My final COAL installment brings us to the present day. After selling the Forester and trading in the MKX, we acquired two new vehicles with the knowledge that we would soon be moving to California after the pandemic to start a new chapter in our empty-nest life. Thanks to an extended work from home, our move was delayed and both cars reached the 1 year milestone at which we would no longer have to pay the California sales tax difference on vehicles brought in from out of state, thus saving us a few thousand. When it was finally time to move in the spring of 2022, we put both cars on a transport and sent them westbound.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, it seems that every other vehicle is a Tesla. But I wasn’t quite ready to jump to an EV, since in Michigan they’re still quite rare, and our living situation in California was unknown at the time including whether there would be a charging station available. I didn’t want to deal with that, and opted for a pair of hybrids instead, wanting to save some fuel in a state where a gallon costs $5.00 or more. Our two hybrids couldn’t be more different, but they both remind me in their own unique ways of my first and favorite car, the 1980 Honda Civic.
The Kia Niro is my 1980 Civic reincarnated. It’s a daily driver, happiest and most efficient when it’s commuting in stop and go traffic. 40 years of automotive progress have made the Niro vastly more advanced than the old Civic, but in its most elemental state this little Kia embodies the spirit of my first car, a cheap and cheerful little hatchback that is charming in its unpretentious simplicity, easy to own and drive. It’s a hybrid disguised as a regular gas engine car, with a 1.6L engine barely larger than the 1.5L Civic engine from years ago, but packing 55% more power and further boosted with a 39 hp electric motor.
Everything about this car drives and feels like a normal car, except when the engine shuts off at low speeds and the car glides into a residential street or parking lot on only electric power. Even its electronically synthesized pedestrian warning, with its curious warbly burble, imitates a gasoline engine. The 6 speed automatic with a real gear shift lever delivers tactile upshifts and downshifts like a “real” car, all while getting an astonishing 58 MPG.
Flick the shift lever into Sport mode, and the car instantly changes character from a lazy cruiser into a high strung, quickly responsive little runabout perfect for a squirt in and out of heavy traffic or a useful sprint onto a busy expressway. The Niro’s mission as an economy-minded hybrid means that it’s far from a hot hatch VW GTI in terms of driving dynamics, but it’s competent in the corners and I’ve certainly driven much worse.
Call me old fashioned, but I like the normal car interior with real gauges and real buttons, not a giant TV screen in the dash. Nothing about this car shouts “look at me, I’m saving the planet!”, except for two subtle “Eco/Hybrid” badges, one below the rear taillight and one on the dash. The styling is conventional, pleasant but a bit bland, certainly not a screaming sci-fi project like a Prius or Tesla. The Niro’s tidy size and sheer conventionality evokes memories of college days and my long-departed but beloved Civic, which is why it holds a soft spot in my heart even though it’s far from perfect.
After 12 vehicles and a lifetime of admiring Honda’s, I’ve come full circle, with my latest car being a Honda. The CRV is my 1980 Civic all grown up. A totally different vehicle from that tiny little hatchback from 40 years ago, nevertheless the CRV exudes some of the qualities that made the original Civic a phenomenon in its day, engineering excellence and superior space utilization. It’s been accused of lacking any kind of personality, but it has also grown up from its adolescent roots to be a sophisticated, mature, responsible, mainstream AWD crossover that’s comfortable and capable on any road in any condition.
Ours is a hybrid EX-L, one rung down from the top Touring trim level, missing only a subwoofer, built-in navigation, and extra large wheels. It subtly communicates its hybrid status by a couple of badges on the fenders and a gimmicky pushbutton shifter; otherwise it looks like any of the millions of CRV’s now on the road. The hybrid aspect of the CRV is the least satisfying part of this vehicle, returning a disappointing 33 mpg, only slightly better than the gas engine version. The hybrid system uses a CVT which provides a seamless, unobtrusive, and disconnected powertrain engagement from the road. It’s a gasoline-powered vehicle that feels like an electric, the engine only making itself known when power is demanded and it revs up furiously to keep the batteries charged.
On steep mountain inclines, the Honda VTEC engine screams continuously at high rpm all while emitting a satisfying mechanical symphony, reassuring the driver “don’t worry about the noise, all is well underhood.” The non-hybrid list of complaints on the CRV is short. The infotainment system has a dated interface and occasionally hangs up, but the upgraded sound system is excellent (but still no match for my Lincoln’s THX system, sigh). And when the vehicle is in full electric mode it emits Honda’s annoying, fingernails on a chalkboard screeching sound to warn pedestrians that “an EV is coming”.
Otherwise, there is little to fault Honda’s excellent and popular crossover. That the CRV has been Honda’s best-selling model year after year attests to its inherent goodness. It’s remarkably spacious inside, especially the huge cargo compartment that was able to move our son and all of his worldly belongings to the East Coast when he took on a new job. It’s got a full suite of driver aids that work well; with accurate lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control, freeway cruising is a relaxing, low stress affair.
The CRV has been our long road trip car, a comfortable long distance cruiser that we keep busy exploring the wonders of the Golden State. It’s confident on the winding roads of California Highway 1 and the hairpin turns of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the powerful electric motor provides plenty of juice to power up San Francisco’s steep hills. Full EV mode is perfect for tiptoeing pollution-free through majestic redwood forests, and the spacious interior is a welcoming place to come home to after a long day of hiking in the Santa Cruz foothills. From the extreme conditions of Death Valley to the towering Tioga Pass at Yosemite, the hybrid CRV does it all, capably and competently.
We’ve had a lot of adventures so far with our two rides, the Kia less so since it has the thankless job of mainly slogging in and out of Silicon Valley’s rush hour traffic. Going on 2 and 4 years old now, both have been flawlessly reliable so I’m looking forward to a long and enjoyable relationship with both. We have a lot of adventures ahead of us, and we’re only getting started.
The Niro is very interesting. 58 miles per gallon and a real 6 speed automatic transmission are impressive facts; it also seems nice inside and out.
Best of luck in your empty-nest life in CA, and thank you for the COAL-ride.
DCT, not planetary?
I like the look of the dash. The whole interior looks pretty tasteful (by 2023 standards, which is not necessarily saying a lot).
I have found the Niro to be really intriguing, but don’t see that many of them in my area. I think it is one of the most attractive cars of its kind in the last several years – nothing that stands out, but it has a quiet tastefulness about its styling that speaks to me. The bad news is that they seem to have mucked up everything that I like about your generation.
The CR-V is everywhere in central Indiana. Two neighbors own them, and they are identical right down to the color. I am not so familiar with the hybrid versions, but wish the regular one came with something other than the CVT.
I think back to all of the COALs where authors talk about the cars their older empty-nest parents bought. Now we are those people. 🙂 I have really enjoyed your series, Gene. We are not far apart in age, so your stories have provided kind of an alternative universe of choices I might have made had my life gone in different directions. Thanks for sharing these stories with us.
My wife’s ’20 CR-V EX gets @ 22-23mpg with her lead foot, and I can usually get @ 27mpg; both figures are mainly in town driving. At least with the turbo 1.5L it feels like it can almost move quickly if it has to. The AWD does make for good Winter driving here in N. IN.
Interior volume? Yes quite good, except for minimal front seat legroom; my ’21 Civic EX is superior! 🙂 My ’88 Camaro IROC-Z 350 is far superior to both for legroom, but doesn’t like to pa$$ gas stations! DFO
Good series – thanks. Interesting that you compare your CRV with your 1980 Civic and lament the “disappointing 33 mpg” from 5 passenger AWD CUV with spacious cargo capacity that according to C&D does the 0-60 run in about 7.5 seconds. In comparison, the 1980 Civic 1500 did average 27.5 mpg and did the 0-60 run in 12 seconds according to R&T back in the day. We have definitely become spoiled by modern cars.
Two excellent yet uniquely different choices. I had a Gen 1 Niro rental 2 years ago and was very impressed at the comfort, roadability, and mpgs. It has a very understated design; there’s nothing wrong with that. I wholeheartedly agree your “science fair” comment – I want my IP to not resemble something out of a futuristic movie.
The CR-V hybrid is my Plan B in case Ford does a Dear John on me with my Maverick order.
My friend just replaced her immaculate 2012 or 2013 CRV EX-L with a brand new 2022 CRV. One of my neighbors had already gotten their hands on the new generation 2023 CRV before she showed up with a fresh 2022. I’ll be biting my tongue trying not to ask why she replaced the last of the lifetime-CRVs with the last of the unusually styled 1.5T models. I don’t think the new one gives up anything relative to the model she bought, although it gives up everything important about a Honda to the one that she just traded in.
When my wife went from a 2014 to a 2018 CR-V, I must admit being rather skeptical of the new 1.5 liter turbo with CVT powertrain. Now, 4 1/2 years and nearly 60,000 miles in I must admit that I’m a fan. Right away, we appreciated the increased shoulder room due to the slightly wider body. I won’t swear to it, but I think the rear legroom is a little greater too.
The little turbo 1.5 and CVT are a great pair for the freeway driving we do on trips within central and southeast Ohio. There are some decent hills and the engine does a good job keeping the RPMs within a fairly narrow band. Because of the CVT, there are no downshifts going up grades. Just a gentle increase of maybe 5 to 700 RPMs. Last year, we went on two trips deep to into West Virginia, which is a lot more mountainous. The engine worked noticeably harder, but still performed admirably.
The styling did take a little getting used to, but it grew on me. Sometimes I grin driving down the road at night as I see both taillights shining in the side mirrors.
Your Hybrid fuel mileage doesnt impress even with itty bitty US gallons it not really much better than my aging diesel does in town 7L/100kms in stop start traffic and 5-6L/100 kms highway, I do see multitudes of hybrids here though it appears Toyotas outnumber anything else with Mitsubishis not far behind, plug in hybrids offer fantastic fuel mileage a friend has two an Outlander and a Prius though he doesnt mention charging costs which are some 30c per kwh.
I’ll stick with diesels I reckon, the per litre price is falling at long last and the one I borrowed recently gave 60mpg no matter where I drove it and it had a real 6 speed auto trans, you can keep CVTs
First of all, welcome to California! As a life time native of the SF Bay Area, I know that there is a lot to like, and some things that even I don’t like. This is the middle of the State, you can go east to the Sierras, north to the coastal forests and grasslands, and south to the Central Coast, or further south to the LA area. Head southeast and hit the desert.
I have a question about hybrids. Don’t you get the best return while driving in heavy stop and go traffic? I think that they start out in electric mode and transition to ICE at something like 30 mph. As a retired guy I seldom drive in heavy commute traffic, and the speed limits on San Jose Expressways is 50 mph. I wonder how much I would benefit from a hybrid in my driving situation. I worked in LA for a couple of years, and I know that a hybrid would be great for congested urban commuting.
I think that you only had to smog your cars because you are registering them in the State. I believe that new cars are exempt from smog for ten years.
I find the Niro to be a very handsome vehicle, much classier looking than the Hondas which are a bit overdone, in my eyes. That and it’s sibling the Hyundai Kona, which is also a cute little thing.
I’ll echo José’s welcome, as another Bay Area native. I haven’t had to smog a car since I sold my 1997 Toyota T100. Our 2015 VW, 2016 Toyota and of course our 2020 Ford have never been “checked”.
Jose, I may be replying a little late for you to see this.
I’ve had a 2015 Toyota Camry Hybrid (not a plug-in) since new and it has now accumulated over 81,000 miles. It is true that car uses mostly battery power in heavy traffic, including when fully stopped as at red lights. However, the ICE engine turns off even at highway speeds if you are descending a grade or even on level ground if you fully lift your foot off the accelerator pedal.
As a result, I find that my gas mileage does not significantly vary between stop-and-go driving vs. continuous highway usage. My overall lifetime average is just shy of 42 mpg, and this was calculated the old-fashioned way, dividing miles driven by gallons consumed. (The trip computer is generally 2-3 mpg on the optimistic side.)
The only times my mileage has dropped somewhat (to the upper 30s) has been during cold weather highway driving through the more hilly areas of the mid-Atlantic and New England states.
Thank you for the welcome. We are marking 1 year in California and it has gone by really quickly. To answer your question about hybrids, I think it varies depending on the car. Our CRV hybrid gets about 33 mpg no matter whether it’s stop and go traffic or highway driving. I think it’s due to the CVT and the fact that it operates mainly as a series hybrid (I could write a paper on series vs parallel hybrids, not enough space here). The Niro, on the other hand, excels in stop and go driving and low speed suburban roads (< 40 mph), where the engine is off and it runs on electric only much of the time. On the highway the engine is on nearly all the time, so the fuel economy in the city is much better than the highway. But the Niro is a much smaller vehicle than the CRV; they're not really in the same size class.
Most folks seem to deride the CVT, and I did too when I was driving my wife’s old Lancer that we gave to our granddaughter. But the Honda’s, paired with that 1.5L turbo is a delight to drive. Of course my drivetrain is in a much lighter car, a 2016 Civic Coupe. Of course, I don’t have an electric motor to help out, so there’s that.
In the mountains, on the highway, on a windy-twisty, or wherever, that Civic is a very competent car. It’s perfect in the DD role for which it was purchased.
My wife and I considered the CR-V, but I was a little leery of the Civic’s drivetrain in a heavier car. Instead, we just bought her a new to us 2019 Mazda CX-5, with a normally aspirated 2.5L inline 4 and a 6 speed transmission. She loves it because it has visibility like her old Lancer (she hates driving the Mustang, and tolerates the Civic). I’m happy with it because it drives like a car. It even handles well. We haven’t taken it on a trip yet to gauge the highway MPG, but so far on average, it gets a fairly decent 27-28 MPG in mixed driving: My enthusiastic highway enjoyment, and her very cautious style running errands and such. I’m estimating it’ll pull down about 31-32 MPG on a trip if I drive it easy.
BTW, the color of each of your vehicles is beautiful!
WELCOME Mr. Liu ! .
I hope you enjoy living in the Bay area, it’s interesting and chock full of places to go .
I’m keen to learn how the heat affects this dark colored car .
My ex wife had one of the first generation Honda CRX’s and loved it she just traded it in last Winter, maybe 155,000 trouble free miles but she though it was “too old” to be reliable and safe .
I look forward to hearing about travels in this car .
My roommate in college had a ’85 1st gen CRX, alongside my ’80 Civic we were quite the Honda fanboys. The dark blue does make the car hot in the summer but luckily we keep the Honda garaged and the Kia is parked under a big shade tree where we live. I have to keep washing it because of the birds though.
I have a 2020 Niro PHEV one of the best cars I have bought. Bought new in Sept 2020, and have put almost 50,000 miles on it. I’m closing in on 61 mpg for the car’s life, and have reached nearly 66 mpg during certain trips. For a subcompact it’s very roomy I can man spread and I’m 6’2″ 340 pounds.
Your post today with links to all of the posts in your series is what reminded me that I’d forgotten to read this last chapter. Organization! It works! 🙂
The Niro sounds quite interesting, although I’ve never seen one on the road. I should check it out though as it could be that a new vehicle may be needed in my household in the not too terribly distant future, and we do love hybrids here. I suspect though that the CRV may be right size to replace the getting-long-in-the-tooth Toyota hybrid we have. So, that makes two vehicles that I have learned something about here on CC and that I might want to consider. I just hope that if I manage to put off new car buying for a couple of years that there are still hybrids being made.
Great series Gene, I hope you find additional topics you want to write about and therefore we can keep reading your prose.