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Behind in Hybrid Car Race, Honda Adds Horsepower

It unveils a gas-electric Accord model, which is more powerful than the conventional version.

September 17, 2004|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

In the race to win over Americans with gas-stingy, hybrid-powered cars, Toyota Motor Corp. has sped past Honda Motor Co.

Toyota's futuristic-looking gas-and-electric-powered hybrid Prius is outselling Honda's Civic Hybrid by almost 2 to 1 in the U.S. this year.

To try to catch up, Honda this week in San Diego unveiled its biggest hybrid yet: a 2005 Accord Hybrid sedan that will reach dealers' showrooms Dec. 3.

Honda promises that the Accord Hybrid, with 255 horsepower, will perform better than its top-of-the-line, 240-horsepower, six-cylinder, gas-powered Accord.

As the first hybrid with a six-cylinder engine, the company says, it will accelerate from a stop to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds, besting the regular Accord's eight-second time. What's more, Honda's tests show the Accord Hybrid will get 30 miles per gallon in the city and 37 mpg on the highway, versus the federal EPA rating of 21 mpg city and 30 highway for the conventional model. With an expected price of $30,000, the Accord Hybrid will cost about $3,300 more than the current EX model on which it is based.

Honda sells almost 400,000 Accords annually in the U.S. and plans to ship about 20,000 hybrids to its U.S. dealers in the next year.

"We'll have to wait and see how demand shakes down, but we think our strategy of making hybrids just another choice in a model line is the right one," said Robert Bienenfeld, senior manager of product planning at Torrance-based American Honda Motor Corp.

Unlike Toyota, Honda's game plan since its Insight hybrid has been to offer hybrid power as an option in current models, rather than design a vehicle from scratch.

Indeed, all the hybrids from rival automakers scheduled for the U.S. over the next few years will be extensions of existing vehicles rather than new ones. This includes Ford Motor Co.'s Escape hybrid SUV and the next two hybrids from Toyota, which will be gas-electric versions of the Lexus RX and Toyota Highlander SUVs.

"The Prius has created a rebirth of interest in the hybrid powertrain, so now it doesn't matter that hybrids will look no different from other cars," said Wes Brown, an auto industry analyst with Iceology, a Los Angeles market research firm.

From the outside, the Accord Hybrid resembles its gas-powered cousins. Differences include a "hybrid" badge, smoky gray metal bars in the grille -- standard Accords have bright chrome -- and a small spoiler on the trunk for improved aerodynamics. The hybrid also comes with leather upholstery, traction control, an anti-lock braking system, front and side curtain air bags and XM Satellite Radio reception.

To eliminate some of the extra weight from the hybrid system and boost performance and fuel economy, the Accord Hybrid doesn't have a spare tire; there's a can of tire sealant and inflator instead. And the batteries necessary to run the hybrid's electric motor cut trunk space by 19%.

On a recent preview drive, the Accord Hybrid easily out-accelerated a standard V-6 Accord sedan and handled just as well as one on narrow, twisting roads. The hybrid rides on slightly wider tires than the standard Accord, to better handle its extra weight.

One difference between the Japanese rivals is that Honda's hybrid system doesn't permit the Accord to run in an all-electric mode at low speeds, as does Toyota's. But Honda does have a fuel-saving "stop-idle" function to shut off its gas engine when the car stops at a signal.

The hybrid rivalry between the two companies has been intense since 1999, when Toyota introduced the first hybrid in Japan. Then Honda was first in the U.S. with the December 1999 introduction of its two-seater Insight.

Although the rocket-shaped Insight hybrid coupe drew stares, it had limited market appeal because of its small size. Toyota followed in 2000 with the first-generation Prius, and Honda countered in 2002 with a hybrid version of the Civic.

"We might be doing better right now if Honda had made a different-looking car," said auto dealer David Conant, whose Norm Reeves Honda in Cerritos is the world's largest Honda dealership. Conant also owns a Toyota dealership and says Toyota has done a better job than Honda of promoting its hybrid.

In part that's because Toyota -- the most profitable carmaker in the world -- has huge advertising budgets. Adweek magazine estimated that Toyota spent $40 million in the U.S. last year on Prius ads, while Honda spent $7 million on the Civic hybrid.

Prius sales took off with a redesign this year, and Toyota sold 31,406 hybrids through August, almost three times as many as in the first eight months of 2003. By comparison, Honda sold 17,805 Civic Hybrids through August, up just 16% from a year earlier.

Still, Conant said he was happy with Civic Hybrid sales and glad the rest of the industry was following Honda by adding mainstream hybrid models.

"It will help build a much wider appeal," he said. "And as a Honda dealer, with the Accord Hybrid coming, I couldn't be happier."

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