Accord Hybrid: Power Trip
By Bill Moore
I am rolling along at 80 miles per hour with the windows down. The sky is cerulean blue. Clusters of cottony clouds recede into the distant hills covered in wheat and milo. It's a pleasant 73 degrees out and the road ahead of me is straight and wide open. The afternoon sun behind me glints off a semi far ahead. Around me is a vast expanse of gently rolling high plains west of Lodge Pole, Nebraska
I am listening to XM Satellite Radio's Cinemagic channel of movie sound tracks. The theme is science fiction. Interspersed among the hours of programming are tracks from the various Star Wars films in honor of the official opening of the last episode, Revenge of the Sith, at midnight, just about the time the GPS estimates I'll be pulling into Omaha.
The hopeful, yet darkly foreboding undertones of the score depicting the seduction of young Anakin Skywalker by the dark side of the force seems, somehow, strangely appropriate. The more I drive the Honda Accord Hybrid, the more I lust to own it.
These are just some of the descriptions I juggle about in my brain trying to come up with a phrase that best describes Honda's newest gasoline-electric hybrid, all 255 hp of it.
What I can't call it is fuel efficient, but I don't think that's the point of this exercise. If I were in my Honda Insight, I'd be getting close to twice the fuel economy, but it wouldn't be anywhere near as comfortable or enjoyable a ride. In fact, it would be work. I've made this trip before, usually in my ten year-old Accord LX and by the time I've completed the 500 or so miles, I am stiff and tired.
When I arrive back home at midnight, I am still relatively fresh, without a sore bone in my body. Maybe its the aroma therapy of fresh leather seats and that always evocative 'new car smell'. Possibly it's the relaxing stereo jazz on XM Channel 71 miraculously beamed from the heavens above, all commercial jingle and jangle-free. Then again, it's more likely to be the firm but infinitely adjustable power driver's seat; up, down, back, forward. Ah, that's just right.
But permit me to back up a few days to the start of the trip.
I was planning to attend the Wind Power 2005 conference and exhibition in Denver, Colorado, just about 500 miles due West and slightly south of my home. I've flown the trip many times; it takes just a little over an hour wheels-up to touchdown. It takes eight times as long by car. Yet, despite what many people say about my state, I really enjoy the drive, especially once you get west of Grand Island.
Knowing I would have to drive the Insight, I decided to contact Honda's media relations department in Detroit and see if they might have an Accord Hybrid available the week of the conference. I had my answer in just a couple days. A covered car transporter would be delivering one the week before the trip and would pick it the week afterwards. (The original plan was to pick it up yesterday, May 21st, but as I write this, the silver frost four-door is still sitting in my driveway and no one's called yet from Chicago, where the car is kept on reserve for press test drives).
I get my first taste of the car several days earlier than originally planned. The transporter will be arriving on Tuesday, instead of Friday. Since I live in a culdesac d' sac, I arrange to meet the driver at a nearby parking lot. About 8pm, he calls to say he's here and unloading the car. It's a five minute walk for me, so I hoof it down to the little strip mall.
I sign for the car and the $32,655.00 (including destination and handling) wonder is mine.. for a week or so.
Accord Hybrid comes with multi task-capable, voice-recognition computer with GPS, XM Radio, Calendar and Calculator.
The seduction begins almost immediately. This car is a geek's delight, a power-hungry geek. The GPS navigation system looks like it can do just about anything but brew up frappuccino. There's the DVD-based road map with resolutions down 1/20 of a mile, the trip planner, the calendar, and a calculator with enough built in math conversion functions to make Hewlett Packard jealous. There's the AM/FM/ six disc CD changer. And then there's the built-in XM Satellite Radio with three free months subscription and 120 channels of listening pleasure.
And it all comes standard!
In fact, there are no optional features on this car. You name it, it comes standard. Power windows and power door locks. Side curtain airbags. Traction control. 4-wheel disc brakes. Cruise control. Steering wheel mounted audio controls. Exterior temperature gauge. Heated front seats. Individually-adjusted climate controls. 16 inch alloy wheels. Auto-off headlamps. Remote keyless entry.
The plus-$32K price tag is starting to make more sense and I haven't even mentioned the best part: the IMA hybrid drive.
Everyone wants to know what kind of fuel economy I got on my trip. The sticker that came with the car gives an EPA average of 29 in the city and 37 on the highway. Those are pretty realist numbers... as long as you willing to drive with a feather foot.
At seventy-five miles per hour headed west towards Colorado, I average between 32.6 and 33 mpg. Coming home with the wind at my back and, essentially, going down hill from 5,300 to 1,200 feet above sea level at 80 mph, I was seeing 34.5 mpg.
Now, that's really close to what my trusty four-banger Accord LX is capable of doing. So, what's the point of the Integrated Motor Assist, I asked myself for the first couple hundred miles, disappointed that I wasn't seeing better fuel economy.
That is until I wanted to pass several semis stretched out along I-80 westbound somewhere around York, Nebraska. Was I in for a surprise... and thank god there were no cops around. About the time I caught up to the second semi, the car was effortless doing 100 mph.
I've owned a string of inexpensive cars in my time, both new and used, leased and owned; this is the first time in my life that I've ever traveled this fast so easily. By the last semi, I let off the accelerator and coasted for half a mile as the car slowly decelerated back to 75.
I had now officially begun my journey to the dark side.
It wasn't puritan fuel economy I yearned for any longer, but the rush of adrenaline and the smug conceit that comes from having so much unadulterated power at my beckon call. On the outside, this car looks like any other '05 Accord, but under the hood is a tiger with incredibly smooth reflects.
To be honest, I lost track of how many times on the trip out and back I indulged myself in brief flirtations at 100 and a couple times up to 105 mph. The Accord Hybrid complies so responsively, so eagerly, that it almost begs to be let loose. Where the IMA drive in the Insight and Civic are meant to improve the fuel economy of each car, the gasoline-electric drive in the Accord Hybrid seems designed to provide seamless shifting of the 5-speed transmission.
Stomp on the gas at seventy and you'd expect the transmission to down shift momentarily, but it doesn't. The IMA drive kicks in the needed torque and the car smoothly accelerates without the slightest hint of effort. Honda calculates that the 12kW electric drive adds another 100 foot-pounds of torque, which not only helps the car go ballistic, but makes for a delightfully smooth start for the automatic stop-start system on the car.
Having driven the Ford Escape Hybrid close to 700 miles a couple weeks earlier, I naturally compared the two, though they are clearly apples and oranges. I kept the Escape Hybrid at 65 mph most of the trip to Minneapolis and back because that's where I felt comfortable and it seems where the continuously variable transmission had its sweet spot. The SUV will obviously go faster, but even if it doesn't strain the vehicle, it did stain me.
By contrast, the Accord Hybrid felt rock solid at 75 and 80. And from the brief bursts of speed it put on passing truck traffic on I-80, I am confident this car could be quite happy cruising at Autobahn speeds in Germany. It would be interesting let it have its head out in Nevada and stretches of Montana where speed limits aren't all that tightly enforced. Naturally, you'll pay for it at the pump.
It was around 11 pm when I drove through Lincoln, Nebraska, some 45 miles from my home. Here the speed limit drops to 55 through construction zones and 65 the rest of the 7-10 miles of Interstate that loops around the north side of our capital city. So, I decided to experiment. I reset the navigation system to see how much fuel economy I could squeeze out of the car, if and when we're required to drop back to 55 mph to conserve fuel as a nation.
I briefly saw 49.5 coasting down a hill. With the lights of the Capitol Building shining off to my right and one of Lincoln Electric's two wind turbines gracefully spinning on a hill ahead of of me, the miles per gallon readout seemed to stabilize somewhere around 41.5 mpg at 60-65 mph, which isn't all that far from what a first generation Prius might do.
Part of the reason I saw 40's for a time is because the Accord Hybrid uses Variable Cylinder Management. When the engine isn't under load, VCM will shut off three of the i-VTEC's six cylinders and the "ECO" mode will light on the control panel.
As if to underscore Honda's deliberate downplaying of the fuel-efficiency aspects of the car, the regen/electric power assist displays have been relegated to a pair of small horizontal bars on the left and right of the ECO mode light, just below the speedometer. The battery state of charge indicator, to the right of speedometer, is an equally small display made up of five bars, not unlike the display on my Wavecrest electric bike. And where both Ford and Toyota feature animated power distribution screens showing the interplay between the electric and gasoline drives on their respective hybrids when you power up each car's central computer screen, the Accord Hybrid doesn't have one, at least, not one that I could find among the myriad of information offerings.
255 hp, i-VTEC engine with Variable Cylinder Management.
All this strongly suggests to me that Honda sees this hybrid as being beyond the gimmick stage. It uses quiet understatement and a simple "Accord Hybrid" badge on the trunk to set it apart from its 240 hp, non-hybrid, V6 sibling.
Not that the car is perfect, mind you. My biggest complaint, apart from the fact that I wish it would operate more on its electric system -- American Honda's chief engineer, Ben Knight, assures me it does operate in EV-only mode at times, but its hard to know when -- is an annoying, low-frequency harmonic noise at 40 mph and 55 mph under certain road conditions, especially on ground pavement. It could be something associated with the 16 inch Michelin tires, but I would hope Honda looks at isolating this problem.
Interestingly, my neighbor owns a 2004 Accura TL. I took him for a ride in the Accord Hybrid and he judged it the better car.
For those who are wondering about the air conditioning, it continues to run even during the engine-off mode. You do notice the system produces somewhat less cooling when the engine turns off at a stop light, but it's enough to keep the car comfortable. I especially like the dual climate control system that lets my wife adjust the temperature of the air coming out of the vents on her side to her liking. A digital display near the windshield shows the temperature settings for each. Between this is a display showing the time and what XM channel you're listening to.
Speaking of time. The clock automatically resets itself when you cross time zones.
The trip wasn't entirely uneventful.
I refueled at Ogallala, Nebraska, well beyond where I would normally do so in North Platte.
About 65 miles out of Denver, I crested a ridge and caught my first glimpse of the Rockies. Moments later the engine suddenly lost power and check engine light came on. I pulled off the highway to assess the situation. The engine was continuing to run and the engine temperature light was stable. The owner's manual said that I shouldn't run the car long without having it checked, but it didn't say I shouldn't keep going.
I pulled back onto Interstate 76 and at 65 mph cautiously headed on towards Denver. The engine didn't have its former pep, so I carefully nursed it until I could get within cellphone range of Denver and call my contacts at Honda.
After letting the car sit for an hour and checking to see if the fuel cap was tight, I started the car and it ran fine. But just to be certain, Honda had the car picked and checked out at a local dealer. Near as they could tell, I had gotten some bad fuel, which had caused a backfire. The car had gone into self-protection mode that reset itself when I restarted it after about an hour.
The dealer replaced the tainted fuel and returned the car. It never hiccupped once the rest of the trip.
Finally, one other minor annoyance. You won't be hauling any lumber in this car, since the rear seat -- unlike my '95 Accord LX -- doesn't fold down. That's where the NiMH battery pack is housed. So, you'll have to borrow your brother-in-laws pickup when you need a few two-by-fours from Home Depot.
I see the Accord Hybrid as the perfect over-the-road salesman's car. It's got comfort, power, and reasonable fuel-efficiency. It would also make a great Highway Patrol car for catching all those other Accord Hybrid drivers who, like me, are tempted by the dark side to smugly show the rest of the motoring mob what this seemingly ordinary automobile can really do.
Maybe that's what it should be called: Honda Accord Smugbrid. Whatever you call it, you can't call it ordinary.
Click here for more even more information on the Accord Hybrid.
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