Photos: Honda. Click image to enlarge
by Laurance Yap
Do you want people to know you drive a hybrid car? Do you want to wear your efficiency and environmentalism on your sleeve?
That, in a sense, is the question when you’re shopping for hybrids. On the one hand, Toyota offers the Prius, whose triangular shape and tapered lines are instantly recognizable even to people who know nothing about cars; Honda’s mainstream offerings, on the other hand (the two-seater Insight plays in its own league) look just like the Civic and Accord they are based on. Toyota’s hybrid sales have been stronger than Honda’s; one wonders if that’s a reflection of the Prius’ distinctive styling.
Styling aside, the new $36,990 Accord Hybrid is hands-down the best hybrid on the market. Not only does it package impressive fuel economy into a package that’s practical and usable for a real family, but it’s really the first hybrid which plays the performance card: it’s the most powerful Accord you can buy, and by a long shot, the most entertaining to drive. It takes all of the things that make the Accord a great – sharp steering, incisive handling, and terrific responsiveness – and, thanks to its third-generation Integrated Motor Assist system, elevates them to an even higher plane.
Unlike the Prius, IMA doesn’t allow the Accord Hybrid to run on the electric motor alone. In essence, the electrical system is used to “boost” the torque and power output of the standard 3.0-litre V6 when more thrust is needed, while helping to recharge the battery under braking. With 255 hp and 232 lb-ft of torque, the IMA-assisted V6 is the most powerful engine you can get in an Accord, powerful enough to overwhelm the standard-fit traction control from a dead stop. Once you’re moving, the overall feeling from the drivetrain is not unlike that of a powerful turbocharged engine; step on the gas to make a passing manoeuvre and there’s the briefest of pauses before the electric motor surges in to whoosh you past other cars like they’re standing still. Coupled with crisp, immediate shifts from the five-speed automatic, the Accord’s IMA V6 is a real performance-oriented drivetrain.
The Accord has always had one of the nicest interiors in its class, and the Hybrid elevates not only the level of standard equipment, but also the upscale feel. Leather upholstery is, of course, standard, as are the full array of power gizmos. Additional equipment includes a thumping six-disc CD stereo with active noise cancellation technology (microphones “hear” ambient noise and introduce cancelling sound waves into what the radio’s playing) and a special, cleaner version of the Accord’s dual-zone automatic climate control. The gauges are fluorescent blue and feature an extra readout for battery charge. A couple of curiosities: the rear seats don’t fold down like they do in regular Accords, because the battery actually resides between them and the trunk, and there is no sunroof available, either.
The combination of a well-appointed interior, excellent practicality – the Hybrid’s trunk remains huge, and only the biggest and tallest people will complain about a lack of seat space – with responsive handling has always been what has differentiated the Accord from its competitors. Thanks to its extra power, and improved low-down torque, the Hybrid version is even better. Despite all the weight over the front wheels, it feels deliciously light on its feet, it responds instantly to the throttle, and has impressively strong brakes, as well. Those brakes, despite their power, are one of the few rough spots in the driving experience, however; thanks to the automatic operation of the regenerative-braking system, their feel is inconsistent. The other rough spot is literal: even though the Hybrid’s tires are 16-inchers with tall sidewalls, the ride is stiff, and can be borderline uncomfortable on rougher pavement. Which means that it’s not much different from a regular Accord in that respect.
None of which would be a problem if the base-model Accord, which starts at $24,300 including ABS, power everything, keyless entry, and a single-slot CD, was already so good. The four-cylinder Accord is already an impressively efficient vehicle in its own right – especially with the five-speed manual – and in regular driving feels plenty peppy. Paying almost $13,000 more for a few extra gadgets, a slightly nicer interior, and a lot of horses you won’t really be able to deploy that often doesn’t look like that great of a deal. But then again, buying a hybrid is about more than just making financial sense of fuel consumption; it’s also about doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Judged by that light, the Accord Hybrid, good as it most certainly is, may not be enough of a statement to satisfy the more extroverted environmental shopper.
But in the end, Honda’s strategy might be the right one. Ford’s Escape Hybrid looks pretty much like an Escape with better body cladding, and Toyota’s set to launch a Highlander hybrid later this year. Like the Lexus RX400h, the high-tech hybrid version; both are powered by V6 engines combined with hybrid drive, and both feature performance that eclipses the gas-powered cars they are based on. The good news is that no matter which of these new hybrids you buy, you won’t have to sacrifice anything in terms of performance or convenience to do your good bit for the environment as well.