Pure coincidence? Perhaps. But when Honda took the wraps off its third and newest hybrid vehicle, it chose a venue in the heart of Big Three Country. On a warm and sunny autumn afternoon, in the shadows of Ford World Headquarters, TheCarConnection had the opportunity to test out the new Accord Hybrid sedan.
The launch of this hybrid-electric vehicle is the next, critical step in Honda's ongoing effort to transform the HEV from niche to mainstream. With oil prices soaring to record levels, there's no question the Accord Hybrid is arriving at an opportune moment. But there are some nagging problems that raise serious questions about the long-term acceptability of this fuel-stingy technology.
It's been five years since Honda brought the first hybrid to the U.S. market. The Insight was a teardrop-shaped two-seater, a vehicle for those who wanted to catch the cutting edge of green-minded powertrain technology - and make that clear to everyone passing by.
Toyota took a similar, if slightly less exaggerated, approach with its first-generation Prius (which actually beat Insight to market in Japan). The latest version of Prius is a bit more conventional in look and function, but it's still a visual standout. Now, as Honda is broadening its hybrid line-up, the automaker is heading off in a very different direction.
Flying under the radar
The Civic Hybrid, launched last year, was virtually indistinguishable from a conventional version of the sedan. And that holds true with the new hybrid Accord. But for a few modest details, including the hybrid badge, unique wheels, and a small, trunk-mounted spoiler, you'd have a hard time picking it out from any other Accord.
Potential customers are evenly split between those "wanting to make a statement," says Honda planning director Dan Bonawitz, and those "wanting to fly under the radar."
While the new hybrid may not be a visual attention-getter, it's definitely not your conventional Accord. Under the hood, the hybrid boasts the latest version of Honda's Integrated Motor Assist, or IMA, technology. The sedan's 3.0-liter V-6 also features a new system called Variable Cylinder Management, or VCM.
An internal combustion engine is a wasteful beast. A significant amount of power is lost due to internal inefficiencies, and even more is wasted when you're cruising or braking. During those moments, the IMA acts as a generator, recapturing wasted energy and storing it as electricity in the hybrid's nickel-metal hydride battery pack.
At a stoplight, the Accord Hybrid's V-6 will temporarily shut off, instantly restarting when you're ready to move again. Start out slowly, and VCM disables one bank of three cylinders, reducing fuel consumption. Press down a bit harder and all six will begin firing. When you need a real boost in power, the IMA kicks in, like an electric supercharger.
In urban driving, the IMA provides the majority of the fuel economy improvement. On the highway, the VCM does the heavy lifting. Normally, a three-cylinder engine - or a V-6 operating in that mode - would create a lot of booming.
The Accord Hybrid integrates an active noise canceling system to sharply reduce that booming. Microphones in the passenger compartment pick up the noise and create a countercyclical sound wave that effectively cancels it out.
A new way of thinking
With the Accord Hybrid, Honda has taken a notably different approach to, ahem, current thinking. Until now, manufacturers have downsized their engines - the Insight, for example, featured a miniscule, 65-hp 1.0-liter gasoline engine - using electric power to make up the difference. The Accord hybrid features the same, top-line V-6 that makes 240 hp on the regular sedan. But add in that electric boost and you've got a punchy 255 hp. Torque increase by nearly ten percent, to 232 pound-feet, and it comes on noticeably quicker.
So, despite the 120 pounds of added weight compared with a regular Accord, there's no mistaking the difference in seat-of-the-pants launch feel. The Accord Hybrid is no rocket, but with a 0-60 time of 7.5 seconds - a full half-second faster than the conventional V-6 Accord - it's nonetheless impressive.
By emphasizing acceleration as much as fuel economy, Honda hopes to broaden its appeal beyond the early-adopters and green-conscious motorists who've made up the first wave of hybrid buyers. And it could prove an especially good strategy as the spotlight shines on the bold claims being made for hybrids.
Even eco-friendly Consumer Reports magazine has criticized the mileage claims of the current crop of hybrids. For most owners, they're falling well short of government ratings. How much is a matter of debate, though Honda officials insist they're closer to the mark than Toyota has been with Prius.
For now, the company is claiming 30 miles per gallon in the city, 37 mpg in the highway cycle. That's about on par with the much smaller Civic, and quicker, too. And it will yield a maximum range of 633 miles, roughly the run from Boston to Washington, D.C.
The Hybrid will come loaded with just about every feature available on the Accord line, a voice-operated navigation system the only option. While the final figure hasn't been locked down yet, Bonawitz suggests the new car will come in at "right around $30,000." Factoring out some added touches, that would mean you're paying around $2500 to $3000 more for the hybrid powertrain.
For those more interested in saving money, rather than the environment, can you make the proverbial business case? Even Bonawitz accedes it would be hard to justify through lower fuel bills. Even in a best case scenario for a driver doing 15,000 miles a year, you'd be looking at no more than around $200 to $400 in annual savings compared to a regular V-6 Accord - and that's betting on steadily higher fuel prices - and an owner getting the promised mileage from the new hybrid, no sure bet.
There is the matter of psychic satisfaction, of course. And both state and federal government tax credits. Also, hybrid owners in some parts of the country get to thumb their noses at other commuters, since they're permitted in so-called diamond, or carpool, lanes, even when driving solo.
The Insight was an intriguing technical exercise, but with its lightweight aluminum construction, it raised caution flags for those worried about long-term durability and repair costs. Such matters should be of less concern with the Accord Hybrid, but the questions won't vanish entirely, at least not before there's a proven track record.
It's still to be seen exactly how well the hybrid drivetrain will hold up, though it is backed by a ten-year/80,000-mile warranty. And there's no question that Honda has justifiably earned a reputation for reliability that should rub off on the new Accord Hybrid.
Barring a sudden collapse in the price of Mid East crude and a picture-perfect resolution of the troubles in Iraq, it's hard to imagine the current spate of interest in hybrid-electric technology dying down. Honda has seen its hybrid sales slowly but steadily increase over the last five years, and with the addition of the Accord, the automaker hopes to nearly double volume next year. That could prove far too cautious. We expect the Accord Hybrid to fly out of showrooms as fast as Honda can build them.
2005 Honda Accord Hybrid
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