New hybrid adds luxury to fuel efficiency

Hybrids are going the luxury route. Starting Dec. 3, when the hybrid-electric Honda Accord goes on sale in the United States, even drivers with high-end tastes can step on the gas and not feel too guilty.

For about $30,000 they'll be able to buy an Accord that gets a third better gas mileage than the standard V6 model. Next April, Lexus will introduce an even more upscale hybrid SUV.

The new Accord poses a challenge to America's hybrid buyers: Will they stick with the popular Toyota Prius, which limits emissions and boosts mileage as much as possible, or will they give up some efficiency and opt for the more luxurious Accord?

In surveys, Americans almost always say they would like a car with better gas mileage as long as they don't have to give up any other features.

That's exactly the role the Accord hybrid hopes to fill.

Like most hybrids, Honda's Integrated Motor Assist system shuts off the Accord's gasoline engine at stoplights. It restarts once the brake pedal is released. Honda also introduces "variable cylinder management" technology, which shuts off half the engine's cylinders when they're not needed. That saves fuel on the highway, where cars need little power most of the time to maintain speed.

It all adds up to 30 miles per gallon around town and 37 on the highway - this from a comfortable mid-size sedan - compared with EPA ratings of 21 city and 30 highway for the standard V6 model.

What Honda's Accord and compact Insight hybrids can't do is drive on electric power alone as the Toyota Prius and Ford Escape hybrids do.

Engineers see value in hybrids that can run solely in either gas or electric mode. In theory, hybrids provide the greatest benefit by accelerating solely on electric power and using the gasoline engine for range. Electric motors provide consistent power efficiency, but run through slow-charging, expensive, and heavy batteries quickly. Conversely gasoline engines are large and inefficient when accelerating, but operate more efficiently once up to speed. That's why the Prius and Escape hybrids achieve better fuel economy in the city than on the highway.

Yet Honda argues its hybrid system is cheaper to build and can save as much fuel as a Prius on the highway, where 95 percent of America's driving is done. As a result, Honda hybrids benefit those with longer commutes where traffic keeps rolling.

So how does it drive?

Having the engine start and stop at traffic lights takes some getting used to, but once on the highway, the Accord hybrid dashes effortlessly to 75 miles per hour with plenty of power for passing. (It has 15 more horsepower than the standard V6.) The steering has Honda's typical razor precision. The ride is cushy but well controlled.

A green light on the dashboard labeled "ECO," turns on when the car is getting 25 miles per gallon or more. That usually indicates three-cylinder operation, says Honda spokesman Chris Naughton.

Since three-cylinder engines are inherently rough, Honda installed an electronic noise- cancellation system in the cabin. Because this system cannot be turned off, it's impossible to know how effective it is. But the car is as whisper-quiet in ECO-mode as it is the rest of the time.

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