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Honda Motor Company has flourished over the years thanks to a knack for supplying its customers with solid, reliable cars that were easy to drive and easier to own. The very first Accord started that trend back in 1976, and while the nameplate has evolved from a compact hatchback into a midsize sedan (and coupe), its mission really hasn't changed much over the years. Honda products can always be counted upon to provide maximum owner satisfaction per dollar spent, which is why the Accord is one of the most popular vehicles in the country.
So how does one go about making a winning package like this even better? The answer is quite simple, really: give it more power and better economy. While that statement is easy to make, automotive history has shown that improved performance typically results in decreased efficiency, while stellar economy usually equates to lackluster performance. That school of thought no longer holds true, however, thanks to a leap forward in propulsion technology currently showcased in the 2005 Accord Hybrid. Featuring gobs of tractable power, luxury amenities galore and EPA fuel economy ratings higher than most four-cylinder compacts, Honda's latest technological marvel appears to be the first Hybrid built with driving enthusiasts in mind.
When Honda introduced the ground-breaking Insight in 2000, it was hailed as a leap forward in automotive engineering, and thanks to its slippery raindrop shape and highly efficient gasoline/electric hybrid drivetrain, the small coupe was able to achieve record-setting fuel-efficiency while retaining everyday drivability that would have been impossible in a pure electric vehicle. Honda's solution was to design a lightweight, highly aerodynamic coupe powered by both gasoline and electric motors. The small 1.0-liter gasoline engine provided primary power while sipping fuel at a miniscule rate, and the electric motor would kick in when extra thrust was needed.
The system worked very well and the Insight proved popular, but its buyers were primarily people who were willing to make certain sacrifices in order to pass by filling stations on their way to saving the environment. Those sacrifices included a cramped two-seater interior, funky love-it-or-hate-it styling, air conditioning that didn't work very well when the vehicle was sitting still and a relative lack of power compared to other small coupes on the road. Despite these minor inconveniences, the Insight showed the world that hybrid technology is highly efficient and driver-friendly, and public interest soared.
A few short years later, Honda introduced a hybrid version of the Civic utilizing improved technology that allowed buyers to enjoy the well-documented style, driving dynamics and comfort of a standard Civic while simultaneously reaping the rewards of a highly efficient drivetrain. Both of these vehicles are still available, and while they offer an excellent balance of efficiency and environmental friendliness, neither one could be considered a sport sedan or a luxury car by any stretch of the imagination.
While the Big H's main competitor has focused on refining its highly efficient but relatively low-performance synergy drive system in the Toyota Prius, the new Accord Hybrid's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system is designed to be the most powerful hybrid system ever built. Based on the highly successful seventh-generation Accord that was introduced in 2003, the hybrid model resides firmly at the top of the Honda food chain, one notch above the luxurious EX V6 model. Standard features include a leather-trimmed interior, dual-zone automatic climate control, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, alloy wheels and even an AM/FM/XM stereo with an in-dash six-disc CD changer.
The big news, however, resides under the hood. While the standard Accord V6 model is powered by a 3.0-liter VTEC V6 that produces 240 horsepower, Honda decided to take things to the next level by adding a hybrid drive system that actually boosts output to an impressive 255 ponies while improving fuel economy dramatically.
The way the system works is quite ingenious. The hybrid's IMA system utilizes an electric motor fitted between the gas engine and the five-speed automatic transmission that boosts power only when necessary (such as when you're climbing a hill or passing in traffic) and also functions as a generator, charging the batteries during deceleration and braking. A variable cylinder management system actually shuts down half of the engine's six cylinders when they aren't needed, meaning that the car is actually more efficient on the highway than a four-cylinder Civic. Stomp on the gas, however, and the totally seamless system employs all six cylinders and the full force of the electric motor in a single smooth burst of power unlike anything any Accord has ever offered before.
In fact, Honda claims that 0-to-60-mph times have been reduced by a full half-second to 7.5 seconds (compared to an EX V6 sedan). Meanwhile, the EPA has given the Accord Hybrid a 30 mpg city/37 mpg highway fuel economy rating — the highest numbers ever given to a V6-powered vehicle. We don't doubt those acceleration times after spending some time behind the wheel of the smooth new fuel-sipper. While the EPA numbers may not be as high as what we're used to seeing from modern hybrids, keep in mind that this is a powerful midsize sedan loaded with just about every amenity one could ask for.
The Accord Hybrid doesn't have everything, though, as Honda's engineers ditched the sunroof option in a bid to save weight. Other changes include new lightweight aerodynamic alloy wheels, a very high-tech IMA readout in the instrument cluster that provides details on how the hybrid drive system is operating, first-in-class active noise cancellation technology, a small rear deck spoiler and, of course, a subtle badge denoting the car's hybrid status. As in other leather-lined Accords, both the front and rear seats are extremely supportive and comfortable. Two-tone, soft-touch door and dash panels add an upscale feel, as do the plentiful use of high-quality wood trim.
Further improvements to the ultraefficient sedan include making the hood and bumper out of aluminum and tuning the suspension to accommodate the change in weight and provide a sportier ride and feel. The climate control system utilizes a unique hybrid compressor that is both highly efficient and effective, and new electric power steering technology borrowed from the Acura NSX sports car ensures a precise steering feel even when the gasoline engine turns itself off in idle-stop mode.
After wading through all this technical mumbo-jumbo, you're probably wondering how the car actually drives. If we were to sum it up in one word, it would have to be "smooth." We had the opportunity to drive a standard Accord EX V6 and the Hybrid model back-to-back, and while the extra torque and speed were readily apparent, we couldn't detect many other differences between them. While that might sound like a bad thing, it's actually a big feather in Honda's cap. The IMA system is so smooth and linear, it's nearly impossible to tell when the electric motor is helping things along and when the VCM has shut down half the V6's cylinders in cruising mode. Of course, the car drives like a typical Honda Accord, which means the ride is soft and compliant while offering a much sportier feel than anything you could expect from chief competitor Toyota. In fact, the leather-lined interior is so close to Acura-level luxury that one could make a strong argument for choosing this car over a premium-brand midsize sedan based on its power and interior comfort alone, not to mention its stellar fuel economy.
The electric steering is the one of the best setups we've ever tested (are you listening, GM?), as it offers plenty of feedback and confidence-inspiring road feel without any of the numbness we've experienced with other electrically controlled setups. Most importantly, when we mashed on the gas pedal, we were thrilled with the increased power, which actually managed to push us back in the seat as we rocketed down the road in a smooth, hybrid-powered burst of speed. The system works equally well on the highway, and when the V6 slips into variable cylinder management mode, you can hardly tell the difference, save for a few short movements by the fuel economy gauge next to the speedometer.
The noise cancellation system does a nice job of filtering out excess racket from the mechanical parts and systems, and we enjoyed the brief moments of pure silence when the car came to a stop and both engines would shut down, saving fuel and patiently waiting for us to lift our foot off the brake pedal as a signal to get things moving again. Overall, the entire package is well engineered and thoroughly refined, and it seems that Honda has just boosted hybrid technology to a new plateau.
So is the Accord Hybrid worth forking over a $4,000 premium over the price of a loaded EX V6? If you enjoy extra power and the ability to cruise over 600 miles on a single tank of unleaded, then the answer is a resounding "yes." Honda's latest super sedan may not be as efficient as the Prius or as futuristic-looking as the Insight, but it offers plush surroundings, unparalleled power, sporty driving dynamics and top-tier fuel economy in a sleek yet stealthy package. True driving enthusiasts who require the practicality and efficiency of a hybrid but harbor a burning desire for extra acceleration and the added bonus of having the latest tech toy on the block should find the Accord Hybrid an interesting prospect indeed.