Civic Hybrid near Confederation Bridge, PEI
Civic Hybrid near Confederation Bridge, PEI. Click image to enlarge

by Paul Williams

There’s something a little too complex about hybrid cars, don’t you think? I mean, they have two motors, for a start – one gasoline and one battery powered. And they have strange gauges, and no-one’s figured out how to chip them yet.

Maybe if we ignore them, they’ll go away.

Don’t count on it. Manufacturers like Honda, Toyota and Ford say they’re here to stay (at least for the next decade, maybe longer, until they can perfect hydrogen fuel cells). So rather than my usual one-week test around town, Ottawa Citizen Driving editor Rob Bostelaar and I planned something much more challenging for the Honda Civic Hybrid – a two-week, cross-country epic.

Why? Although some people see hybrids as “green” cars, and others see them as fancy golf carts, we just wanted to treat the Civic Hybrid like any other car. What do you gain by buying one? What do you give up? And really, just what is it all about?

Our journey began in Prince Edward Island and ends in British Columbia. Would Moncton’s famous Magnetic Hill short out our Civic Hybrid? Would we, horrors, kill the Magnetic Hill and deprive New Brunswick of $5.00 revenue per car (up from $3.00 last year and free the year before)? Do you have to plug the car in? What if you run out of gas – will it run on the battery alone? Driving an expected 8000 kilometres in 12 days should answer these questions, and more, we thought.

But let’s get something clear from the start. At no point do you have to plug in a hybrid gasoline-electric car. The Honda Civic Hybrid contains a self-regenerating Nickel-Metal-Hydride battery that’s located behind the rear seat. When you slow down, kinetic energy is recovered and stored in that battery. And when you speed up, the stored energy assists the 1.3-litre gasoline engine, thus saving fuel and reducing emissions. When the car is underway, both motors work together continuously.

So no extension cords, no special outlets, no plugging in. It’s a simple idea, but a very clever car.

Prince Edward Island
Near Charlottetown, PEI

Magnetic Hill
Magnetic Hill, Moncton, NB

Pohenegamook, Quebec
Pohenegamook, Quebec

Chrysler Airflow
Chrysler Airflow spotted near Pohenegamook, Quebec; this, too was a revolutionary car, but was never accepted by consumers

Civic Hybrid's electro-luminescent instruments
Civic Hybrid’s electro-luminescent instruments

Hydro towers
Hydro towers at the Des Joachims Generating Station on the upper Ottawa River

Some local colour in Quebec
Some local colour in Riviere du-Loup, Quebec
Click image to enlarge

Although Charlottetown, PEI, is not the eastern-most point in Canada, it seemed fitting to start there on July 1, Canada Day, at the home of confederation. Besides, Nickelback was playing a huge outdoor concert on the wharf and the town was definitely in a party mood.

We picked up the brand new, Flurorite Silver Metallic Hybrid at the airport. Starting it is just like any car – insert the key and turn it to the start position. The first difference noted is that the gasoline engine starts instantly and is quiet, really quiet.

Select “D” and you’re away. Driving into town we marveled at how the engine completely shut down at stoplights. It’s called the auto-stop “economy” mode (which you can switch off), and saves gas by eliminating the need to idle when you wait for the light. At first it’s weird sitting in a silent car at the stoplight, but then you wonder why non-hybrid cars couldn’t do this too.

While you’re waiting for the light, you can check out the Civic Hybrid’s electro-luminescent instruments. They’re much like a regular car’s. You’ve got your usual tachometer and speedometer, gas and temperature, but you’ve also got a gauge to tell you when you battery is charging, and when it’s consuming power by assisting your engine. Finally there’s a meter that continuously indicates how much gasoline you’re consuming. Your trip odometers (A and B) also keep track of fuel consumption.

When the light turns green, take your foot off the brake, and the engine starts instantly. Very cool, we agreed, continuing on to the hotel.

Electricity is certainly on your mind in a hybrid car, and electricity was in the air in Charlottetown on July 1, but not only in anticipation of the concert. In late afternoon, the skies suddenly turned from blue to black, and huge bolts of lightning sent everyone scurrying for cover.

“Just a little summer storm. It’ll pass soon,” remarked the hotel clerk.

Three hours later it was still passing. It’s funny how concerts and storms have a habit of intersecting, isn’t it?

We arrived at the Lobster on the Wharf restaurant for a much anticipated seafood dinner. Outside, drenched fans were waiting in the rain for the concert to begin. Did you know that rain can travel sideways? It does in PEI. Deconstructing a lobster is hard enough after two pints of Island Red, without the crashing of thunder and sheets of rain blowing at gale forces at the restaurant’s windows, some of which were open. Nobody seemed too bothered by this, and the lobsters were way past caring. After a third Island Red I didn’t care much either.

The next explosion was the sound of Nickelback cranking up the volume. As the thunder finally receded over the horizon, a brisk ocean breeze replaced the rain. Shivering wet fans couldn’t have cared less. Turns out, Charlottetown can really rock!

On Canada Day morning in the hotel restaurant, the two-egg omelet was $2.99, plus $1.50 if “dragged through the garden.” Dragged through the garden. (It was early; I didn’t get it). A PEI expression? “No,” said the waitress looking equally puzzled. “No, I’ve never heard that before.”

PEI is a hard place to leave, even if they make strange omelets. We discovered that after plotting a straight-line route and promptly getting sidetracked for the entire next day. The place is full of charming roads, stores and people, and honestly, you can’t get 25 kilometres without stopping for a view or a chat or another collectible.

We met Ron Steves quite by accident. Driving by his house we caught a glimpse of a guy polishing a classic car. We stopped, turned around and drove in. Car guys are usually okay with this, in my experience.

Ron’s got a collection of about 12 American Motors (AMC) cars from the ’60s and ’70s. He’s got an AMX, an AMX Gremlin, a Pacer X, a Matador, a couple of Eagle 4x4s, a Rambler American convertible, a couple of Hornets including a Sportabout, a Concord, an Ambassador. He had everything!

And while quiet at first, Ron could definitely talk once he got going. Unfortunately, we had to get going, too, leaving Ron to polish up that big green Matador. We’ll have to return.

By the time we got to Woodstock (New Brunswick, that is) we’d been driving far too long. The Bay of Fundy detour was well worth the trip, but even with our meandering, we missed the world’s longest covered bridge (at Hartland) and Enrage Bay with its promised crashing waves. Have to return there, too.

Although the highways all through New Brunswick are in excellent condition, the U.S. has cunningly placed the ends of the Appalachian Mountains on the way to Quebec, a major inconvenience for Canadians seeking a direct route, and a major workout for the Civic Hybrid.

Those mountains (well, foothills really) caused numerous climbs and descents that made the Hybrid’s buddy-system powertrain show its stuff. Along with its two occupants, luggage and the full-on air conditioning, the car drove pretty much like a conventionally powered compact. Seats are good, we thought, and the fuel consumption was a miserly 5.8 litres per 100 km.
Not bad.

The continuously variable transmission in this car is also a fairly new technology, and a real value-added feature, in my view. Most people would refer to it as an automatic, but really, there are no gears in the conventional sense.

What this means to the driver is very little. As I say, you simply select “D” and hit the gas. What you notice, if you’re paying attention, is that the transmission doesn’t change gears. Instead it smoothly accelerates up to speed, and once you reach that speed, the engine gets quieter. In practice, the engine is revving faster to get you going, and the transmission is transferring torque to the front wheels. Once you’ve achieved your desired road speed, the CVT operates almost in an overdrive mode, allowing very low engine speeds.

We regretfully left the Maritimes and entered Quebec, which, as usual to me, seemed another world. Turning left at Riviere-du-Loup, we hugged the south shore of the St. Lawrence, through St-Andre, Kamouraska and St-Denis. This is where artists and poets and craftspeople live, along with their theatres, cafes and studios for all manner of creative activities. There are also many shops selling antiques and collectibles. For instance, we found a large cache of priceless American Motors sales literature for $3.00 a pop. You can’t beat that.

We really wanted to stay and visit the dozens of other stores. We found wooden chests, boxes of old license plates, antique rocking chairs, big gas station signs, a hot-rodded 1933 Ford (seemingly used as a garden ornament), a sleigh, various car parts, and we hadn’t even got into stride. But we were on a mission, don’t forget.

After dropping Rob off in Ottawa, I continued alone, north on Highway 17, thinking of an episode of Seinfeld where Kramer and a car salesman go into fits of excitement by driving a test car on empty. They wanted to see just how far they could go with apparently, no gas.

That got me thinking.

Next installment: The Two Ronnies, running on empty, marauding moose, local cuisine at the Serendipity Café, more driving impressions of the Civic Hybrid.

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