The Sacramento Bee's view

Want a green car? And I don’t mean color; I’m talking environmentally friendly.

A year ago, I would have instantly responded to the green question with the words, “Toyota Prius.” For my money, the Prius was the first mass-produced, hybrid-system — meaning power is supplied by both a gasoline engine and an electric motor — vehicle to earn the ultimate compliment from the typical motorist: It drives just like a “real” car.

In November 2000, the newly introduced Prius established a first in The Bee’s annual Best Bets series of recommended autos, becoming the first “green” vehicle to win Best Bets distinction.

Prius remained unchallenged — until Dec. 12 last year. Its first real competition was revealed in Sacramento at the Electric Vehicle Association of the Americas’ Electric Transportation Industry Conference and Exposition. Before a small crowd at the Sacramento Convention Center, Honda officials took the wraps off a gasoline-electric hybrid version of its popular Civic passenger sedan.

It was the first public glimpse of the 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid.

Having tested the latest version of the Prius, the 2002 model, and the new Honda, I can tell you that environmentally conscious motorists now have two very nice vehicles from which to choose. But how do they stack up against each other?

Well, let’s start with the Prius.

The first thing you notice about the Prius is that it scoots along quite nicely. You don’t get that painful one-minute period waiting for your fuel-saving car to get up to highway speed.

Hitting the “gas” from a standing stop is a misnomer because the car’s 44-horsepower electric motor actually gets things started, getting Prius up to speed briskly and smoothly. Eventually, a computer chip notifies the 1.5-liter, 70-horsepower gas engine to start doing some heavy lifting. It kicks in with barely a bump and keeps the Prius moving at a good clip.

The computer chip dishes out power — gas, electric or a combination of both — as speed, load and conditions dictate. The gasoline engine’s work is kept to a minimum to maximize fuel efficiency.

Efficiency is further boosted by a regenerative braking system. When the sedan is coasting or when its brakes are applied, kinetic energy that normally would be lost as heat and noise is captured and transformed into electricity to recharge the on-board batteries. The system is most effective during stop-and-go driving, the kind that eats up gasoline in a typical car powered by an internal-combustion engine.

What takes some getting used to is coming to a stop and getting the feeling that you’ve stalled the car. Relax: the hybrid power plant is in what amounts to a “dormant” mode until its services are again required.

Inside, the Prius is comfortable for driver and passengers. Controls are easily understood and nicely placed.

The Prius does not deliver world-class handling on sharp turns or during slalom maneuvers. Lik ewise, climbing hills in the Sierra Nevada is a challenge. But then again, you could say that about a lot of smallish, $20,000 cars sold in America — and those other vehicles don’t give you 52 miles per gallon in city driving and 45 mpg on the highway or super ultra low exhaust emissions.

As for the new Honda Civic Hybrid, let’s put it this way: If the Prius was Version 1.0 in the evolving hybrid technology field, the HCH is the upgraded Version 2.0.

Much of the technology in the Civic is similar to that found in the Prius, but Honda engineers have added to the package with various touches.

Acceleration with the Honda’s continuously variable transmission (CVT) — no gears, but a belt-type system with scores of gear ratios between the high and low ends — is smoother and stronger over the zero to 60 mph range. And the Civic is more nimble, especially at high speed in heavy freeway traffic.

A small price is paid for performance. The tested Civic Hybrid’s fuel-economy numbers are 48 mpg in city driving and 47 mpg on the open road — not as good as Prius but certainly admirable.

Honda added a new twist with what it calls a “Cylinder Idling System” paired with its patented “Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control” technology, or VTEC for short.

In a nutshell: During deceleration, intake and exhaust valves close on as many as three of the four gas engine cylinders at revs as low as 1,000 rpm. The result is reduced engine resistance as the car slows.

Similar to Prius, the Honda Civic Hybrid power plant can startle the driver at a stoplight when it kicks into its dormant mode. If anything, it’s more dramatic because there is almost total silence. Several times, I was absolutely, positively convinced that I had killed the engine.

For me, the most remarkable and memorable feature in the Honda was the little “Integrated Motor Assist” gauge in the dashboard. Basically, the round readout lets you monitor how electric power is being used or saved. A string of blue lights means you’re consuming energy; a string of green lights means you’re charging the system.

I found myself constantly looking at the gauge, feeling a little surge of guilt when the blue lights came on and then a swell of pride when the green lights illuminated. Coasting and braking gave me green lights and those feelings of joy.

Yes, I know this sounds utterly mad, but I’ve corresponded with other auto reviewers who were as mesmerized by the good news/bad news gauge as I was. Think of the millions being spent to get motorists to improve fuel mileage and be more energy efficient — and the real solution might be installing an inexpensive little gauge that rewards them along the line of a laboratory mouse getting food pellets for pushing the right button.

If I had to choose between the ’02 Prius and the ’03 Civic Hybrid, I’d lean toward the Honda because, in my view, it has expanded the technology envelope a little more. At the risk of sounding, again, like a gasoline-loving wretch, the Civic Hybrid most reminded me of a “normal” automobile and what I would expect of it.

Having said that, Toyota certainly deserves credit for being the pioneer that started the hybrid ball rolling in earnest. And Toyota buyers are likely to stick with the Prius, correctly pointing to its superior fuel-economy numbers and its bigger interior volume.

The good news for all of us: There are two solid hybrids in the marketplace.

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