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Accord Hybrid saves fuel, boosts power

  • Driver

Mill Valley, Calif.- To those of us who were on the voting team, it came as no surprise that the Honda Accord Hybrid was named Best New Alternative Power Vehicle when AJAC's Canadian Car of the Year category winners were announced this week.

Neither would it surprise me if it also garners Canadian Car of the Year honours, when that award is announced at the Canadian International AutoShow next February.

The Accord Hybrid is that good a car. And that significant.

Simply stated, it takes the concept of a hybrid-electric vehicle from novelty to mainstream, and makes it an attractive proposition for everyday buyers – not just those with a strong green commitment.

It does so in two ways.

First, it offers buyers not only significantly reduced fuel consumption and the knowledge that they are doing something good for the environment, but also improved performance over the Accord EX-V6 sedan on which it is based.

Second, it does so at a price premium that, for some, could be warranted by its performance improvement alone.

Consider the numbers: According to Honda's figures, the hybrid reduces the Accord's 80-to-120-km/h acceleration time – arguably the most important measure of a car's real-world performance capability – by 12 per cent. And that is compared to the gasoline V6, not some wimpy four-cylinder.

According to AJAC's test figures, that passing or merging manoeuvre takes just 6.1 seconds – well into sports-sedan territory. And it will accelerate from 0-to-100 km/h, with a normal street start, in 7.7 seconds, a half-second improvement over the non-hybrid.

At the same time, it can deliver fuel economy that is 38 per cent better than the gasoline engine in city driving, and 23 per cent better on the highway. Its official Natural Resources Canada fuel-consumption figures are 8.1 L/100 km city, and 6.4 L/100 km highway – numbers that rival a four-cylinder compact.

Equally important is its price. At $36,990, it costs $3,390 more than the Accord EX-V6 sedan.

That compares to an almost $5,000 premium for the hybrid version of Honda's Civic – and offers a potential payback, based on fuel savings alone, in about 140,000 km (with gasoline at 80 cents per litre).

The significant extra cost of the Civic Hybrid has been a deterrent to sales, according to Jim Miller, senior vice-president of Honda Canada, which is why the company is pricing the Accord Hybrid so aggressively. Its premium here is considerably lower than in the U.S.

The hybrid's price includes dual-zone air conditioning, which is not part of the EX package, as well as larger 215/60R16 tires, special wheels, a unique grille, a rear-deck spoiler, an interior noise cancellation system and the hybrid powertrain.

In turn, the hybrid sacrifices a sunroof and power driver's seat, as well as a fold-down rear seat. (Its battery pack is mounted vertically behind the seat.) How the Accord Hybrid does what it does is as impressive as the accomplishments themselves. There is far more to it than just the addition of an electric motor.

It comprises a fully integrated system that includes everything from the powertrain itself to a hybridized air-conditioning system and a sophisticated interior anti-noise system.

At the core of the Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system is a doughnut-shaped, permanent-magnet DC motor, sandwiched between the V6 engine and a five-speed automatic transmission.

It is the same concept introduced by Honda in the Insight, and used in the Civic Hybrid, but this third-generation system has been refined and upsized for the Accord.

Motor output is 16.1 hp, with a peak torque output of 100 lb.-ft. at takeoff. When driven, as during regenerative braking, it can act as a 14 kW generator for recharging the car's 120-cell, 144-volt Nickel-Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) battery pack.

Although it is based on the same V6 gasoline engine used in other Accords, the hybrid's primary powerplant has its own features.

In addition to weight-saving changes such as magnesium-composite cam covers, and further refinements to Honda's i-VTEC variable valve timing and lift system, it includes Variable Cylinder Management (VCM).

In essence, VCM deactivates half the engine's six cylinders under light-load operation, thus eliminating their need for fuel.

It accounts for 57 per cent of the hybrid's fuel savings in highway driving – where most hybrids offer only modest reductions in fuel consumption.

Although similar in concept to Chrysler's MDS and GM's DOD systems, VCM is different in configuration because the Honda engine uses overhead cams, not pushrods. To deactivate cylinders, it uses a design with sliding pins between the rocker arms, similar to that used in the company's VTEC systems.

Because a V6 operating on just three cylinders develops an inherent roughness, Honda provides the hybrid's engine with active engine mounts to smooth out the vibration.

In addition, it employs an Active Noise Control system to prevent engine noise from reaching the car's interior..

Another sophisticated controller determines what combination of engine and electric motor will be employed, depending on conditions. It may be the engine only, in either three- or six-cylinder mode, or some combination of electric motor with either three- or six-cylinder engine operation.

Peak power output of the engine and motor combined is 255 hp at 6,000 rpm, with a torque peak of 232 lb.-ft. at 5,000 rpm, and a strong torque curve throughout the rev range.

Also part of the system is an automatic start-stop function, which shuts down the engine whenever the car brakes to a stop – a few situations such as early warm-up phase excepted. When the driver releases the brake, the high-powered electric motor restarts it instantly.

Unlike some hybrids, in which the auto-stop-start function is defeated during air-conditioning use, the Accord uses a dual-stage air-conditioning compressor. It can be driven by the engine, an integral electric motor, or a combination of both.

By technical definition, the Accord Hybrid is a mild hybrid, which means it will not operate on battery and motor alone. The electric motor can only assist the engine – like an electronic supercharger in principle.

Full hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius and Ford Escape Hybrid, can operate on electric power alone for short times and under specific conditions, usually at very low speeds.

Although the terms mild and full are non-qualitative technical descriptors, Honda is concerned that they imply something different: that full is inherently better than mild – an interpretation one of its competitors has been keen to promote.

Consequently, Honda is calling the Accord a full hybrid, applying that terminology to any vehicle in which the electric motor provides power to the wheels.

That's too bad, since with every company applying its own definitions, as GM has already done with its hybrid pickup, the term hybrid is destined to become as confusing and meaningless to the consumer as all-wheel drive has already become.

In the case of the Accord Hybrid, what you call it simply doesn't matter. It's the end result that counts, and, in this case, the result is exemplary.

Behind the wheel, it is just like a regular V6 Accord, but better. It accelerates more strongly, it is quieter and its hybrid nature is all but invisible, except for the fact the engine stops when the car does and there's a discreet charge gauge in the instrument cluster. Plus, you will be stopping at gas stations less frequently – the car has a potential range of 1,000 kilometres.

The operation of the VCM is truly seamless, and only an occasional touchiness of the brakes, presumably due to regenerative braking effect, gave any indication I was driving something different.

More power and performance, lower emissions and fuel consumption, and zero sacrifice of any customer expectations – all at a reasonable price. This is a benchmark car, the car that really could make hybrids mainstream players.

Gerry Malloy, a freelance journalist (mgmalloy @ aol.com), prepared this report based on travel provided by the automaker.

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