Honda Accord and Toyota Camry: Hybrids for Ozzie and Harriet.
Jim Motavalli - NY Times - Automobiles - April 2, 2006
RELIABLE, practical and popular, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry are as mainstream as white bread and as exciting as mom's meatloaf. But hybrid technology has transformed versions of these family cars from conservative appliances into cutting-edge green machines.
Having redesigned the Camry for 2007, Toyota joins Honda in offering a midsize sedan with a hybrid gas-electric powertrain. Honda, meanwhile, has freshened and mildly restyled its Accords, including the hybrid.
While both cars wear hybrid labels, Toyota's approach is markedly different.
The Accord was the first hybrid built around a V-6 gasoline engine, and it has emphasized performance over economy - as have the Toyota Highlander Hybrid and Lexus RX 400h that came later, also with V-6's. But in the Camry Hybrid, Toyota uses a four-cylinder engine, which it paired with an electric motor more powerful than Honda's. The Camry can be expected to attain significantly higher mileage, especially in city traffic.
The Accord Hybrid arrived in late 2004. While it carried a fuel economy rating of 29 m.p.g. in town and 37 on the highway - respectable but hardly breathtaking - it was also quicker than the conventional Accord with a V-6. The hybrid's 3-liter engine produced 240 horsepower, plus 16 from the electric motor. (The horsepower figure has since been revised to a total of 253 because of a shift in how the number is calculated.) Half of the cylinders shut down when power demand is low (below 3,500 rpm), turning the 6 into a 3.
At a price of $29,990, the original Accord Hybrid cost some $3,500 more than the similarly equipped EX V-6 model. It lacked both a spare tire - there was an air compressor and a can of sealant instead - and a sunroof, both sacrificed to save weight. While Honda expected to sell 20,000 a year, cumulative 15-month sales through February totaled just 19,021.
For 2006, the improved Accord Hybrid added the moonroof and a temporary spare - and gained 85 pounds. That pushed the car into a higher weight class for E.P.A. testing and reduced the mileage rating to 25/34. In the real world, an owner is unlikely to notice the drop, since new underbody panels make the car more aerodynamic.
Other additions include a standard electronic stability control, L.E.D. taillights, a rear spoiler, new alloy wheels and heated outside mirrors with built-in turn signals. The price is now $31,540 including shipping - or $33,540 with a navigation system.
The Accord Hybrid uses its small electric motor mostly for added boost, but the Camry actually runs on batteries alone at low speeds. Toyota's approach is different in other ways, too. Instead of a sizable V-6, it has a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine rated at 147 horsepower. But the Camry's electric motor contributes more than the Accord's.
The Camry reaches 60 m.p.h. in 8.9 seconds, a decent showing that nonetheless pales before the zippy Accord's 6.9 seconds.
Last week, Toyota announced that Camry Hybrid prices would start at $26,480, giving the car a $5,000 edge over the Accord.
The Accord comes loaded - a navigation system is one of the few options - and the Camry Hybrid is nearly as well equipped as the similarly priced top-of-the-line XLE, from its Bluetooth-compatible audio system (which includes a six-CD changer and can also play your MP3 files and dock your iPod) to its dual-zone climate control. The Accord throws in the sunroof and leather upholstery. The Camry counters with a split folding rear seat - a neat trick, considering how much of the trunk was sacrificed to accommodate the battery pack (30 percent, versus 18 percent in the Accord).
The Camry's economy edge is significant, with an E.P.A. rating of 40 m.p.g. in the city and 38 on the highway. According to the trip computer, my performance varied: I drove the Camry 269 mostly highway miles, achieving a "personal best" of 39.3 m.p.g. and an average of 31.7. By happenstance, I was the first journalist in the Northeast to drive both the Camry Hybrid and the freshened Accord Hybrid. The Accord test car came with only 125 miles on the odometer, and that may account for my poor indicated mileage: in 192 miles of mixed driving, I averaged 20.8 m.p.g. On a second tank of gas, it did much better, achieving 28 m.p.g.
While Honda's Integrated Motor Assist system emphasizes performance, Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive stresses economy. Yet on the road, the cars are not as different as those labels might indicate.
The Accord is moderately luxurious inside. A green "Eco" light indicates economy of 25 m.p.g. or more, usually a sign that three cylinders have shut down. The Honda's acceleration edge is obvious, and the extra power will bring out your inner Mario Andretti. The switch from six to three cylinders and back is nearly imperceptible; the slightly rougher engine note is, in fact, masked by the Accord's ingenious noise-canceling technology and "active" engine mounts, which anticipate and counter vibration.
The Honda's ride is stiffer, which should help it handle the extra power. Big bumps can jar its composure.
The Camry handles better than the Accord, with pin-sharp, well-weighted steering and a suspension that absorbs rough terrain without allowing much body lean. It also has slightly more rear leg and shoulder room.
While the Camry feels spacious, it is smaller in some measures of headroom, legroom and cargo volume than the less expensive Prius.
Both the Camry and Accord are emissions champs, scoring as AT-PZEV's ("advanced technology partial zero emission vehicles") under California's arcane rating system. The only cars that are cleaner are those that run on batteries alone.
Toyota also has an edge in styling with the fresher, sleeker look it shares with all '07 Camrys.
Toyota really wants you to know you're in a hybrid. A huge real-time fuel consumption gauge sits where you'd expect a tachometer to be. Set into the speedometer is a graphic display, carried over from the Prius, in which arrows show whether the car is running on its gas engine, its electric motor or both.
An "Eco" button uses several subterfuges, like limiting energy used by the air-conditioner, to enable greater use of the "auto stop" feature that shuts off the gas engine at stoplights.
The Camry that I drove was a preproduction car that came with a note stating that it might not meet factory standards. So my 9-year-old took it in stride when an inside door handle came off in her hands.
But even with parts falling off, the Camry won handily over the Accord, in my view. Still, both are good cars. Are they also good values when compared with conventional vehicles?
Consumer Reports dropped a bomb in its April auto issue by predicting that none of the six hybrids it tested would recover their price premiums within five years of ownership. The magazine did not test the Camry Hybrid, but said the Accord Hybrid would cost a whopping $10,250 more to own over five years than a comparable EX model, and the Prius would cost $5,250 more to own than a Corolla LE.
A few days after the magazine reached subscribers, however, the editors announced that they had overstated the hybrids' depreciation costs, and they revised the figures. Now, provided the Prius could qualify for federal tax credits, the magazine said it would actually save its owner $406 over five years. The Accord owner would still be in the hole, but for $4,263 instead of $10,250.