The Stealth Hybrid
Certain gas misers feel the need to scream their frugality. But the new Honda Accord Hybrid, packed with 255 horsepower, simply screams.
By John Tayman

(Business 2.0) – In some internal corporate documents, and among those owners who share their green dreams with one another in chat rooms, the Honda Accord Hybrid is often acronym-ized as "HAH." (Often the term also gains an exclamation point, as in HAH!) This is damn fine shorthand, suggesting as it does an almost onomatopoeic rebuke. Try it along with me. You are motoring past a filling station—as I recently was—just as the attendant is fanning a fistful of plastic numerals, ticking the price per gallon skyward in fractional bursts. In fact, during the week I tested a frosted-silver-metallic 2005 Accord Hybrid, my local petrol pusher broke the mythic $3-a-gallon barrier, and still his prices continued to rise. So say it with me now: HAH!

The Accord Hybrid, which boasts a nicely brawny 255-horsepower V-6, is so cleverly parsimonious that, if you so choose, you can start your mocking in San Francisco, breeze northward, and thumb your nose at every gas jockey until you touch the suburbs of Seattle, some 600 miles away. (Only upon arriving would you have to swallow your disdain and actually refill.) That long commute, by the way, will be unerringly pleasant, since the hybrid version of the Accord is essentially identical to the other well-refined Accords in Honda's quiver, save for the fact that it is faster, more powerful, less polluting, and more fuel efficient than its siblings. (Oh, it also costs about $3,000 more, but something had to give.) Rather than crowing about this green wonder, Honda has been peddling the Hybrid as just another Accord, one of five models. Thus, an Accord can be purchased with a four-cylinder engine or a six-, manual transmission or automatic, cloth seats or leather, and so on—and if you desire to be socially conscious, you simply check the box marked "hybrid" on your order form. Which is to say that in the long evolution of automobile technology, Honda is attempting the boldest move of all: making hybrids just another buyer option.

The Accord Hybrid offers few visual cues to its true nature. Other than the addition of a wee hybrid badge and a nip of a rear spoiler, the Hybrid was designed to look precisely like every other Accord. (Not a bad thing, since the model has always been the handsomest of Honda's cars.) Only if you pop the hood do clues emerge, mainly in the form of a sliver-thin electric motor slipped between the engine and the transmission. This is the main component of a system Honda calls "integrated motor assist," or—again with the acronyms—IMA. At present, hybrid vehicles take one of two approaches to producing power: a system wherein the electric motor predominates, aided at times by a gas engine, and the opposite, in which the gas engine is given a helping hand by an electric motor. Toyota and Ford utilize the former in their hybrid vehicles; Honda has chosen the latter. The main advantage of this method, as Honda sees it, is excellent mileage with abundant power. Driven carefully, the Hybrid can average nearly 40 miles per gallon on the freeway while the Prius logs about 50 mpg, but where the Toyota requires more than 10 seconds to poke from zero to 60, the Accord blazes there in 6.7 seconds (which is even faster than the non-hybrid Accord). On the highway—or from a stop in city driving—you need never know you're driving a hybrid.

Here's how it works: Climb into the understated cabin, fit the key, and crank. (In a typically elegant Honda touch, the instrument panel starts to glow when the key is inserted, then brightens as the engine engages, as if the car is waking.) IMA kick-starts the gas engine, then retires momentarily. As you press the pedal, the gas engine propels the car, and as you push harder the system awakens, supplying an extra 16 horsepower and 100 foot-pounds of torque. At cruising speeds the IMA drops off again, asking nothing of the Sanyo nickel metal-hydride cells hidden behind the rear seat. Now here's where things get interesting. Honda supplied the Hybrid with something it calls "variable cylinder management," which can disable three of the vehicle's six cylinders while cruising at revs below 3,500 rpm. This economizing is virtually undetectable, owing to some extraordinary compensatory devices brewed up by Honda engineers: Since three cylinders are inevitably less smooth than six, Honda built electrical pulses into the engine mounts to counteract the discordant rhythms and outfitted the car with an anti-noise stereo system that dampens the arrhythmic thrum. (This infinitesimal sound plays through the car's Bose speakers, even when the stereo is turned off.)

As you exit the highway, the six cylinders engage and IMA flips functions, now acting as a generator that captures the energy released during braking. (This nifty trick supplies as much as 60 percent of the vehicle's mileage gains.) Creep toward a stoplight and the gas engine clicks off—this occurs at about 10 mph—and the glorious circle of hybrid life is ready to spin again. Yet if you did not know differently, and happened to overlook the discreet gauges in the instrument cluster that announce "Charge" and "Assist," you would never suspect that you were driving anything but a standard Accord. To trim weight, the Hybrid has no sunroof, and the spare tire has been replaced with a tiny air compressor and a can of sealant, but otherwise you're driving an everyday Accord, albeit one that goes 38 percent farther on each gallon of gas.

And here we are back at that cruel pump. Several days into my test drive, I calculated how much I might save by ditching my current vehicle and embracing my inner better citizen. (After some arithmetically challenged scribbling, I resorted to an online cheat sheet, conveniently offered at www.greenhybrid.com.) The verdict? Plunking down $32K for the Hybrid would save me $97 a month in gas and, perhaps as important, spare the air 120 pounds of carbons. These days, that's an increasingly compelling argument. And yet I've yet to mention the $2,000 tax deduction, the access to some carpool lanes, the XM radio, leather seats, burled finishes, ABS, and sundry other niceties that come standard with the Hybrid. Nor have I pointed out the most satisfying aspect of the Accord Hybrid—zooming past the leviathan SUVs filling up with $100 worth of gas and being able to unleash the perfect retort: HAH!

RUNS GREAT, LESS FILLING

The Accord Hybrid goes 630 miles on a single tank and is noticeably peppier than its gas-only sibling.