Hybrid Car Considerations

August 24th, 2006 by Potato


Update: Added some more references at the bottom, also see comments for test-drive and extra info.

After having my car stolen, I’m worried that it won’t feel like “mine” any more, that it will be unclean. My dad is worried about what, exactly my car was off doing for a week, and is concerned about safety. So, my dad doesn’t think the car can be trusted and wants it gone; he’s offered to help buy me a new car (my dad rocks, by the way). Now it’s up to me to try to figure out what exactly I want, up to a price of about $25,000 (CDN). Essentially, the only cars in the running are the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla. Both get good reviews, are about the same price, and I don’t really have any major concerns about them (the Civic might be more of a theft target, whereas the Corolla only has side-airbags on the very highest options package, at something like $26k). Really, it’s going to come down to the test drive and how much the dealers are willing to negotiate (just working at St. Joe’s gets me 4% above invoice, but I think I should be able to do better than that), and perhaps whether the insurance will be different for the different cars.

But what I’m really considering and tossing over in my head is whether to get the Civic Hybrid or a conventional Civic (or Corolla). I’ve done a lot of reading on that score in the last few days (and I already considered myself fairly knowledgable about hybrids to begin with). Perhaps you all can help me make up my mind, or failing that, perhaps this can be a useful resource to someone else facing the same questions in the future.

My dad is dead-set against hybrids: he thinks they’re still too new, too untested, too unknown to go off buying one now. Let some other sucker beta test, let someone else spend their money to save gas and the environment he says. Never be an early-adopter.

I talked with him for a bit about it tonight, but I was hardly convincing. I can pick a Civic, a Corolla, or walk, but he doesn’t want me driving a previously stolen ’97 Accord or a hybrid… but I got the impression that he might be open to talking about it some more if I like the test drive.

Let me discuss the issues as I see them:

Hybrids are more expensive

Yes, the Civic Hybrid runs about $4400 more than a similarly-equipped Civic (the automatic LX) in initial cost. The highway fuel economies are pretty close, too: at 5.7 vs 4.3 L/100 km, it’s clear that while you do save on gas, it’s not a huge difference (we’re still talking about a very economical sedan for comparison, it’s not like I’m turning in a truck). Nonetheless, at 20,000 km/year, that would be a gas savings of about 280 L (so if gas prices stay high, nearly $300/year… and I fully believe gas prices will just get higher; plus with city driving the gap becomes larger). The Ontario government also has a PST rebate of up to $2000 on a new hybrid, pretty much the full amount of which can be claimed on this car (depending on how much the selling price gets knocked down in negotiations). The remaining difference ($2400) would pay for itself in 6-8 years (depending on relative city use, gas prices, etc).

It’s important also to make sure you can find a dealer who will give you a discount over MSRP on the hybrid — a $4400 difference in sticker prices can become a much larger real-world difference if they’re willing to deal on a gas-only model but not on a hybrid. From what I know, Toyota dealers are not very flexible on their hybrid pricing because the Prius and Camrys already have long waiting lists. The Civic, however, should be open for negotiation.

The batteries are a big risk

First off, they’re not the lithium-ion ones that are being recalled in laptops, so it’s not like they’re a fire hazard risk.

There is, however, still the question of if/when they will need to be replaced, and how much that will end up costing. Initially, early adopters were shocked with quotes for battery replacements as high as $10k, but now it appears as though the price will be more like $3k. The batteries are estimated to last about 10 years, so AFAIK, no hybrids have had to have theirs replaced. Plus, it might not even be an essential repair: the acceleration and fuel economy will suffer with a dead battery, but it will likely still be possible to drive the car with minor software modifications. The electric generators/motors could also be quite expensive, but should last damned near forever.

Overall, it doesn’t sound like too much more than other things with a car that can go after 10 years and leave a hefty bill. One thing that reassures me is that the batteries carry an 8-year warranty. If legions of undead accountants and arch-actuaries in Japan have approved 8-year coverage, it must mean that their dark magicks have determined that the 10+ year estimated lifetime must be destined to come true. That, or they’re trying to assauge these fears so we’ll still buy the car. Either way, it doesn’t sound too scary to me (plus by 10 years, I’ll have pocketed another $1000 or so in gas savings above the difference in inital cost).

I’m trying to find information on similar batteries for other applications. For example, some cottages use deep-cycle batteries like these to store wind/solar power during the day/week and power the cottage through the night/weekend. Speaking with one person about it, the previous generation technology deep-cycle batteries were good for 10-20 years in somewhat temperature stable environments (they were buried, but above the frostline).

Plugging it in

I see it in every damned FAQ, but don’t know who would actually ask it these days. No, hybrids don’t get plugged in (though there are after-market kits you can buy to expand the capacity of your batteries so you can plug it in and run in electric-only mode for short trips).

They’re too new still

This one is iffy. I generally don’t like being an early adopter, particularly when large sums of money are involved (as much as I am a bit of a technophile — it’s a strange, conflicted life I lead). Honda’s on what I consider their 3rd generation hybrid now (the Insight, the ’03-05 Civic Hybrid, and now the redesigned ’06 Civic Hybrid). Toyota is into a well-matured 2nd generation Prius, and has sold a lot more units, so I wouldn’t consider it brand-spanking new technology. However, it is still lacking in long-term reliability data. They’ve power cycled the batteries to the equivalent of 250,000 km driving, but who knows if that’s really the same as 10-15 years in the real world? How much does just time spent sitting around and a hot summer affect things?

However, they’re getting less rare. In the last few months, I’ve seen at least 3 Civic Hybrids around London, and about a dozen Priuses (Prii?) — and that’s only the 2006 Civics that are easier to spot (the earlier ones can only be determined by the badge on the back). Forecasts I’ve seen indicate that nearly 10% of new small car purchases will by hybrids this year. Even if they are new and untested, misery loves company (plus, that’s lots of other bozos to get in car wrecks and provide me with salvage parts).

They drive funny

This one I have to try myself to see. I scheduled a test-drive for tomorrow (when I go to pick my car up after getting the ignition repaired), but they told me they just sold the hybrid they have on the lot, so now I can’t take it out. I’m positive it will be different, but I can’t say yet if that will be a bad thing. The coninuously variable transmission (CVT) alone should shake things up a bit, and it has me a little lot nervous. Moreso than the batteries, for me this is the big questionmark for long-term reliability. Automatic transmissions do great now, and almost everyone in Canada has one, but when I was a kid I remember people were always worried about them, and having them fail after 5-8 years was not unheard of. What then, of this new CVT? Will it be able to “kick down” and provide adequate acceleration when needed?

The acceleration is another issue. With a smaller engine, the acceleration would be terrible. That’s where the hybrid part comes in: the electric motor can kick in for short bursts to provide the power when needed (it still falls just shy of a standard Civic, from the specs). Will that be enough to provide safety in the insanity of Toronto driving? Will my dad ever accept that level of performance, given that he got the V6 upgrade on my brother’s Accord as a safety feature? There are some situations where that low long-term power can lead to problems. Long, steep hills can drain the battery, leaving you barely able to maintain highway speeds going uphill. Will I be able to drive this car through New Brunswick on my way to PEI next year, or will a transport run me over on a long hill? Especially given that it will likely be packed to the rafters…

Two-stage braking, with first regenerative braking and then standard hydraulic friction braking kicking in, will be a different experience. The big issue will probably just be how it feels: reportedly, there’s a bit of a sudden extra slowing once you press the brake enough to trigger the hydraulics. On the surface it doesn’t sound as safe, but I’m pretty confident they have it sorted out. Keep in mind those rides at Wonderland that take you up the tower and drop you into freefall use electromagnetic/regenerative braking to keep you from going splat on the ground. On the gripping hand, I won’t go on that ride at Wonderland…

Also, the engine shuts off when not needed to save on gas. This can be disconcerting, I’m told, particularly if the radio is off so you really hear the sound difference. The jury is out still on what this does to the wear & tear on the engine: the engine runs less, but goes through more starting phases (supposedly the hardest on the engine). The startup is supposed to be different than in conventional cars, with the eletric motor helping to spin the engine up to speed before it starts to fire, which should reduce that, and also the engine is made to start/stop more often, so it might be more durable in the end anyway.

Low rolling resistance tires

Part of the fuel savings on the civic hybrid come from its set of low rolling resistance tires. This has me worried, and unfortunately I haven’t found the information on it I want yet. To me low rolling resistance = low traction. Will these be as safe as standard tires? From what I’ve seen, handling and braking distance are the same as on a regular Civic, but I don’t know if these were tested on wet/snowy/icy surfaces. Also, if the tires do help gain some extra efficiency and are perfectly safe, then why aren’t they offered on the standard Civic (which is still an economy car, as much as they want to sell it as a family sedan)?

Fuel savings are exaggerated

This is partly true: you will have to drive very conservatively to actually make the stated fuel efficiency numbers. All cars suffer from this to some degree though: it’s an artifact of the way the test is run. Hybrids seem to suffer a bit more simply because they have so much more fuel efficiency to lose. People complain about it more because they tend to buy a hybrid for the fuel savings, and because a hybrid has a real-time fuel consumption gauge on the instrument panel. On other cars, even if one is an option, people tend to ignore it, so there isn’t as much real-world data on how much worse other cars are relative to their stated consumptions. Generally speaking, driving the same way in both cars will get you approximately the same relative difference between the hybrid and the other car, even if you do end up being much worse than stated in the hybrid. There are two exceptions to this. The first is slow city driving after the engine has warmed up: other cars tend to suffer more than a hybrid might, so you should do as good or better than the stated difference in consumption. The other is high speed on highways (120-130+ km/h): the civic hybrid’s tiny engine doesn’t seem to have the pep to keep those speeds going continuously, and consumes disproportionately more fuel at that speed than other cars do, reducing your potential highway savings. Some have said that this is because you push the engine out of its efficient range of operation (which ends somewhere around 110-120 km/h, depending on wind, air temp, etc.).


I’m considering a new car because my car was just stolen (twice), so naturally I’m thinking of theft deterrence. I’m not really sure about the factory immobilization device (looking on the webpage, it sometimes appears to be standard, sometimes a $600 option). Nonetheless, I think thieves would tend to avoid it (if they notice the difference between it and a normal Civic at all) because the hybrids are rarer, somewhat unknown to them, and contain the battery capacity necessary to electrify the driver’s seat. ;)

Specific to the Civic Hybrid

Some other issues specific to the Civic Hybrid that I need to sort out include the matter of space. Apparently, the backseat got slightly smaller this year (though I had no trouble fitting when I tried it earlier this year, and this is true for all Civics). The trunk is slightly smaller due to the battery pack, which is wedged in between the trunk and the back seat. This also means that the seats don’t fold down to open more space to the trunk. I have to ask myself: do I need them to? The seatback on my Accord folds down, and I have never used it. Wayfare did point out that it might have been handy when we were moving our bikes and fiddling with taking the wheels off and whatnot to get them in the car — I had forgotten about that option, so I possibly could have used it then. Other than that, I put them down once for a ski trip, but found the skis were poking me in the elbow, and I was afraid of what would happen to my radio if I stopped suddenly, so I got a roof rack at Canadian Tire… Does anyone else ever really need the fold-down seat option?

The Civic Hybrid also lacks any moonroof option. True, Wayfare will never miss it, since she always went “Ah, sun!” and shut the shade on me, but I kind of liked it on my Accord, especially when you’re in a parking lot waiting for the rain to let up. The shallower seat back in the rear also means that the centre armrest is either thinner or non-existant. I’m not quite sure, but either way it amounts to a complete absence of cupholders in the rear.

Why I want a hybrid

Looking at all this, it’s hard to know what to think. Hybrids cost more at first, but can make that up in the long term with gas savings (and the more gas goes up, the better it gets). How well they hold their value in the long term is unknown, as well as what their long-term reliability will be like. So far, it looks like reliability is as good or better than the equivalent gas-only version, perhaps due to a combination of the electric components taking some of the higher loads off the combustion engine, a more responsible self-selecting driver pool, and tighter QA on a limited-production line. But we really don’t know for the long-term, particularly with respect to the battery packs.

Another consideration will be resale value. For the moment, hybrids seem to be very strong on that point, but people are concerned that could fall off once the first hybrids get to be old enough to need new batteries. However, consider what can happen over the next 10 years: if hybrid technology really takes off (and it looks like it’s primed to, with the Camry Hybrid coming out this year, and another two or three new hybrid models for next year, including a few more from the North American makers), then it might be that nobody would want to buy an “old-tech” car on the used market: they’d want a hybrid, like all the new cars are. That might keep the used car market strong, possibly even stronger than it is now, battery concerns or not. A good comparison might be fuel injector technology (there was a Canadian Driver article comparing hybrids of today to fuel injection cars of 20 years ago, and how there were the same concerns about repair costs and being an early adopter).

To my mind, the economics of the thing nearly even out: it looks like in the long term, the hybrid could end up costing less, but will have significantly more doubt and uncertainty. Of course, my dad’s a bit more risk-averse, so that ends up being a solid “no” to the hybrid.

But there’s a lot more to a car purchase than simple economics. After all, if it were only down to dollars, efficiencies, and resale value, then nobody would ever buy a luxury car, SUV, or convertable. Most people wouldn’t even buy new, instead their gaze would be fixed on the used car market (why my dad decided “at those prices, you might as well buy new” I don’t really know, and I’m not going to question too deeply ;) So there’s a lot more to buying a car than just getting from point A to point B. It’s got to feel right, look right, work with your non-driving needs (from cupholders to A/C to colour scheme), and just simply make you happy (or at least, happy enough to fork over the money).

I’ve been following hybrid developments since the Insight first appeared at one of the auto shows (that would be 8 years ago I think?). The Prius is bull-dog ugly to first see it, and I was never one to like hatchbacks in the first place. But I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for them on the road enough, and seeing enough pictures of them that they’ve sort of grown on me. This is largely because I’ve been, by turns, a fairly decent environmentalist over the years. Saving gas and polluting less are benefits in their own right, and these are considerations that I find even more pressing now that I’m with a severe asthmatic. Our society is often too consequence-free, and too short-sighted. Can we continue living the way we are for the next hundred years? The next thousand? Obviously not, so the sooner we can make and adjust to appropriate changes, the longer we’ll be able to ride out this sweet spot in history, the more of our decendants we’ll be able to feed, clothe, and educate. Maybe I’m unique in that type of perspective, maybe it has something to do with the research I’m doing (we’re looking to anticipate and circumvent possible long-term side effects of a treatment that hasn’t even started its acute FDA trial yet).

Canada is a net producer of oil, so we don’t have the “reduce dependance on foreign oil” reason many Americans do for going hybrid. Nonetheless, it’s still very important to conserve for conservation’s sake: eventually the oil (or the easy-to-get oil) will run out. More importantly, we need to slow down the oil industry in Canada, or all my friends will move to Ft. McMurray and I’ll be left in Ontario all by me onesies.

Ultimately, whether I’ll push my dad a bit more in the future will depend on how I like the actual driving experience of the Civic Hybrid vs. the Corolla vs. the gas-only Civic.

Some resources I used in my reading

If anyone is considering a hybrid car, these are some of the sites I found helpful:

This last one is more of an entertaining read of the drive across Canada, rather than about the car itself. He did, apparently, make it through the New Brunswick hills, but I wonder how full his car was at the time…

This is the one about fuel injection [and his conclusion was from 2004 — gas prices have gone up a fair bit since then!]

You’ll need a subscription. The car reviews there had good summaries, but were pretty sparse on the details. They also provide a “real-world” estimate of actual fuel consumption, and because their test involves more city driving and stop-and-go, the hybrids actually do a bit better relative to their gas-only brethern (though all cars do worse than the stated EPA numbers).

The forums here are a good source of information. Just keep in mind that they’re full of enthusiastic hybrid owners. They’ll give you real-world mileage data, but it might not be a world you’re familiar with. These are people who drive 90 in the slow lane to maximize fuel economy, who use “pulse and glide” techniques to get up to speed, then hit neutral, turn off the engine, and coast… But searching through the forums for complaints, I can see that there aren’t too many (some minor issues with the power windows, a few others: nothing too unusual for a car).

Also have a look at some of the other articles on hybridcars, but keep in mind that it is also a community of enthusiasts.

BCAA Cost analysis — they found that the hybrid civic would save money (assuming equal depreciation and maintanence), but note that they used slightly weird fuel consumption rates, and compared to the higher-priced Civic EX rather than the LX like I am.


The Ontario tax credit [updated hyperlink June ’08 – left “text” link alone]


5 Responses to “Hybrid Car Considerations”

  1. wayfare Says:

    Nice use of references!

    With gas prices going the way they are, I think you’d save more money in the long run with a hybrid. I also think that as they become more popular the battery prices will fall by the time you need a new one. And as much as I like watching the rain through the sunroof, I like the fact that you won’t be able to open the car to the sky all willy-nilly, showering us with leaves and bugs and lord knows what else.

    That being said, you could just wait and make your next car and every car after that a hybrid. Let everyone else finish testing them out first.

  2. Ben Says:

    3,700 words!!! Goddamn, no wonder it took me so long to read that!

  3. Potato Says:

    When I obsess and fret, I take no half-measures.

    I got my old car back today. The repairs came out to a lot more than quoted ($1300 in the end, rather than the $800 quoted), and the handbrake was broken! It had no tension left in it at all, it just kind of flopped there. The only mechanic left on duty when I drove back in to the lot was pretty angry that they would overlook something like that after a theft-recovery inspection, so he recommended that I go back tomorrow and complain to the manager. I think I might…

    The thieves really got a lot of mileage out of my car: I left it with about 1/3 of a tank of gas, and they took it right down to fumes (about 2 L left in the tank!), roughtly 200 km. With the handbrake gone, it makes me think that they were joyriding, doing donuts or something stupid like that.

    I talked with a salesman and took a regular Civic out for a test drive. It’s a little new and weird, particularly with the swept windshield and the thick support beams, but I think overall I liked it. They’ve been selling a lot of hybrids lately (at least 3 in the last month), and it’s hard because not many people want to buy without test driving, but the salesman said that the hybrid demographic can be very picky about how many miles they’ll allow to be racked up on a car in test drives. So, they’re actually getting in a full-time demo tomorrow or the day after. I find that encouraging… and at the same time, after seeing what the driving experience in the gas model was like, I’m not sure I’ll like the feeling of the hybrid. There was lots of “pep” in the gas-only version, so it should still be plenty drivable with the slightly weaker hybrid powertrain… but I only got to test it on an 80 km/h highway (the dealership is just too far from the 401!), which is where my big concerns lie.

    I had a checklist of common complaints about the ’06 Civic with me, and aside from the strange windshield, didn’t really find any of them held water. The handbrake is farther forward, so it is possible to have it jab into your knee, but you would really have to be swinging your knee into an unnaturally high/right position. I actually really liked the split instrument display, and didn’t notice an unusual amount of road noise (but then again, I only got it up to 100 on a rural road). The engine did whine a bit too much when trying to accelerate from 80-100, though the actual change in speed was fine. I’m still on the fence with regards to the giant dash/swept windshield…

  4. Netbug Says:

    Just get a Bentley with a driver.

  5. Potato Says:

    I test-drove the hybrid on Monday, and I liked it. There were 4(?) days between that and my regular Civic test drive, with about 500 km in my Accord in-between, so it’s a little tough to judge exactly how they compare. I found the hybrid slightly less peppy than the gas model, but it still seemed to have plenty of power when it needed it (IIRC, there’s only about 1 second difference in their 0-60 mph times). It was quieter for the most part (it was tough to tell on the highway, we only took the first exit after 1 km, but I think it was slightly noisier there). It had enough power to get up to speed, but seemed to be closer to the edge than my Accord was for highway merging. The lack of gear shifting on the CVT didn’t bother me at all — and it might be a good thing, considering sometimes my Accord refuses to downshift for extra power when I need to pass.

    The meter in the dash reported a 6 L/100 km fuel efficiency, and I was driving the car reasonably hard to see if the acceleration would be ok. Considering that the engine isn’t even broken in, that’s reasonably promising. I think I liked it, but this is such a big decision that I just know I’m going to obsess like crazy (and, in fact, have already obsessed… as you can plainly see here!).

    The interior is, IMHO, better than the standard Civic: both are cloth-only options, but the standard Civic comes in beige or grey, while the hybrid is a two-tone beige and navy. However, the Hybrid’s trunk is smaller by about 2 file boxes (just as wide and tall, but not as deep), 290 vs 340 L if that means anything to you. The rear spoiler looks neat, but might make mounting a bike rack harder… and a bike rack (or other luggage mount) would very likely be necessary with the smaller trunk and non-folddownable rear seats.

    I also asked about emissions: it looks like the hybird gets better emissions per litre of gas burned than the gas-only version, in part because the catalytic converter isn’t ever overwhelmed by the engine revving too high (remember: the whole point of hybrids is to use the electric motor to cope with peak demands so the gas engine can run steady-state). They also have a more advanced vapour-recovery-and-reburn system, but I don’t know the details. There is an issue of “lean burn”: the ’05s actually got worse emissions per litre of gas burned because of the extra nitric oxides produced in lean burn mode. It’s also lead to a number of reports of catalytic converters that have failed far eariler than they should have. From what I’ve read, this should not be a problem on the ’06s. No lean burn makes the fuel efficiency slightly worse, but that’s already taken into account for the listed figures. I just need to verify that the Canadian model has the cleaner, no-lean-burn engine cycle…