much faster than a horse and buggy. The infernal combustion engine has intruded into this idyllic setting, leaving behind a toxic soup of compounds. My only consolation was that I was driving one of the world's cleanest, most efficient production vehicles available. The 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid we were driving is rated ULEV or ultra low emission vehicle by California's EPA.

In 1995 California's Air Resources Board adapted a set of emissions standards that included TLEV (transitional low emissions vehicles), LEV (low emissions vehicles), ULEV, SULEV and ZEV or zero emission vehicle. A TLEV was allowed to generate .125 grams/mile of hydrocarbon compounds, 3.4 grams/mile carbon monoxide and .4 grams/mile nitrogen oxides or NOx. By contrast, the ULEV Civic Hybrid emits .04 grams/mile HC, 1.7 grams/mile CO and .05 grams/mile NOx.

Honda recently announced it will be offering a SULEV or super ultra low emission version in California in the near future. This vehicle will generate only 2.3 pounds of HC in 100,000 miles. Still, it must be encouraging to the residents of 17 Mile Drive to know that perhaps someday -- assuming a lot of significant technical, financial and sociological barriers can be overcome -- the cars passing in front of your doorstep will leave nothing behind but warm water vapor. In the meantime, the car we were driving was one of cleanest on the road at that moment.

Sadly, 17 Mile Drive ended all too soon near the entrance to the Pebble Beach golf course. We passed through the gate and found ourselves on the outskirts of Carmel-By-The-Sea, a trendy little community that reminded both my wife and I of an English seaside village. It was here we'd begin Day Two of the Rally.

We drove around a bit to familiarize ourselves with the town whose tree-lined main street ends at a sandy beach at foot of the hill. No wonder Clint Eastwood came here to live and serve as mayor for a couple of terms. We parked the car a few blocks from the center of town and strolled through some of the art galleries, stopping for a cappuccino coffee. It was late afternoon and the dappled light was magic.

But reality struck home as we passed a Shell service station where the price of premium was just a shade under $2 a gallon! It helped explain why I kept seeing more and more Toyota Priuses, one of them just parked a few blocks away from us. Suddenly all those wild-eyed environmentalists were starting to also look like "compassionate conservatives".

Next morning we were back in Carmel, this time on the south side of town outside the stone walls of Carmel Mission about to challenge the Big Sur, a term derived from the original Spanish "El Sur Grande," the "Big South." It stretches some 90 miles from Carmel to San Simeon. Highway One is a narrow, winding, two-lane road that clings tenuously to the slopes of the Santa Lucia mountain range. Three years ago, a severe El Nino-enforced series of storms washed out scores of sections of the road, isolating many of the residents. The road dips and climbs those ninety miles with barely a mile of straight road anywhere along its entire length. Think of a Dow Industrial Averages chart for the last couple months and you can sort of visualize what this road is like.

It was here that all six fuel cell prototypes from DaimlerChrysler, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota showed they were up to the challenge. [Photo: DaimlerChrysler's Wolfgang Weiss].

With little of the fan-fare of Day One, the cars powered up, lined up and drove out of the Mission parking lot led by a pair of California Highway Patrol motorcycle troopers. I was finishing downloading pictures from my digital camera into my laptop as they zoomed away. By the time I got everything packed away, they had disappeared down the street. Figuring we'd catch up with them just south of town, we got settled into the Civic Hybrid, buckled up and headed down the road for the next leg of our adventure.

We turned right onto Highway One, followed by the folks from the Green Car Group in a white Ford Explorer. We crossed the Carmel River and motored south into increasingly rugged mountain country covered in lush forest. Along the sides of the road grew dozens of exotic plants and colorful wild flowers.

It was along this stretch of rock-hewn road that I grew to more fully appreciate the refinements made in Honda's IMA electric drive system. Not only had Honda engineers been able to reduce the size and weight of the IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) system over the original version first used in the Insight but also they had increased its power output.

We were driving the manual transmission version of the car, but apart from having to downshift occasionally for an aggressive curve or steep hill, for much of the trip, I could leave the car in fifth gear, letting the IMA system automatically add whatever extra torque I needed. It was about as close to having an automatic transmission in a manual-shift car as I have ever driven. The regenerative braking system easily kept the nickel metal hydride battery pack sufficiently recharged that I never worried about depleting it. It would be interesting to make the same trip in my Insight and see how it responded to the drive. I suspect I would have been doing a lot more shifting and worrying.

Assuming the rally was somewhere just ahead of us, we kept pressing southward, our official rally flag tearing at the ocean breeze.

The scenery along the Big Sur is so magnificent that its almost impossible to resist the urge to stop at every roadside pull-off and get out and take pictures, and I admit I did my share, still I wanted to catch up to the rally and I pressed the car on and on, up switchbacks and down careening slopes. My wife, who sat nearest the edge of these sheer drops kept signaling me to slow down by pressing his right foot against the floorboard. Instinctively, she was trying to apply the brakes even though she had none on the passenger side of the car. I took the hint and would ease up only to press forward again a few miles further down the road.

About thirty miles into the trip, I still hadn't caught up to the rally. I wasn't all that concerned because I knew they would be stopping to refuel another thirty miles south, a process that was scheduled to take a little over an hour. So, I pulled off at yet another amazing overlook to take more pictures.

To the north I could hear the distinctive but still distant "whop-whop-whop" of a jet helicopter. I assumed it was a sight-seeing 'copter' with enthralled tourists aboard and turned my attention to taking my pictures, my wife warning yet again to not get too close to the edge.

A few moments later, a small gray Dodge Neon pulled off behind us and out stepped NESEA's Nancy Hazard. Is it a small world. Nancy was also following the rally, trying to convince the automakers to enter their cars in next years Tour de Sol. Since the California Fuel Cell Partnership has budgeted to do only one major road event a year, she wasn't haven't a lot of luck getting them to send their cars to the East Coast. As we talked and took each others pictures the helicopter roared overhead then turned around and headed back north. It almost appeared to be circling us. Then it finally occurred to me what was going on. The helicopter was filming the rally as it wound down the coast. They hadn't been ahead of us. They'd been behind us all along.

Apparently, they hadn't turned south at Highway One, but proceeded across the intersection to rendezvous with their support teams at a shopping center on the other side of the highway. We'd missed them when we made our turn. As first one fuel cell team then another shouted and waved as they passed, I hastily turned on my digital camera to try to snap a photo. I only got the last two cars before they disappeared around the curve followed by their entourage of support vehicles.

Talk about being caught off-guard. We quickly bid Nancy goodbye, jumped in the Civic Hybrid and set off in hot pursuit.

To Be Continued...

Times Article Viewed: 4172
Published: 05-Oct-2002

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