While a lot of people think of hybrid vehicles as a purely modern invention, in reality, they have been around for over 100 years – at least as a concept. In fact, as long as there have been automobiles, there have been people trying to come up with improved ways to provide power to them. Early attempts at a hybrid vehicle, with both an internal combustion engine and some type of separate electric motor to improve power and fuel economy, were not particularly successful. They demonstrated that the idea could work, but the cost of making them and the improvements they provided simply did not justify the added costs.
Throughout much of the 20th Century, there was little real interest in hybrid vehicles, particularly among the average car buyer. Ideas were thrown around from time to time by different manufacturers, and some of the concepts and test designs developed throughout the mid-1960s would go on to inform later, more modern hybrid vehicles. Real interest – not only among car designers and engineers but among customers – came about in the 1970s with the gas crisis. It was at that point that there was a clear desire from car buyers and drivers to have vehicles with superior fuel economy, and hybrids seemed like a fine way to achieve that.
A Race to Market
In the 1990s, there was a push among American auto manufacturers to provide cars with vastly superior fuel economy, particularly as a way to make their vehicles more attractive and take market share back from foreign manufacturers that had become increasingly popular throughout the 1980s. However, these efforts did not go unseen by foreign competitors, and both Toyota and Honda were hard at work to make more efficient vehicles. I n fact, there was something of a race going on between these two Japanese car companies to see which one could succeed with a commercially-viable hybrid first.
On a global scale, Toyota won this race, releasing the Toyota Prius in Japan in 1997 to a fair amount of acclaim, making it the first commercially-available hybrid vehicle in the world. But Honda was not far behind, releasing the Honda Insight in 1999. However, Honda won the race here in the United States, as Toyota was not ready to take the Prius outside of Japan until 2001 while the Insight debuted globally in 1999. While the Toyota Prius may have captured the public's imagination, it is Honda that has the honor of having provided the US with our first hybrid model.
The First Generation Hybrids
Initially, the Honda Insight had a three-door liftback design, with two side doors similar to a coupe, and a rear hatch that was easy to use and quite stylish. The popularity of the Insight and Prius was noteworthy, and Honda soon followed with a number of additional hybrid options for customers to choose from. In 2002 it released the first Honda Civic Hybrid model, providing car buyers with a four-door sedan hybrid with all of the reliability and style of a standard Civic. This was followed in 2004 by the Honda Accord Hybrid, giving customers two different hybrid sedans to choose from.
It is worth noting that both the Honda Civic Hybrid and Accord Hybrid models at that time were "mild hybrid" vehicles. This term refers to vehicles with a hybrid design that cannot run purely on their electric motors. With a full hybrid like the Insight, the vehicle could be powered by only the electric motor, at least for a short period of time. Mild hybrids require the gasoline engine to be running at all times. They still get excellent fuel economy, but they typically do not offer the kind of efficiency that a full hybrid does.
The Hybrid Evolves
In 2005, a second generation of the Honda Civic Hybrid was released with numerous improvements, including a more powerful motor, a smaller battery, and greater overall performance. This model remained a sedan, offering a four-door hybrid; the Honda Accord Hybrid was discontinued in 2007 with the end of the seventh generation for the standard Accord.
Although the Honda Insight was the first available hybrid here in the US, it was discontinued for a time starting in 2006. The Insight returned, however, in 2009, when a second generation was released. This model was intended to make hybrid vehicles more affordable, to provide them as an option for a wider range of customers. The previous two-door design was abandoned in favor of a four-door model that was a better option for more passengers, though the rear liftback was retained from the first generation.
In 2010, Honda released the CR-Z, a performance hybrid coupe that was designed to be incredibly fun to drive while still offering excellent fuel economy. The CR-Z was sporty and nimble, with excellent fuel efficiency, and was one of the least polluting vehicles ever made. Although it was quite popular, the CR-Z was discontinued in 2016 in favor of other hybrid models.
A third-generation for the Honda Civic Hybrid kicked off in 2011 with a larger, more powerful engine and a shift from a nickel-metal hydride battery to a more modern lithium-ion battery. Improved aerodynamics provided the updated Civic Hybrid with excellent fuel economy and made it very fun to drive. In 2013, the Honda Accord Hybrid returned with a new generation, accompanied by an Accord Plug-In Hybrid model that allowed for only-electric driving over short distances. Although quite popular initially, both the Accord Plug-In Hybrid and the Civic Hybrid were discontinued in 2015.
A new plug-in option was introduced in 2017 with the Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid, along with the Honda NSX (sold as the Acura NSX in the American market), a high-performance hybrid supercar with a mid-engine design. Meanwhile, a 2019 refresh of the popular Honda CR-V compact SUV included a new hybrid engine option, becoming Honda's first hybrid SUV. These models, along with the existing Honda Clarity, Honda Insight, and Honda Accord Hybrid, make up the lineup of 2021 Honda hybrids.