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2005 Honda Accord hybrid

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Do you want people to know you drive a hybrid car? Do you want to wear your efficiency and environmentalism on your sleeve? That, in a sense, is the question when you're shopping for hybrids.

On the one hand, Toyota offers the Prius, whose triangular shape and tapered lines are instantly recognizable even to people who know nothing about cars.

Honda's mainstream offerings, on the other hand (the two-seater Insight plays in its own league) look just like the Civic and Accord they are based on.

Toyota's hybrid sales have been stronger than Honda's.

One wonders whether that's a reflection of the Prius's distinctive styling.

Because, styling aside, the new $36,990 Accord Hybrid is hands-down the best hybrid on the market. Not only does it package impressive fuel economy into a package that's practical and usable for a real family, but it's really the first hybrid that plays the performance card: it's the most powerful Accord you can buy, and by a long shot, the most entertaining to drive.

It takes all of the things that make the Accord a great car – sharp steering, incisive handling and terrific responsiveness – and, thanks to its third-generation Integrated Motor Assist system, elevates them to an even higher plane.

Unlike the Prius, IMA doesn't allow the Accord Hybrid to run on the electric motor alone. In essence, the electrical system is used to "boost" the torque and power output of the standard 3.0-litre V6 when more thrust is needed, while helping to recharge the battery under braking.

With 255 hp and 232 lb.-ft. of torque, the IMA-assisted V6 is the most powerful engine you can get in an Accord, powerful enough to overwhelm the standard-fit traction control from a dead stop.

Once you're moving, the overall feeling from the drivetrain is not unlike that of a powerful turbocharged engine; step on the gas to make a passing manoeuvre and there's the briefest of pauses before the electric motor surges in to whoosh you past other cars like they're standing still.

Coupled with crisp, immediate shifts from the five-speed automatic, the Accord's IMA V6 is a real performance-oriented drivetrain.

It's not so you'd think that, inside, though. The Accord has always had one of the nicest interiors in its class, and the Hybrid elevates not only the level of standard equipment but also the upscale feel.

Leather upholstery is, of course, standard, as are the full array of power gizmos. Additional equipment includes a thumping six-disc CD stereo with active noise cancellation technology (microphones "hear" ambient noise and introduce cancelling sound waves into what the radio's playing) and a special, cleaner version of the Accord's dual-zone automatic climate control.

A couple of curiosities: the rear seats don't fold down like they do in regular Accords, because the battery actually resides between them and the trunk, and there is no sunroof available, either.

The combination of a well-appointed interior, excellent practicality – the Hybrid's cabin remains roomy and trunk huge – with responsive handling has always been what has differentiated the Accord from competitors.

Thanks to its extra power and improved low-down torque, the Hybrid version is even better. Despite all the weight over the front wheels, it feels deliciously light on its feet, it responds instantly to the throttle.

The brakes, despite their impressive power, are one of the few rough spots in the driving experience, however; thanks to the automatic operation of the regenerative-braking system, their feel is inconsistent.

The other rough spot is literal: even though the Hybrid's tires are 16-inchers with tall sidewalls, the ride is stiff, and can be borderline uncomfortable on rougher pavement. Which means that it's not much different from a regular Accord in that respect.

None of which would be a problem if the base-model Accord, which starts at $24,300, including ABS, power everything, keyless entry and a single-slot CD, was already so good.

The four-cylinder Accord is an impressively efficient vehicle in its own right – especially with the five-speed manual – and in regular driving feels plenty peppy. Paying almost $13,000 more for a few extra gadgets, a slightly nicer interior and a lot of horses you won't really be able to deploy that often doesn't look like that great of a deal.

But then again, buying a hybrid is about more than just making financial sense of fuel consumption; it's also about doing the right thing because it's the right thing to do. Judged by that light, the Accord Hybrid, good as it most certainly is, may not be enough of a statement to satisfy the more extroverted environmental shopper.

But in the end, Honda's strategy might be the right one.

Ford's Escape Hybrid looks pretty much like an Escape with better body cladding and Toyota's set to launch a Highlander hybrid later this year. It, like the upcoming Lexus RX 400h, features performance that eclipses the gas-powered vehicle it's based on without much visual differentiation.

The good news is that no matter which of these new hybrids you buy, you won't have to sacrifice anything in terms of performance or convenience to do your good bit for the environment as well.

yap @ mac.com

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