Vancouver Island
Vancouver Island. Click image to enlarge

by Paul Williams

With Ontario now behind me, and Nelda’s Giant Buns a persistent but receding fantasy, I couldn’t drive by Steinbach, Manitoba without checking it out. It’s billed as, “The Automobile City,” and that’s gotta be worth a look.

Would there be museums? Car shows? Cruise nights every night of the week?

Not quite. Steinbach, population 10,000, boasts eight major car dealerships. The place is like a huge outdoor car lot that people live in. I found this out from Doug Kreutzer, the sales manager at Harvest Honda, one of the big outfits in Steinbach.

His guys looked at my car and winced. Like a 19th Century surgeon’s gown, the front of my Civic Hybrid was covered with the remains of its daily operations. Thousands of insects, little badges of honour, were plastered to the bumper and hood, having congealed into a distinctively Canadian car bra. It got to the point that the car itself was attracting flies, which I found weird and gross.

Ponteix, Saskatchewan street mural
Ponteix, Saskatchewan street mural

Not much call for hybrids here
Ponteix, SK. Not much call for hybrids here. They like Chevy trucks,
though!

Highway 13 in Alberta
Highway 13 in Alberta. Open road to the horizon

unexpected obstacle
Occasionally you meet an unexpected obstacle, even in the middle of nowhere. Highway 13, Alberta.
Click images to enlarge

After a complimentary power wash I headed south out of Steinbach. I decided to get off the Trans Canada and take the secondary highways through the Prairies. Highway 2 is a good road, lightly travelled, with a 100 km/h speed limit. The town of Souris (population: 2000) is a green oasis in the dry plains, and it boasts “the longest single span suspension bridge in Canada.”

That bridge can be a wild walk, especially when kids jump up and down on it. It’s only collapsed once, the sign says. Well, that’s comforting� I guess.

One family of three was arguing mid-way through. Turned out Dad didn’t have the stomach for the bridge. “Come on, Dad. What’s wrong?” yelled his little boy. Dad smiled sheepishly as he stepped by me, white faced, making his way back to the landing.

It’s a great bridge, though. You should try it!

Highway 2 changes to Highway 13 at the Saskatchewan border, and that wasn’t the only sign that changed. Signs of population quickly diminished and I regularly found myself on an empty road as far as the eye can see. There really wasn’t much around except for fields of Alfalfa and memorial plaques to towns like Forward and Amulet, whose residents, schools, churches, livery stables, post offices, stores and houses were now completely absent.

Indeed most of the small towns I visited in that part of the country had main streets with all the stores boarded up. Maybe there was a diner still open, but usually no gas station. Occasionally, like in Ponteix, there were cheerful murals on some of the walls, a reminder of better days.

Barrelling into a steady head wind of 60 km/h was destroying my mileage, however. It was up to 6.8 L/100 km, the highest for the whole trip. When I pulled into Assiniboia, I had to fill up after only 564 km.

Unlike most cars, the fuel consumption of the Honda Civic Hybrid is pretty much the same on the highway as it is in the city. It’s cool to watch the gauges indicate that the electric motor is assisting the gas engine when accelerating or climbing a hill, and recovering energy when decelerating. It’s kind of like getting a continuous refund – definitely mood enhancing.

The Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) is probably the car’s most interesting component. It’s a combination electric motor, generator and starter. As a motor it adds power to the 1.3-litre gasoline engine. As a generator it converts recovered energy into electricity that’s stored in batteries behind the rear seat. As a starter, it starts the car, of course, but it doesn’t crank the engine as you might expect. Turn the ignition key and the engine instantly comes to life. It’s hardly noticeable as it purrs under the hood. In economy mode, when the engine turns off at the stoplight, take your foot off the brake and it starts, just like that.

Passive technology supplements the IMA, consisting of a front air dam and a small rear spoiler. Distinctive, lightweight alloy rims are used, with low rolling resistance Dunlop Sport FE tires. Add these to the roof-mounted antenna, and that’s how tell a Civic Hybrid from garden-variety Honda Civics.

The gas station attendant was curious about the car and I explained the hybrid powerplant, and described the trip. “You’re in hick country here,” was his response. “Guys around here only drive half-ton pickups.” That was certainly a fact.

hats and boots
Alberta farmers have a sense of humour. Click image to enlarge

In Cadillac I stopped for lunch at Peter’s and ordered a ham and cheese with tea. Getting a good cup of tea anywhere in Canada is a challenge, and when Peter brought a mug with a teabag floating in it, I had to chuckle.

But then he said, “The water’s nicely boiled,” and I was encouraged, as a tea with unboiled water just doesn’t taste right.

While sipping my tea, I checked out the message board. “The Decline of a Town” was a poignant story that supported my observations about Prairie communities. “Buy from your neighbour,” recommended local economic development.

Next to those was a notice from the Saskatchewan government. “Water in the Cadillac contains particulate matter that is unfit for human consumption. All water must be carefully boiled before use.”

The penny dropped: My tea. Nicely boiled. Oh, man, Peter wasn’t a fellow tea drinker after all. After buying a litre of Sprinkle bottled water, I hit the road.

By now Highway 13 was becoming patchy and broken. Stop your car, get out, and you hear nothing but the wind. No cars, no trucks, no people. Just the complete absence of anything urban.
At Highway 37 I headed north, back to the Trans Canada and Medicine Hat, Alberta. There a choice is to be made.

As the great American philosoper, Yogi Berra, said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Honda Civic Hybrid
Honda Civic Hybrid interior

Honda Civic Hybrid
Instrument cluster at idle, showing fuel consumption, battery charge
and other gauges and charge/assist meter for the Integrated Motor Assist.

Chemainus, BC
Honda Civic Hybrid engine compartment

Honda Civic Hybrid
Scenic Bed and Breakfast in Chemainus, BC, on Vancouver Island
Click images to enlarge

The helpful Megan at the Medicine Hat tourist booth offered the classic dilemma: Take the southern route along Highway 3 and through the Crowsnest Pass, or the northern route via Calgary, Banff, and down the multi-lane Coquihalla Highway to Vancouver. The south is more scenic, but slow. The north is not quite as scenic, but fast.

I decided to do both (sort of). Staying on Highway 3 and heading for Cranbrook, BC, I went through Fort Macleod, Alberta, birthplace of Joni Mitchell. On the way into town the radio station was playing one of her songs, “A Case of You.” How did they do that?

The pretty waitress at one of the numerous roadside diners was a pink-haired, purple lipped, bare midriffed, tightly bluejeaned, young woman with a ring through her nose. She served me the evening’s special: a beef taco with caesar salad and raspberry jello. While ordering, it was hard to know where to look without staring, so I ended up talking directly into her ear. The meal, like the waitress, was colourful. By ordering the beef I felt I did my small bit for the local industry.

After spending the night in Cranbrook, I left my southern route and headed north on Highway 95 to reconnect with Highway 1, the Trans Canada. Contrary to my expectations, fuel consumption was dropping significantly. The Civic Hybrid turns out to be the Lance Armstrong of cars – it eats mountains. At one point I was getting 4.3 L/100km over the Rockies, and after filling up at Golden I headed over Rogers Pass, and reached Vancouver with gas to spare.

The drive to Vancouver from Charlottetown took seven days, and the next four were spent exploring Vancouver Island. In total, I travelled 7266 km with an average fuel consumption of 5.4 L/100km. The most expensive gas? Sidney, BC: 79.9 cents per litre. Cheapest? Medicine Hat, Alberta: 51.4 cents. Best mileage on a tank was 4.7 L/100km (60 miles per gallon).

The Civic Hybrid performed flawlessly throughout. It weathered mud, dust, gravel, potholes, mountains and highways without a problem. Seating was comfortable, and it handled very well. There was plenty of room in the car for luggage and passengers.

I can make some suggestions, however. The steering wheel could use a thicker rim, the 12 volt power point is inconveniently situated behind the passenger cupholder, the radio needs larger knobs, storage in the armrest between the seats would be useful, as would a keyless remote trunk lid.

At $28,500 this is an expensive Honda Civic, but not really an expensive car (and a government rebate of $1000 may be available). You also get a lot for your money. For instance, the gasoline-electric powerplant, anti-lock brakes, continuously variable transmission, automatic climate control, in-dash CD player, air dam, spoiler, alloy wheels, power windows, locks, and heated power mirrors are all optional or unavailable on other Civics. The batteries, by the way, are warranted for eight years, but are expected to last longer.

Although it may appeal to environmentally conscious people and government departments making a statement, the other group likely to be interested in this car are the so-called “early adopters.” These were the first people to buy home computers and DVD players, the first with plasma TVs. For them, being at the forefront of technology is interesting and fun.

In my opinion, the Civic Hybrid, and other hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius and soon-to-arrive Ford Escape Hybrid rank up there as examples of a genuine technological breakthrough. However, my feeling is that many people who pay the extra to get in a hybrid will want others to know what they’ve bought. And here is the irony. Honda has done a fantastic job of making the Civic Hybrid look and drive just like any other car. It blends right in; it’s not weird or complicated to use at all, and other than the lack of a folding rear seat, you’re gaining way more than you lose with a car like this.

But surely people who buy one would like the option, at least, of a few funky colours for their Civic Hybrid, like Electric Blue or Radical Green. And how about a cool illuminated lightning bolt through the Hybrid badge on the trunk? Then people could point and say, “Hey, that guy’s got a Civic Hybrid. Check it out!”

In the future, hybrids will likely be commonplace, but for now, I say “Vive le différence.”

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid

  • Price: $28,500
  • Type: Four-door, five-passenger sedan
  • Engine: Hybrid gasoline-electric totals 93 horsepower
  • Features: Anti-lock brakes, electric power steering, electronic throttle control, in-dash CD player, automatic climate control, “economy” mode,
  • Colours: Fluorite silver metallic, Taffeta white, Shoreline Mist Metallic
  • Notable: regenerative braking transforms energy into electric power to assist the gasoline motor.
  • Fuel consumption (Energuide): L/100km, city, highway (miles per gallon city,highway): 4.9, 4.6 (59, 61)
  • Availability: In showrooms now

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