Honda Accord Hybrid 2007

James Bond has nothing on this car.

April 28th 2007.

The U.S. Department of Defence last year released a satellite image of the Korean peninsula at night. The picture shows South Korea ablaze with light, a milky way radiating from the heart of its capital city, Seoul.

North Korea, on the other hand, sits in utter darkness, aside from a dim glow around Pyongyang. Whatever else you can say about North Korea's Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il is doing more to prevent global warming than any other person on Earth.

If we must reduce the production of greenhouse gases to prevent climate change and the scientific consensus is that we must we've yet to see much of a sense of urgency about it.

Opinion polls suggest Canadians attach considerable importance to the problem of global warming, yet on an individual level, few of us have adjusted our behaviour to reduce carbon emissions.

What's it going to take? An apocalyptic shift in the weather and draconian government action? Or maybe, just maybe, an intelligent combination of technology and reasoned judgment.

If consumers are to be seduced into righteous behaviour, consider the example of the Honda Accord Hybrid.

Here's a fuel-saving wonder that makes more horsepower than a standard Accord while preserving a sense of luxurious sophistication. If this is all it takes to save the world, sign me up.

The Ontario government seems to agree, as the Accord Hybrid is eligible for a $2,000 sales tax rebate designed to encourage the use of more efficient vehicles. It doesn't qualify for the federal ecoAUTO Rebate program, however.

With a foot to the floor, the Accord Hybrid seems efficient indeed; the nearly instantaneous boost of 100 lb.-ft. of torque from the 16 hp electric motor combines with a 3.0 L V6 to provide acceleration well beyond what you'd expect from a demure family car with an environmentally correct pedigree.

Honda Accord Hybrid

Price: $38,090; as tested $40,590

Federal rebate/penalty: No

Ontario rebate: $2,000

Engine: 3.0 L V6 with electric motor assist

Power/torque: 253 hp, 232 lb.-ft.

Fuel consumption: (L/100 km) city 9.5; hwy. 6.4; as tested 8.6

Competition: Toyota Camry Hybrid, Nissan Altima Hybrid

What's best: Luxurious feel and surprising power

What's worst: Not truly green, performance or luxury

What's interesting: Hybrid technology can provide either fuel savings or higher performance, at the driver's discretion

Traction control tames the initial clawing of the front wheels, but the Accord shoves hard up to 100 km/h and beyond, the power delivered smoothly through a five-speed automatic.

At steady highway speeds, the Accord Hybrid seems relaxed and elegant, but when required, its combined output of 253 hp and 232 lb.-ft. of torque provide a startling amount of passing power.

Does the Ontario government really need to subsidize this vehicle? At a price of nearly $38,000, or about $4,000 more than the non-hybrid Accord V6, are we saving the Earth or entertaining ourselves with higher performance?

Well, the Accord Hybrid at least gives you a choice. You can be Jekyll or Hyde, driving parsimoniously to achieve the fuel consumption of a compact car, or if the beast within takes over, the carbon emissions are at least mitigated.

Natural Resources Canada figures for the Accord Hybrid are 9.5/6.4 L/100 km for city and highway, compared with 11.5/7.5 L/100 km for the less-powerful but non-hybrid Accord V6 (with 244 hp). During about 800 km I drove the Accord Hybrid, without much thought for fuel efficiency, it consumed a respectable 8.6 L/100 km.

Even factoring in the sales tax rebate, the NRC figures suggest a typical Accord Hybrid owner would save $246 a year in fuel over the non-hybrid V6, which suggests a meagre long-term advantage in purely financial terms.

On the other hand, this also represents a reduction in C02 of 766 kg, which means you'd be well on your way to meeting the challenge of saving a tonne of greenhouse gases, simply by choosing the Accord Hybrid. Not much of a sacrifice, is it?

No, it's not, but from a strictly environmental point of view, there are more effective ways to reduce carbon emissions. Even the Canadian Automobile Association thinks we should simply drive our cars less often.

Perhaps, though, we should think of the Accord as a kind of Trojan Horse, a seductive vehicle that contains well-disguised agents of change. It smoothes a path for a few innovations that will inevitably find broader application among all vehicles.

Most reports on the Accord Hybrid have noted that you simply drive it like any other car there are no unusual maintenance requirements, it takes regular fuel, and the battery for the electric motor is charged as you drive the car.

Yet there are a few distinctive elements to the operation of the Accord Hybrid, mostly discernible in stop-and-go traffic. I've owned cars in the past that occasionally stalled while waiting to turn at an intersection, and it was never a good feeling.

But the Accord Hybrid stalls virtually every time you stop, as part of its design. Once warm, the engine routinely shuts off at a stop to avoid wasting fuel at idle. As soon as you release your foot from the brake, the electric motor acts to restart the gas engine; there's no cranking of a starter motor, simply a softly muted thud through the drivetrain when you release the brake and the engine awakes.

One of the most elegant aspects of hybrid design is how it uses energy from braking, which is normally lost as heat, to produce electricity through the motor, which also acts as a 14 kW generator. This just seems to be one of those beautiful ideas that someday will be incorporated on every vehicle.

On the Accord, this regenerative process produces a braking feel that is not quite linear; the brakes can seem slightly grabby at low speeds, and then just before you come to a complete stop the resistance lessens, reminding me of the way a scooter freewheels when the CVT transmission releases before a stop.

In some slow-moving traffic, the Accord offers a strangely elastic feel, the way it drags during deceleration and then rebounds with the low-speed assistance of the electric torque. The sensation quickly begins to feel normal; rather than off-putting. Mostly it just seemed to reinforce the value of the regenerative concept in my mind. Why should the work of braking produce nothing but heat?

Something far less noticeable in the Accord Hybrid's design, but even more effective in reducing fuel consumption, is the capability of the engine to let three of its six cylinders take a rest when their power isn't needed.

For virtually all highway driving, even at speeds slightly above the limit, the Accord runs nicely on just three cylinders, something indicated by a small green light on the dash that can provide fuel-saving feedback to your driving style.

You'd think that when half the cylinders on a V6 engine "go missing" it would be hard to mistake, yet I found it virtually impossible to detect, except at low speeds with frequent throttle transitions, during a deliberate attempt to produce a bit of roughness.

A V6 that suddenly switches to three-cylinder operation inevitably changes in balance, but Honda has designed active engine mounts that move to oppose and cancel unwanted shaking.

A similar balancing approach helps reduce sound levels in the interior, thanks to a noise-cancellation design that uses a microphone to determine unwanted sound frequencies, then cancels them with corresponding sound waves through the speakers.

You wouldn't want this to work too well, would you? Otherwise people in the car would have to communicate via lip reading or sign language. But it doesn't work that way. The interior sound level is indeed modest, while the standard six-CD sound system remains clearly audible without the need for headphones under a cone of silence.

Despite the Accord's family-car sensibility, the combination of serious horsepower and an athletic-feeling chassis produces genuine driving fun. I sought out a few of my favourite twisty back roads and found it surprisingly eager to push hard, with light, accurate steering and steady cornering poise. The suspension offers a relatively firm and controlled ride quality, transmitting an occasional thump, but with most of the harshness erased.

Although Honda uses a pretty sophisticated form of electronic management to combine output from the gas and electric engines, a certain amount of lag became obvious when I was more aggressively pushing the throttle out of corners.

Some of this might have been attributable to the automatic transmission a manual would have been more fun on a spirited drive but the lag was also occasionally noticeable at moderate speeds.

Yet at low speeds, while accelerating from a stop, the solid push of the engine and electric motor arrived consistently on demand.

Leather seats are standard on the Accord Hybrid, complementing a straightforward yet sophisticated interior design. Perhaps the leather seats are another indication Honda isn't targeting this car at vegan environmentalists. "Leather?" my 11-year-old daughter asked. "You mean skins from dead cows? Gross!"

I tried a change of direction. "Remember you were telling me about how the native peoples lived in balance? How they thanked the animals they killed for food and used every part of it without waste? That's sort of what this car is about."

By this time my daughter was no longer listening. She was keying in the address to her school on the optional navigation system, and her face lit up when the audible directions arrived. The school is about three blocks away, easy walking distance, but we drove with the electric seat warmers on high and the stereo cranked.

Although strict environmentalists may find the notion of a high-performance hybrid hypocritical or illogical, I think the beauty of the Accord is precisely that it does appeal to the emotions, and not just the pocketbook. Sometimes we need to fool ourselves a bit to get moving in the right direction.

I'm reminded of a clinical study of people who had suffered damage to the emotional centres of their brains. Despite having unimpaired reasoning abilities, they agonized over the simplest decisions. The instant force of emotion is essential to prompt the intellect.

And that's why I'm hoping cars like the Accord Hybrid will help us do the right thing. Because if we don't do it, some day a Dear Leader will turn the lights off for us.

UPDATE: Honda has stopped making the Accord Hybrid, complaining they can't currently compete with Toyota's more popular hybrid cars.

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