Hybrid, hybrid, hybrids. We are awash in a sea of hybrids, with more coming to dealer showrooms soon. And one of the newest is the 2013 Acura ILX Hybrid, a compact sedan targeted at the Lexus CT200H and Audi’s A3.
The numbers say there is no great clamour in the marketplace for dual-drive cars that sip fuel and spew fewer emissions, all at a serious price premium. According to LMC Automotive, just-auto.com reports, global demand for hybrid electric vehicles represents about 2 per cent of sales.
Moreover, last year a Polk study found that 65 per cent of hybrid owners eschewed another hybrid with their next new-vehicle purchase. They went for a gasoline-powered ride instead. Take out the Toyota Prius, and less than 25 per cent of hybrid owners re-upped.
Yet last month at the New York auto show, Toyota said it would build a new Highlander SUV hybrid, Nissan said it will build its first Pathfinder hybrid, Infiniti said it would offer the Infiniti Q50 hybrid and Subaru showed its first hybrid, the 2014 XV Crosstrek Hybrid.
Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Alec Gutierrez told The Detroit News that hybrids face tough competition from efficient traditional gasoline-powered vehicles that sell for thousands less than a similar hybrid model. Hybrid sales aren’t likely to jump without a big rise in fuel prices, he said.
This brings us to the 2013 Acura ILX Hybrid. A nice little compact car with a smooth hybrid system and a price premium of $5,000 over the base ILX ($29,990). The ILX Hybrid teams a 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine with an electric motor to produce 111 horsepower, fuel economy rated at 4.9 litres/100 km combined (5.0 in the city) and clean Tier 2 Bin 3 emission. Yes, the fuel economy is excellent, but so is the combined 7.2 litres/100 rating of the base ILX with its 150-horsepower gasoline four-banger.
The ILX is the first Acura hybrid, but it won’t be the last. I’m most excited about the coming RLX hybrid, a large luxury sedan that will use the hybrid route to deliver a new version of Honda’s Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD).
For now, the ILX Hybrid has a continuously variable transmission (CVT) with paddle shifters, thus the driving feel is not at all like a snowmobile. The lithium-ion battery pack is modern and the transition between gas and electric or both is invisible.
Moreover, the engineers have cleverly managed to control the weight gains so unwelcome in hybrids. The ILX Hybrid weighs 1,356 kg; the ILX with the 2.4-litre gas engine (201 hp) is 1,354 kg. Quite the hybrid achievement, given all the extra technology in play – battery pack included.
Like all hybrids, the gas engine does most of the heavy lifting. The 23-hp electric motor offers a boost when you need it for passing or merging into traffic. The motor also serves as a generator to recharge the batteries when you use the brakes and such. The combined output looks limp at 111 hp at 5,500 rpm (and 127 lb-ft. of torque between 1,000-3,500 rpm) but in the real world the car runs with the pack quite nicely.
The latest high-tech controllers squeeze out as much fuel economy as possible, too. In fact, the gasoline engine or the electric motor or both can push you along. When you brake, the gas engine deactivates and the electric motor acts as generator to charge up the battery pack. When you stop, the engine usually shuts down to save fuel and reduce emissions. Release the brake, and the gas engine fires up.
Honda does not generally receive enough credit for the smart and elegant engineering in this and its past hybrids. Okay, the high-compression gas engine (with dual spark plugs) does its best work on more expensive premium fuel, but that’s my biggest criticism here.
We should all be impressed by how Honda’s engineers have integrated an ultra-thin electric motor between the gasoline engine and the CVT. This is tight, efficient powertrain packaging. Meanwhile, a separate Intelligent Power Unit (IPU) stores electric power in a lithium-ion battery pack and controls the flow of electricity to and from the electric motor. The whole thing is easy to understand and surely difficult to engineer.
The rest of the ILX Hybrid is, well, a nicely equipped ILX: leather and heated seats, a 365-watt surround-sound system with 10 speakers, a fancy eight-inch display in the centre console and all the rest of the luxury fare available in the ILX. Alas, there is no fold-down rear seat, a compromise to the hybrid odds and extras. But other than that, the ILX Hybrid looks, feels and drives like an ILX with great fuel economy and modest power.
Perhaps that’s the rub. The ILX Hybrid does not stand out in a parking lot. Your neighbours won’t know you ponied up extra bucks to go green, unless they spot the modest badging. You’ll know it and it will be a lonely feeling. And, frankly, that’s a little sad.
2013 Acura ILX Hybrid
Type: Compact hybrid sedan
Price: $35,050; $1,945 freight and PDI
Base engine: 1.5-litre four-cylinder with 23-hp electric motor and lithium ion battery pack (Integrated Motor Assist)
Horsepower/torque: 111 hp/127 lb-ft
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 5.0 city/4.8 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Audi A3, Lexus CT200h
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