Following a couple of centuries of relieving Mother Earth of a disproportionately huge (relative to any other 200 year period in the history of mankind) amount of natural resources, much of the human race is starting to accept the fact that our resources are not limitless. Now we have commodes that are capable of flushing with a cup or two of water and shower heads that dribble out less than a Big Gulp of wet stuff every minute. Sure, it now takes 3 or 4 flushes and some sort of exotic pressurized plunger to fully rid the WC of last night's Gordita combo, and it takes about 23 minutes to wash and rinse your hair instead of 2, but we humans are very adaptive creatures, no? We've learned to live with it. And we suffer through all this just to conserve water, the most abundant and most renewable resource in the world. But what about conserving energy? Well a decade or two ago, GE developed their Miser line of lightbulbs - these revolutionary tungsten devices cast the light of a 100W bulb, but only consume 95Watts of electricity. How'd they do that? Think of the annual savings if every bulb in your house was a Miser. The figures are mind boggling! At the same time, the auto industry has been hard at work making the vehicles we drive more efficient. The first step was to cut the average curb weight and engine displacement by a factor of something like 40. Most people weren't too happy about driving to work in cars that accelerated like riverboats and crumpled like beer cans and torched their inhabitants upon the slightest impact. Better ideas were needed. So cars have gradually grown, and displacement and power have gradually been increased, as has fuel economy. But fuel economy still isn't where the greenest greenies want it to be yet, so the auto industry has developed a few options for them. There are really only two viable options at the moment - diesel and hybrid gas-electric vehicles. In the US, Honda's chosen the latter path, though in Europe you can also buy a turbodiesel Accord that apparently burns less oil than a Vespa.
Right around this time last year Honda casually announced to the world that they would be delivering the world's first hybrid gas-electric V6-powered vehicle. Big deal, right? At the time Honda already had two other hybrid models available in Honda showrooms, the second generation Toyota Prius seemed to be succeeding the Hummer H2 as the hot ride in Hollywood, and Ford's Escape Hybrid was already getting plenty of press (though they've only recently become available at the retail level). Heck, shortly afterwards, even Chevy announced they would be delivering a "hybrid" pickup truck (though calling it a hybrid is really stretching things a bit - all it really amounts to is a big generator, a battery pack, and an "idle stop" feature. There is no electric assist of any sort to aid in propelling the Chevy Silverado Hybrid.)
So what is the big deal about a Honda Accord Hybrid? Well, after driving one for nearly a week, I can tell you not much. I mean, jump in, put the key in the ignition, twist it to life, and besides a curious lack of the signature chirring sound of a standard Honda starter motor (and a slight but noticeable pause), it's pretty much business as usual. See, this is one of the few clues that there's something different - since the engine's flywheel now also functions as a motor/generator, the typical starter motor suddenly becomes obsolete. But then you put it into Drive and immediately forget that there's anything different about this car. Well, almost. Once the car is fully warmed up you'll also notice that the engine shuts down as you slow to a stop. This is the idle stop function, said to account for a full 25% of the 8mpg improvement in the EPA City cycle vs the standard Accord V6. Okay, so the idle stop does make the driving experience a little unique, but it works so well, it's not intrusive in any way. Otherwise, unless you pay careful attention to the activities of a small bargraph display situated beneath the odometer, all you'll notice is that you're behind the wheel of a supremely refined and rather quick automobile. Honda has largely bypassed the whole videogame driving experience of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive (complete with realistic "auxiliary engine room" sound effects), which may help this hybrid find its way into the garages of more traditionalists and those who don't really care to draw attention to the fact that they're driving a Hybrid.
Honda says the Hybrid is a half second quicker to 60mph than a standard Accord V6, and after driving it that figure seems reasonable. In some casual testing with a Race Technology AP-22 (unfortunately we didn't have time to use our normal dragstrip for full testing) we recorded 0-60mph times averaging (2-way) right at 7.0 seconds, which is actually a half second quicker than Honda's own claims, but they're generally pretty conservative. This car jumps out of the hole smartly, smoothly, and almost silently (except in some traction situations, when the tires briefly scream in protest). It's clear that the transmission logic has been programmed to deliver supreme refinement as opposed to all out performance. Computer controlled upshifts occur several hundred rpm shy of the redline, and there is certainly some computer management of the ignition timing and throttle position to deliver consistently smooth shifts. Honda claims that this transmission actually cuts shift to one-third the time required by the standard Accord V6 transmission. This was made possible by a new "high-response" torque converter, which is very compact in design. The J30 sounds great all the while, yet never really raises its voice above a muted growl.
While standing start acceleration is quite brisk, this car also performs very well in overtaking situations. The transmission responds quickly and the assist from the IMA system (with up to 100lb-ft of peak assist on tap at 840rpm) provides instant effect, slingshotting the car around slower traffic with little effort.
From a chassis standpoint, the Accord Hybrid again provides a very similar experience to the EX V6. It runs slightly larger (215/60-16 vs 205/60-16) tires, yet the expected benefits of the larger contact patch are mostly offset by the extra 120lbs the Hybrid Accord carries. So that means it has a reasonable amount of cornering grip, but it's not going to be setting any lap records. The suspension tuning of the Accord Hybrid provides a pretty nice balance between ride comfort, responsiveness, and poise, but this car is not a sport sedan. It's a very comfortable and relaxed highway cruiser, yet it's playful and nimble enough to make for enjoyable backroad ventures at a moderately brisk pace. It's been quite a while since the last time I drove a standard Accord V6, but for some reason the Hybrid seems to be just a little bit stiffer and more composed, particularly with respect to the rear damping. The brakes are responsive and while there is some regenerative activity from the IMA system, the overall feel and operation remains pretty normal overall. The last Accord V6 I drove had overly grabby brakes - these were much better in that sense.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the standard Accord's chassis and the Hybrid's is the fitment of the EPS (Electric Power Steering) system. It's pretty nicely weighted, but like most EPS systems, it's a little numb in feel. This system is also a little different than other Honda EPS implementations (Civic Si, S2000, and NSX) in that the power assist continues to function even when the motor has shut itself off.
In order to maintain the Accord's nearly invisible profile, the bodywork of the Accord Hybrid scarcely departs from the standard Accord. Unique (and, if you ask me, rather homely) 16" alloy wheels and a decklid lip spoiler are probably the quickest way to spot the Hybrid, though the decklid spoiler (or a very similar one) is available as a dealer-installed accessory for any of the other Accord models. So much for distinction... There are a few other subtle clues, like a "black chrome-style" grille finish and a unique rooftop AM/FM/XM radio antenna, but only the (hard core) Accord cognoscenti would even notice. Honda credits the lip spoiler and (more aerodynamic) wheel design for improving the Cd to 0.29 (from 0.30), which benefits the fuel economy as well as reducing wind related noise. We noticed that the Accord cruises with very little wind noise or turbulence in normal circumstances, but if you encounter strong or gusty crosswinds, the car gets pushed around a bit too much and requires a lot of corrective steering action. This is an issue with the standard Accord as well - I was hopeful that the aero tweaks might have fixed it, but unfortunately this doesn't seem to be the case.