Based on Honda's integrated motor assist (IMA) technology, the Accord Hybrid takes to the road with a sophisticated combination of a 3.0-liter V-6 gasoline engine, a small electric motor, and a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. The car's 120 individual battery cells, which are charged by the regenerative braking system, help the gas engine with instant horsepower for passing trucks, going uphill, or burning a little rubber. Together, the two power plants pump out an exhilarating 255 horsepower.
As is the case with other hybrids, the Accord Hybrid's gas engine shuts itself off at a stop, lulling the car into a catatonic state, but as soon as you take your foot off the brake pedal, the gas engine fires up, causing the car to surge slightly. Floor the accelerator or drive uphill, and the electric motor comes online to give the gas engine a kick. You can watch all the magic happen behind the steering wheel on the instrument panel comprising an excellent combination of backlit analog and digital gauges. An ecolight glows green when you're easy on the gas pedal, and there's a bar graph to show you when the electric drive is assisting the car and when the battery is charging. One note: Honda doesn't offer a manual transmission with the Accord Hybrid; that said, the five-speed automatic gearbox is as smooth as a vanilla milk shake.
In our road tests, the front-wheel-drive Accord Hybrid was among the top finishers in speed, even ahead of the plain V-6-powered model. The car takes off with a little torque steer and wheel spin as the power overwhelms the tires' grip and gets to 60mph in 6.9 seconds. That's almost twice as fast as the Civic Hybrid and 20 percent better than the Prius. Better yet, it can go from 30mph to 50mph in just 2.8 seconds--half the time needed for the Prius--and its disc brakes stop the car from 60mph in a reasonable 148 feet (see chart below). The car's double-wishbone suspension absorbs the pain of potholes, but it can veer side to side on rough pavement. And unfortunately, at 60mph, the Accord Hybrid is one of the noisiest cars on the road with a 76dBA (decibels adjusted) rating, 14dBA louder than the sedate Prius. Oddly, it's greatest failing is its gas mileage--or lack of it. With a measly 25.6mpg rating, it's a far cry from the Prius's 45.8mpg and the Civic's 41.6mpg; the Accord Hybrid can go for 450 miles on a tank of gas, about 100 miles less than the Prius.
Rated by the Environmental Protection Agency as a midsize car, the Accord has enough room for five adults, but the battery pack that resides in the back prevents the rear seats from folding flat. The exterior is smooth but looks like it was created with the same cookie cutter as other family sedans. Visibility is excellent, and the leather seats are comfortable, but the electric adjusters lack a way to store individual settings, and the lumbar adjustment doesn't provide enough support for long trips. However, one of our biggest complaints is the omission of a spare tire. The Accord Hybrid comes with only a jack, a toolkit, an air compressor, and a can of sealant to fix a flat, leaving you stranded or requiring a tow in the event of a tire-shredding blowout.
We really like that the Accord Hybrid comes with XM satellite radio and a six-disc in-dash CD changer as part of the standard package, and the six-speaker stereo sounds balanced and real, though better for news radio than music. We would have been more pleased if Honda had included a DVD player, an emergency communications system, or a Bluetooth connection for a cell phone as part of the standard package, but even worse, they're not available as optional accessories. On the other hand, the Accord Hybrid is the rare car with a PC Card slot for updating the car's digital maps, although it isn't mentioned in the owner's manual, and its presence dumbfounded several Honda employees who had never seen it before. Sadly, you can use it only to load new maps and not for playing MP3s. In addition, there's no way to connect an iPod or other MP3 player, and Honda's MP3 CD player costs an exorbitant $561.
Our test model included the optional satellite-linked navigation system with voice recognition. A bright, seven-inch GPS navigation screen that displays sharp images and is viewable in sunlight sits in the center console; it features excellent predictive text entry and an eight-way joystick for selecting items and zooming or panning around the digital maps. In day-to-day use, it's much more accurate than the four-way pointing stick on the Ford Escape Hybrid since it gives you better directional control, particularly if you want to move in a diagonal direction. The maps have helpful insets showing the journey's next turn as well as icons for points of interest, such as gas stations and shopping centers, but it can't show a 3D bird's-eye view of the terrain. The best part is that you can use the voice-recognition feature to ask the system limited questions and give commands such as, "find nearest gas station." All the directions are read by a husky female voice.
Honda's Accord Hybrid is one safe car, with crumple zones to absorb the impact of a crash as well as front, side, and curtain dual-stage air bags; it achieved five- and four-star ratings for the front and rear occupants, respectively, and has a four-star rollover rating. The car comes with a three-year/ 36,000-mile warranty, but the hybrid parts are covered for eight years/ 80,000 miles, which is a step up from Toyota's six-year warranty of the Prius's hybrid drivetrain. Honda's Web site offers a good mix of technology primers, specifications, and Q&As about hybrid engineering. There's even a page that describes how to take the Clean Fuel Vehicle tax deduction. An added bonus is the Owner Link section that has the car's service schedule, links to find local dealers and schedule appointments, and an estimate of the car's current trade-in value. Honda staffs a 24-hour toll-free support line, but neither the operator we talked to nor a local dealer could answer our question about the PC Card slot; a Honda representative called two days later with an answer.