Honda's new hybrid-powered Accord sedan is a smirk. That's the only way I can describe a vehicle with so many innovative features that nevertheless hides a conceited sophistication beneath a disingenuous humility. It's a great car by every measure. But it's also a car that, if it could speak on its own behalf, would be likely to say, "This is all very complicated, you see, so let me put it in a way that you can understand."
Just serve it to me straight up, I say. With the Accord Hybrid, Honda brings its first electric-gasoline V-6 powertrain to market. The result is better fuel consumption, cleaner emissions and more power. Honda emphasizes the first two claims in particular. Reality emphasizes the last one. This Accord produces 255 horsepower and 232 pound-feet of torque, besting its gas-only sibling - the Accord LX V6 - by 15 hp and 20 lb-ft. The hybrid launches more quickly from zero-to-60 and accelerates more swiftly from 50-70 mph. Its suspension is sport-tuned, and its handling is athletic.
So for all of the talk about environmental responsibility and fuel efficiency and scrubbed emissions, the clean little secret is that the Honda Accord Hybrid is a potent, spirited performer. And I'm not sure that's the particular marketing message Honda has in mind.
Let's call it the unintended consequence of unusual technologies incorporated into the Accord Hybrid. Like shards of language, acronyms litter a description of this car. Three are worth identifying, however. Computerized variable valve timing (iVTEC) enables the gasoline-fueled V-6 to produce substantial, clean-burning power. Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) refers to the 12-kilowatt electric auxiliary motor that pumps 16 additional hp and 100 extra lb-ft of torque into the power stream. The IMA is itself powered by 120 nickel metal-hydride batteries packed behind the rear seatback, and it serves as an onboard generating plant for numerous Accord features.
For example, the IMA powers all cockpit functions independently of the V-6. It manages the dual-zone climate control system; it powers the audio system; it turns off the gas engine automatically at every stop then restarts it instantaneously upon acceleration; and it converts heat produced by braking into regenerative electricity.
A third technology, Variable Cylinder Management (VCM), automatically deactivates the entire rear bank of the Accord's V-6 to provide fuel-miserly cruising power on three cylinders only. Incredibly complex, VCM depends on satellite acronyms to manage vibration with Active Control (engine) Mounts (ACM) that electro-hydraulically counteract out-of-balance cylinder firings. What's more, this dovetails with Active Noise Control (CAN) to prevent vibration noises from entering the cockpit. ACN produces computer-generated, sub-audible sound frequencies that it pumps into the cockpit via the audio system. These "phase-shift" frequencies actually cancel ambient engine noises, ironically creating an illusion of quiet with what is, in effect, a bombardment of sound.
The combined result of these and other technologies is a quite unique driving experience, even compared to other hybrid vehicles also currently available. Unlike the Ford Escape Hybrid or Toyota Prius, the Accord Hybrid will not run solely on electric power. In other words, gas power is the primary motivating factor, with electricity providing the spark of enhanced performance.
Dashboard readouts relating to the IMA, although informative, lack the video-game animation of, say, the Ford's free-standing display. The only unmistakable clue that this Accord is something special is the eerie halt of the motor at each and every stop. For first-time drivers, it takes a determined leap of faith to trust that engine power will return when it's time to merge from a dead stop into oncoming traffic.
Sticker electric shock
There is, of course, another clue related to this Accord's special status; but it is more subjective, even a bit controversial. Although fully equipped with almost every conceivable standard feature - ranging from leather seating to front/side/head-curtain airbags to three free months of XM Satellite radio - the option-free Accord Hybrid I drove stickered at $30,655. In terms of base prices, the Hybrid is a whopping $6190 more than the Accord LX V-6.
So let's take a little magic calculator ride, shall we? Let's first of all stipulate a nominal price-per-gallon of gasoline at $2.25. Now, the Accord Hybrid boasts impressive fuel economy of 29 mpg city and 37 mpg highway. An Accord LX V-6 counters with 21 mpg/city, 30 mpg/highway. So, let's suppose a typical driving habit results in 12,000 miles a year, two-thirds of which is on city streets. That means an aggregate annual rating of 31.67 mpg for the Hybrid and 24 mpg for the LX.
Crunch all of this down, and you'll get annual fuel costs of $1125 for the LX, $852.55 for the Hybrid - that's a $272.45 annual savings thanks to new technology. That's also a payback schedule of 22 years, eight months, 20 days in order to justify spending over $6000 for that new technology. Stated differently, you'd be driving 272,640 miles for over two decades in your Accord Hybrid before it started paying for itself. That would be a commitment to a single car that outlasts many people's commitment to a single spouse.
This is where the Honda Accord gets a bit smirky. The car positively glows with aesthetic charm. It's both fun and safe to drive. It bristles with acronymic technologies. It sips amazingly little fuel and leaves nearly-pure exhaust (rated LEV-II-ULEV) in its wake. And, economically speaking, it's a lousy deal.
I want to be very clear on this point. No amount of circular reasoning and PC hand-wringing can economically justify spending so much more for this Honda Accord Hybrid than for its gas-powered siblings. That's why the smirk, because Honda knows this too. But Honda also knows that for many car owners, sporty performance, and elegant, sophisticated technology can be their own reward. At which point a smirk breaks into a smile.
2005 Honda Accord Hybrid
Base price: $30,140; as tested, $30,655
Engine: 3.0-liter V-6 with Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) and Integrated Motor Assist hybrid-electric driver, 255 hp/232 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic modified for hybrid drive, front-wheel drive
Length by width x height: 189.5 x 71.5 x 57.1 in
Wheelbase: 107.9 in
Curb weight: 3501 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 29/37 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags with occupant sensors, side airbags for front row, side curtain overhead bags, seatbelt pretensioners, ABS brakes, traction control with "creep aid system," four-wheel disc brakes, three-channel anti-lock braking system (ABS), and electronic brake distribution (EBD)
Major standard equipment: Keyless entry; power windows, mirrors, and locks; AM/FM/CD/XM satellite radio system; air conditioning
Warranty: Basic and powertrain, three years/36,000 miles; hybrid system, ten years/80,000 miles