Saturday, February 7, 2009

Good motoring

Fuel-efficient big car
H.Kishie Singh

Honda hybrid promises fuel efficiency because the vehicle is partially driven by battery power.

It would seem that a crisis is a good thing. It sets you thinking. The world first got a whiff of oil shortages in the 1970s. The serious auto makers, especially Toyota and Honda, gave thought to alternatives. The big three—GM, Ford and Chrysler—continued to make V-8 engines with 300 bph. Oversized behemoths, nick-named yank tanks and gas guzzlers, are today on the endangered species list. The big three are facing bankruptcy. The Japanese have found alternatives.

Toyota makes the Prius hybrid and Honda has the Civic hybrid. Informatively, Toyota in its 71-year-old history has had a loss for the first time last year. They are now the world’s number one auto makers. Honda brought the Civic hybrid a few months ago and the price was about Rs 22 lakh. Even though the hybrid promised fuel efficiency because of being partially driven by battery power along with the luxury that Honda offers, the price, almost twice of the regular Civic, it was a deterrent to the sales. The duty was slashed and the Civic was offered at Rs 14 lakh. Honda had 237 cars on stock, and they were sold out in a day.

There is no for sale at the moment. The next offering will be in March. The price is not known. Here is what the car offers. It has a 1.3 litre V-tec engine putting out 95 bph. The regular Civic had a 1.8-litre engine putting out 132 bph. In addition to the petrol engine, which is a single overhead cam four-cylinder engine with 16 valves and two spark plugs per cylinder for cleaner and more efficient fuel burning, the car has an integrated motor assist ( IMA ) battery which puts out 20 bhp. So you have a total of 115 bhp at your disposal.

The IMA provides power, plus acts as a generator to charge the battery. This is a three-stage engine. One, the petrol engine. Two, petrol engine plus the battery. Three, battery alone. Depending upon your speed and rate of acceleration, the propulsion will be provided by either the petrol engine or petrol and battery combined or battery alone. Up to 1400 RPM it is the electric motor that does all the work. After 1400 RPM the petrol engine kicks in. This means that you can cruise around the city all day long at respectable and low speeds without using the petrol engine.

Zero wear and tear on the engine, zero consumption of petrol, zero emissions. From the exterior there is no way the hybrid distinguishes itself from the normal Civic. The magic lies under the bonnet. Get behind the wheel, insert the ignition key and turn it, and what happens? Nothing. No whirring sound of the starter motor. However, the battery has been activated, step on the accelerator and the car moves off.

The 1.3-litre engine sits under the bonnet as usual. However, in between the engine fly wheel and the gear-box, in this case a continuously variable transmission(CVT ), sits an IMA. This is an ultra thin DC motor, putting out 20 bhp. Power generated by this motor is stored in a 20 cm thick nickel metal hydride battery, which nestles behind the rear seats. Power is stored via an intelligent power unit (IPU) that controls the flow of electricity to and from the motor.

One of the problems with electric cars was charging the battery. The IMA converts energy, which normally goes waste in a petrol-driven internal combustion engine (ICE) into electric current. There is another small marvel that the IMA does. While at red light, with the auto gear-box, you are obliged to keep the foot brake pedal depressed. This activates the auto shut-off feature and the engine shuts off completely. The fuel flow also shuts off. All this saves fuel. Step off the brake and the engine starts up automatically. This cylinder deactivation system cuts fuel consumption and reduces pumping losses by 66 per cent. It improves electrical re-generation capacity.

There is more yet. There is a dual scroll air con system. The combined engine and electric motor power drive two compressors for the A/C. When the engine is in auto shut-off mode, like at a traffic light, the electric motor-driven compressor keeps the A/C working. No inconvenience to the occupants, and yet fuel saved. The engine is not working. All this adds up to a 54 per cent more efficient Honda Civic. You need to drive the car 30 minutes a month to keep the battery charged. The battery will last the life of the car.

There are some refinements that are not easily noticeable. Specifically, the brake pedal. Instead of the top-hinged pedal, the car has what Honda calls the organ type or bottom hinged. This provides more comfort for the foot at a red light, or when the car is stopped for a long period. The instrument cluster is referred to as a multiplex meter. It is placed just below the windscreen and reduces eye movement. This results in reduced driver fatigue.

For sure, the quirkiest Honda design would be the fact that where all engines rotate clockwise, Honda engines run anti-clockwise. Despite all this, they make one of the finest engines in the industry.

Happy motoring.