Driving the Hybrids

The Thinker by Rodin

There are two hybrid cars in my driveway at the moment. There’s my new 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid but there is also my Dad’s 2005 Toyota Prius. The latter sits in our garage until he gets back from California where he is visiting his sister. I’ve driven both cars and I can tell you that driving a hybrid takes some getting used to.

In many ways my Honda Civic Hybrid seems more conventional. The Toyota Prius feels really out of this world. For example, at least in my Dad’s version of the car, there is no place to insert a key to turn on the engine. Want to turn it on? It’s pretty simple, just not intuitive. First, put your foot on the brake. Second, press the Power button. No key needed!

To get in the car you normally use the remote control. The car assumes that anyone who can get inside it should be okay to drive it. According to my Dad you have to have the remote control with you to actually start the car. I guess the car detects its presence through some sort of wireless signal, and will only start it if it detects it.

Many of the controls are not where you would expect it. If you are looking for the speedometer over your steering wheel, forget about it. You have to glance to your right and up a bit at look at the little monitor that tells you the current status of your car. Need to go into reverse? Don’t look for a lever between the front row seats. Instead, look for an odd lever built into the dashboard itself and look at the monitor to verify you are actually in the gear you think you are.

Backing out of the garage with the Prius does not necessarily mean starting the engine. Battery power will usually kick in to push it out of the garage. The motor seems to come on transparently when you need it. It is very quiet so it’s hard to know it is there sometimes.

In short what Toyota has done to the interior of the Prius is a little like what VW did when they introduced the Beetle. It’s like “What the heck is this?” It would deter, or certainly slow down most car thieves. I feel sorry for valet parking attendants for the next couple years. It’s going to be confusing for them.

My Dad has ridden in both hybrids. Even he noticed that the Honda Civic Hybrid coveys less road noise. It also rides a lot smoother. But having driven them both it is clear to me that the Prius is the cleaner car, simply because it seems to use the engine less. On the Honda Civic Hybrid the engine always kicks on when I start the car.

The Honda Civic Hybrid though feels much more like a “normal” car. There’s a lever to put the automatic transmission into drive or reverse, and it’s right there where it should be: between the passenger seats. I don’t have to hunt for the speedometer. It’s in my face above the steering wheel as I expect, however it’s an electronic display. There seems to be neither rhyme nor reason on when the engine will kick off. I get a feeling that in the morning the car waits until it is hot enough before the engine will kick off at stoplights. Releasing my foot from the brake kicks on the engine again instantaneously. The Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system (which indicates how the battery is helping the motor, and visa versa) is impressive. For a four-cylinder car this thing is surprisingly peppy. It does not have the power of a V-8 but the battery adds a larger than expected oomph to the acceleration that to my mind makes it feel more like a V-6.

It’s starting to feel normal to be at a light and have the engine shut off. And this is good. It seems strange that there are so many cars queued up on all sides of me with their engines running while I sit serenely inert through the three minute traffic lights.

I don’t know how many miles per gallon I will get yet. In the two weeks I’ve owned the car I have yet to refill the tank! Yes, my driving needs are modest. I have put about 250 miles on the car and the tank is still about 40% full. It seems likely I will average over 40 miles per gallon.

Some of the features, now standard in most cars, are annoying. I’m already annoyed by the optional security system. I have to use the remote to enter the car and to lock it. If I don’t the security alarm goes off. The car chirps every time I lock or unlock the car. I’m sick of it. There is a way to turn it off. I’ve read the manual but I still can’t figure it out because it refers to a switch that is not in my car. I need a less hassle security system.

And I guess electronic keys are standard now. But they are new to me. I can’t get a new car key cut at the Sears Hardware, that’s for sure. I have to go to my Honda dealer and I better bring in my key code with me.

But so far at least the Honda Civic Hybrid is a neat car. It may be a hybrid but unlike the Prius when you drive it you don’t feel like you are sacrificing much. It’s definitely smaller than the Prius and I wish it were a hatchback. But for a small car it’s quiet and fun.

I look forward to the day when hybrids are mainstream. But hybrids still have to seriously catch on. I would think more people would be interested in them, not just because they care about the environment because you can get a tax credit for buying a new hybrid. It’s disturbing to read reports that hybrid SUVs aren’t selling well. The hybrid technologies certainly seem viable enough to me. I hope more Americans will see their virtues. It won’t solve the global warming or air pollution problem, but it’s a start.

The Slimy, Icky Business of Car Buying

The Thinker by Rodin

The last straw was when the air conditioner went out. I was fifty miles out of Raleigh heading back to my Northern Virginia home when the compressor died. If it had been a good day it would have been no big deal. But it was a hot and sticky day and it was interstate driving all the way home. With no AC I had to travel with the windows open. Yet I sweated like a pig anyhow. I had to make frequent pits stops for bottled water. The road noise actually hurt my ears. I arrived home a stinking mess with my shirt soaked in sweat.

The 250 mile drive home was a piece of cake compared to trying to get my 91 Camry fixed. It lingered for four weeks in the shop. Replacement parts repeatedly failed and had to be replaced. After three weeks the shop finally determined that the compressor clutch had failed. A new compressor would cost $700. I had already invested about $600 trying to solve the problem. Eventually I found a used compressor online and had them install it. It cost about as much to fix up the car so I could have cool air as it was worth. It was time to buy another car. I had finally exceeded my tolerance level for automotive problems.

Overall the Camry remains a great car. It may be a bit oxidized and scratched. Rust may be encroaching in a few spots. But it still runs well. I haven’t been as good as I should have been keeping it washed, waxed and polished. But it has been extremely reliable and could probably go for another 60,000 miles. I just don’t want to nurse it through its next 60,000 miles. I want a car that just offers basic and reliable transportation.

Hybrids are an up and coming technology. Although my neighbors in their gas guzzling SUV behemoths may not give a damn about the environment, for some reason I cared about it enough to put my money where my mouth was. A small hybrid car was all I needed to carry me the three miles or so to work when the weather didn’t allow me to bike it. My next car would spend a lot of its time in Northern Virginia traffic running errands. I would be driving it alone 90% of the time. Our 97 Honda Odyssey would suffice for transporting teenagers and larger items when needed. So a small fuel-efficient hybrid made sense.

So I got on a Prius mailing list to get on their waiting list. I waited and waited and was glad the used compressor was still working. Meanwhile my father finally got his Prius and I took it for a test drive. While a nice car I found that it didn’t accommodate my 6’2″ frame and long legs very well. Driving it actually hurt after a while. I had to keep my foot at 45 degrees to the accelerator and my thighs were touching the bottom of the steering wheel, even after it was adjusted up. However it was otherwise a surprisingly roomy car and a hatchback to boot. It pained me to have to say no to this hybrid.

My wife suggested trying the Honda Civic Hybrid. We took it for a test drive. It was noticeably quieter and had a smoother ride than the Prius. But its back seat was comparatively cramped and batteries behind the back seat kept it from being used as a hatchback. But overall it was an impressive car. And although we were in no particular hurry it was readily available.

Naturally the dealership where we got our test drive wanted us to buy it right then and there. We firmly said no and went home to consider our options. In other words we mostly went home and forgot about it since that’s what we do in our family. But both the Toyota and Honda salesmen kept calling us trying to close the sale. I just didn’t want to pay their inflated prices. (The Toyota salesman wanted to order one for us. No discounts at all, naturally.)

We discovered that our credit union offered United Buying Service. I did some inquiries to find out what it would cost to purchase the Civic through their service. We bought our Camry through UBS many years ago and it seemed to be the way to go. The UBS price was reasonable. Only I felt sorry for the guy at the Honda dealership who gave us the test drive and kept calling us. Once we had decided on the Honda Civic Hybrid I felt I should give him a chance to meet the UBS price.

In retrospect this was probably a mistake. Buying the Camry through UBS had been such a pleasant experience. We had none of the high-pressure sales techniques usually found in car dealerships. But when we walked into our local Honda dealership yesterday to try to close the deal with Sodik, our salesman, it was back to the “let’s see how much money we can squeeze out of them” salesmanship I grew to loathe during my car buying experiences in the 1980s.

There is this protocol to car buying that seems sacrosanct. Wildly inflated prices are offered and the expectation is you want to drive away with your new car today. It seems impossible to buy any car at a dealership without mud flaps, pin stripes and security packages. They wanted to charge for dealer preparation fees and transportation charges and they want you to ignore the dealer charge backs they were getting. But at least this time I had my UBS purchase certificate. I told them they could meet the price or I could leave. We spent a lot of time twiddling our thumbs while Sodik went back and forth between us and the sales managers behind the counter. Surely we would pay $450 for an appearance package? Surely we would not. Okay, let’s split the cost in half: $225 for the appearance package. But I don’t want the appearance package. Can’t you just order me the car I want? Eventually they met my UBS price after considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth. But I did agree to pay $150 for the appearance package since even the UBS dealership said all the cars came with it. Cost so far $19,829.

Of course it’s never over until it’s over. There are options available and a lady came by to let us know we could get 5 CD changers, all season floor mats and even a cargo net for the Civic’s tiny little trunk. I bit for the security package for $399 figuring it might pay for itself in reduced insurance premiums and passed on the rest.

Then it was upstairs to the guy with the green eyeshades. There were extended warranties and paint sealants available too. Surely I would want them. He had never sold a hybrid, he told us, without the extended warranty, since it was “new” technology. I said there is a first time for everything. He gave us a jaundiced eye but eventually put the order together. Add sales taxes and titling fees and my $19,829 car now cost $20,922.78.

I’m still wondering if I got a good deal or not. Why am I paying $40.46 for a “Dealer Business License Tax”? But anyhow it’s done, except for the pesky matters of getting a loan (we put $10,000 down), adding insurance for the car, the property tax stickers, our special clean fuel license plates (which lets us drive with one person on I-66 HOV lanes), selling the Camry and, oh, actually taking possession of our new car. We do that tomorrow evening after the security package is installed.

Despite the friendly but aggressive salesman and despite the gleaming Honda showrooms I still find I have almost no interest in my brand new car. I don’t find myself lusting for my first drive in it. If I had any of these feelings they went away after the slimy business of buying a new car. I should have just used the buying service and avoided the hassle altogether. I should not have felt sorry for a salesman who gave us a test drive and kept calling us. Now I feel unclean.

I hope if I ever decide to buy through a dealership again that the car buying process will have improved. But the quintessential car buying experience in America must include high-pressure salesman in dazzling suits and endless shuffling back and forth to sales managers.

Next time I’ll use a buying service for sure.