- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Soon gas pumps may well sport two hoses: one for pumping fuel in and the other to stick in your wallet to suck the cash out. As pump prices continue to escalate faster than the cost of a beachfront home in California, consumers are bound to begin drifting from the SUV side of new car showrooms to the display of more fuel-efficient passenger cars.

Buyers who six months ago may not have even considered a sedan will be forced to sacrifice the image an SUV projects for a vehicle that doesn’t transform every trip to the gas station into a 401(k)-liquidating experience. The good news is, purchasing a fuel-efficient vehicle today isn’t the compromise it was even two years ago.

You don’t have to give up performance and comfort for high mileage. There is no better example of this trend than the Honda Accord Hybrid.

Honda is no stranger to hybrid technology. It beat cross-town rival Toyota to market with the first hybrid when it introduced the Insight in 2000. Beneath its cartoonish exterior, the Insight still boasts the industry’s best Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fuel rating.

Unlike the approach to Insight where Honda’s target was to create a new vehicle with exceptional fuel economy, the Accord Hybrid is simply the result of applying its real-world tested Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) technology to its flagship sedan.

To Honda’s credit, it didn’t choose the Accord’s four-cylinder engine for this experiment, but the V-6. The end result is a full-blown Accord that skimps neither on performance nor comfort.

When equipped with the optional navigation system, the Hybrid also posts the highest base sticker among Accords at $32,505 with destination charge.

Closely resembling other Accord V-6s, the Hybrid’s conservative good looks won’t out you as a greenie. Other than a subtle integrated spoiler on the rear-deck lid, you would be hard-pressed to identify the Accord Hybrid as such approaching it on the street, and that’s the whole point. There is nothing “in your face” about its appearance. First and foremost, it’s an Accord.

What is “in your face” is its model-leading performance. While achieving seven to nine miles per gallon better fuel economy than the regular V-6 (depending on city or highway driving), at 255 horsepower the Hybrid delivers 15 more ponies and at 232 foot-pounds, 20 additional pounds per feet of peak torque. This is dramatic performance for a hybrid. A five-speed automatic transmission hustles engine output to the front wheels.

The IMA consists of a lightweight electric motor that shuts off the engine during stops and steps in to help with acceleration. It also operates the dual-zone automatic climate control. Acting as a generator during deceleration and braking, it captures that energy to recharge its battery, so it never needs to be plugged in. When coupled with the V-6’s Variable Cylinder Management that automatically shuts down three cylinders when cruising, the IMA tremendously enhances fuel efficiency.

The EPA rates the Hybrid at 29 mpg in the city and 37 on the highway.

Other than the fairly transparent operation of the IMA, the Hybrid behaves like any other Accord. Its fully independent suspension is set up for ride quality rather than crisp cornering, but it holds the road just fine through the turns. It rides on 16-inch alloy wheels and rubber. Traction control is integrated into the antilock brake system, which features Electronic Brake Distribution. The Accord is dependable, functional, economical family transportation and the Hybrid doesn’t wander from Accord’s core mission statement.

The cabin is pure Accord as well. Save for some Hybrid-only instrumentation that monitors IMA activity, the Hybrid’s interior is similar to that of the EX V-6. The leather-covered seats are supportive and inviting.

All the switchgear is easy to access and operate. XM satellite radio is standard in the Hybrid. In terms of standard features, the Hybrid falls between the LX and up-level EX. The EX’s sunroof and power-adjustable passenger seat aren’t on the Hybrid’s list of standard gear, but in addition to leather seating, the Hybrid does have its eight-way power driver’s seat and heated front seats.

In addition to dual front air bags, the Hybrid has front seat-mounted side-impact air bags, as well as side curtain air bags that protect both front- and rear-seat passengers.

Honda has done everything right in the Accord Hybrid. Public resistance to hybrid technology is based largely on the notion that performance is sacrificed for fuel economy. Proving it’s possible to have both, the Accord Hybrid puts that objection to rest.Of course, the other big objection to hybrid technology is its price tag. Honda hasn’t done as well in eliminating that hurdle.

With more standard features than the Hybrid, the EX V-6 costs about $3,000 less. Even at $3 per gallon, that’s a lot of gas. At the end of the day, a consumer’s ultimate motivation to buy this or any other hybrid must be based, at least in part, on a passionate desire to conserve a natural resource, oil.

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