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First Drive: 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid

Tipping the Scales at 50 mpg.

by on Oct.18, 2013

After a short absence, the Honda Accord Hybrid is back for the 2014 model-year - with an all-new drivetrain.

While Toyota and its Prius hatchback have dominated the hybrid market in recent years there was a time when the Japanese giant was locked in battle with its Asian rival, Honda.  But the smaller maker’s original alternative, the quirky 2-seat Insight, as well as latter models, failed to generate near the following, in part due to shortfalls with the original Integrated Motor Assist, or IMA, hybrid drivetrain.

A dozen years after it got into the battery-electric market, Honda is making another big push, this time with a trio of alternative hybrid systems, including the lower-priced, single-motor technology introduced on the latest Civic. A high-performance, three-motor hybrid package will soon be introduced for Acura models including the MDX, RDX and reborn NSX supercar.  But perhaps the most promising system – at least on a mass-market scale, is the two-motor hybrid debuting on the 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid.

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We could probably sum up the biggest part of its appeal in four words, “50 miles per gallon.” That’s a hard number to argue with and comes within a hairsbreadth of the 54.5 mpg Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard that the Obama Administration has put in place for 2025.  But there are other reasons to be impressed with the new Accord Hybrid.  Unlike so many other mainstream gas-electric offerings it actually delivers a reasonable amount of performance. Add a well-appointed interior and Honda has a package that should appeal to those who want more than just a mileage miser.


Honda to Add New Accord Hybrid for 2014

New, two-motor lithium-drive system delivers up to 49 mpg.

by on Jun.20, 2013

The 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid will adopt an all-new gas-electric drivetrain.

Honda will launch a new version of the Accord Hybrid this coming October featuring an all-new two-motor drivetrain that should deliver up to 49 miles per gallon in the city, the maker claims.

The 2014 Honda Accord will be one in a wave of new hybrids utilizing the Japanese maker’s new Earth Dreams technology which features three distinctly different gas-electric drivetrains tuned to specific driving applications.  Honda hopes the approach will expand its presence in the high-mileage market and help it challenge rival Toyota’s long-standing leadership in the hybrid segment.

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The basic look of the 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid will be familiar to those who already know the look of the sedan as redesigned last year. Features distinct to the gas-electric model will include a blue-accented grille and light lenses, LED daytime running lights, unique wheels, a decklid spoiler and hybrid badging.


First Drive: 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

Prius beware.

by on Nov.07, 2012

The 2013 VW Jetta introduces the line's fifth powertrain option.

If there isn’t an award for California Car of the Year, someone should invent it.  And we’re ready to bet the new 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid would be not only in the running but at the head of the pack.  It comes close to being the perfect car for Golden State motorists. Stylish, efficient and fun to drive this 45 mpg hybrid is one destined to give the Toyota Prius – currently Calfornia’s most popular car — a run for its money.

Starting price for Jetta Hybrid is $24,995 – even when loaded with a surprising range of features, such as Bluetooth and dual-zone climate control – the VW Jetta Hybrid has plenty going for it beyond mileage.  That includes surprisingly brisk acceleration, sporty handling, plenty of room in the cabin and the trunk, and more.

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The Hybrid becomes the fifth powertrain in the U.S. Jetta line-up. But beyond its badging, it retains the sleek, upscale, and timeless styling present in the rest of the model line. While the most obvious differences are the blue-highlighted VW emblem and unique wheels and front grille, the Jetta Hybrid adds a number of key features that help maximize aerodynamic efficiency and minimize road resistance.


First Drive: 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid

Finally, a real challenger to Prius?

by on Aug.28, 2012

Ford hopes the distinctively designed C-Max Hybrid can challenge the dominance of the Toyota Prius.

Toyota has ruled the hybrid segment since the original Prius rolled onto the U.S. market a dozen years ago — and up until now Ford Motor Co. has trailed a distant second with its well-regarded Escape Hybrid.

But Ford is changing gears, having retired the gas-electric version of the Escape in favor of a new version of the updated crossover now powered by the maker’s well-received EcoBoost drivetrain. That doesn’t mean Ford is walking away from the battery-car market.  Far from it.  If anything, it is rolling out an assortment of hybrids and even more advanced vehicles that, it hopes, will gives the Detroit maker a chance to challenge Toyota’s perceived leadership in green automotive technology.

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Key to Ford’s bid to reduce Toyota’s dominance is the 2013 C-MAX hybrid, which comes with a five-door body style popular in Europe — and a completely new hybrid powertrain under the hood.  The C-Max is being positioned as a direct challenge to Prius and will be Ford’s first model line offered only with hybrid or plug-in hybrid power.


Sales Strong, Toyota Ramping Up Prius C Production

Maker moves 1,200 of the new hybrids in first 5 days.

by on Mar.21, 2012

Buoyed by near-record fuel prices, the new Toyota Prius C is exceeding initial sales expectations.

Toyota’s new Prius C is proving to be the little hybrid that could – and that’s leading the automaker to ramp up production of the newest member of its Prius “family.”

The C is a compact gas-electric model that went on sale earlier this month, joining the original Prius hatchback and the larger Prius V introduced last year – with a plug-in version of the original Prius to follow later this year.

With a base price of $19,710, the Prius C is the least-expensive full hybrid on the market and the only compact to share the familiar Prius badge.  That’s significant in a market that has – despite near-record fuel prices – so far been reluctant to embrace hybrids, the technology last year accounting for less than 3% of total U.S. new vehicle sales, but the Prius badge emblazoned on one of every two hybrids purchased in the country.

(Click Here for our Toyota Prius C  review.)

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The timing of the Prius C launch could not have been better, analysts say, and the new model generated 1,200 sales in just its first five days on the market – albeit many of those customers had placed orders some time back and were simply waiting for delivery.  While it remains to be seen if the momentum will be maintained, Toyota appears to be quite optimistic.


First Drive: Toyota Prius C

Compact, cheap, but will it connect?

by on Feb.17, 2012

Is that C as in "compact," "cheap," or both?

A recent survey found that the overwhelming majority of Millennial motorists would like to buy a hybrid.  The numbers aren’t all that much lower for Gen-X and Baby Boomers, either.  Yet desire doesn’t translate into action when it comes to the marketplace, it seems, where hybrids continue to commend barely 2% of the overall U.S. market.

The good news for Toyota is that its familiar Prius remains the nation’s best-selling hybrid, accounting for roughly half of all gas-electric vehicle sales in 2011.  So, it’s probably no surprise the maker would want to take advantage of the Prius name, Toyota in the midst of rolling out an entire family of hybrids sharing that popular badge.

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The first of those new entries, the bigger Prius V, hit market last year. Now comes the Prius C.  Compact? Yep.   Cheap?  True again, at least if you opt for the basic Prius C One.  So, will buyers connect with the smallest member of the growing family? That’s what we hoped to find out during our first chance to drive the 2012 Prius C around the environmentally friendly San Diego suburbs.

A close-up look at the Toyota Prius C powertrain.

The original Prius is nearly ubiquitous in Southern California, whether buyers there are truly hoping to save money while nurturing the planet or simply looking to show off their green bona fides.  While many of the more affluent members of the community can readily afford the premium for the original Prius, the maker is hoping to draw in plenty of additional customers – like the students at the University of California San Diego – with a price tag that starts at barely $19,000.

But there’s a big asterisk attached to that lowball entry point, one that leads us to offer a warning that the sticker you may actually see — once you add on some basic necessities and niceties like seat heaters – could run significantly higher than what Toyota will be promoting.

Like the other members of the Prius family, the C has an easily accessible hatchback.

The Prius C, despite Toyota’s claims to the contrary, is effectively a subcompact Yaris with a battery pack.  And a much smaller one than what you’ll find in the larger Prius hatchback and V models.  It weighs just 67 pounds and packs in a modest 0.87 kilowatt-hours of energy.  The entire Hybrid Synergy Drive system readily packages out of sight, and with those batteries tucked under the back seat there is surprisingly little compromise to cargo and passenger space.  The compromises come in the drive experience.

With an equally pint-sized 1.5-liter gasoline engine – which uses the efficient if anemic Atkinson Cycle – mated to the Hybrid Synergy Drive’s electric motor, the Prius C makes a modest 99 horsepower.  That’s routed through the front wheels through a gearbox that effectively operates like a CVT.

With just 99 hp, this isn't the sportiest subcompact.

So, expect to have the usual issues associated with a continuously variable transmission, notably that rubber band feeling as the engine revs up while the vehicle struggles to catch up.  And it will take a while to do so.  With a 0 to 60 time officially rated at around 11.5 seconds despite its relatively modest weight, the Prius C isn’t exactly a sports car, despite Toyota’s plan to pitch it as a sporty, affordable alternative.

As with the other Prius-badged models, the Prius C is capable of operating on battery power alone, we were told during an extensive background presentation, although the limited battery size means you won’t be able to get very far.  Or very fast.  Ostensibly, the top speed in EV mode is 26 mph.  Even with the battery fully charged we never came close.  And tipping in the throttle even slightly led to the gasoline engine immediately firing up and taking over.

The Prius C features built-in apps that give a driver a game-look way of improving their mileage.The original Prius C concept.

We didn’t get much opportunity to test out the handling of the new Prius C, never extending our drive as far as the challenging mountain passes to the east of San Diego.  But even the less challenging hill country nearer by made for a clear comparison to similarly sized products.  Like most entries in its segment, the Prius C features a MacPherson strut front suspension and torsion bar rear. But it simply doesn’t nudge into the fun-to-drive category like the new Chevrolet Sonic or the Nissan Versa.

Not unless your idea of fun is watching the creative applications Toyota has embedded into the vehicle showing you when you’re driving at peak efficiency and revealing just how much fuel and CO2 gases you’ve saved.  If fuel economy is your metric, here the Toyota Prius C scores big, at 53 mpg on the highway and 50 combined – which is the closest number to what you can expect in the real world.

That’s about 3 mpg more than the original Prius, which is actually a little bit less of a bump-up than we might expect, but for the money, it would seem a good deal.

Of course, size isn’t the only thing you’ll give up for that $19,000 price tag for the Toyota Prius C One.  This is not the classic “stripper.”  There’s a radio, air conditioning and power windows, among other features.  But what surprised us was what was not only offered as stock equipment but not even available as an option.  You have to go all the way up to the Prius C Four, the $23,990 top-line model, to get fog lights and seat heaters.

You can get the high-tech EnForm infotainment system and navigation in a lower-level model at $22,395.

We expect the lack of seat heaters,  even in option form, will prove a serious disconnect with buyers in climates colder than San Diego.  And it appears Toyota planners are rethinking that off decision, but an update likely wouldn’t be made until sometime in 2013, we were told.

Too bad.  While the 2012 Toyota Prius C is not our favorite driver’s car, it features a reasonably well-outfitted interior and simply amazing fuel economy.  It is likely to extend the appeal of the Prius nameplate, just as Toyota planned, as long as buyers don’t mind some genuinely strange omissions, like those seat heaters.

Revisiting the Honda Civic Hybrid

Beauty is in the eyes – and pocketbook – of the beholder.

by on Dec.12, 2011

The 2012 Civic Hybrid continues to use Honda's "mild" IMA hybrid system.

You can barely read the auto section of your local newspaper, never mind the enthusiast magazines, without getting immersed in the new world of “electrification.”  That is, of course, a fancy term for what most folks would call battery power.  And regular readers of know that I’ve been making it a point to look at some of the latest offerings to use batteries in their bid to go clean and green.

This time, however, I wanted to spend some time with a relatively conventional HEV model, rather than a pure “BEV” or “PHEV.”  And, oh yeah, in case you’ve forgotten, a PHEV is a plug-in hybrid, a BEV is battery-only which means it has to be pluggable, and HEV is hybrid gas+electric power.

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So, here is a closer look at my time behind the wheel of the latest-generation Honda Civic Hybrid.  My fellow auto scribes have been beating up on Honda’s newest Civic because they perceive the interior trim doesn’t meet their collective mob standards. Well, most of them have a lot more opportunity than I do to eyeball all the competitors in the 2011/12 market place, so I can’t really challenge them on their views.


Honda Bumps Up Mileage Hoping to Salvage Slow-Selling Insight Hybrid

Highway fuel economy now at 44 mpg – but is that enough?

by on Oct.17, 2011

Honda has updated the interior and exterior of the 2012 Insight - but the big selling point may be the hatchbacks improved mileage.

Honda is hoping to pump some life into its slow-selling Insight hybrid for 2012 by adding more features, giving it a more high-tech appearance – and bumping up its mileage.

There’s no question the Insight needs some help.  Sales have lagged significantly below expectations for a vehicle Honda had once hoped might pose a real challenge to the gas-electric segment’s king-of-the-hill the Toyota Prius.

The question is whether the newly-updated 2012 Honda Insight – with its revised styling and 44 mpg highway rating – can lure buyers in at a time when fuel prices have retreated and conventionally powered products, such as the comparably sized Hyundai Accent, are also delivering highway numbers in excess of 40 mpg.

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Changes to the 2012 Honda Insight’s exterior include a more distinctive grille with a thin, blue accent bar to underscore its identity as one of the maker’s hybrid models.  The ’12 also features restyled front and rear bumpers and updated head and taillamps, as well as restyled wheels. Meanwhile, changes meant to improve airflow under the vehicle yield a 2% improvement in overall aerodynamics.


Buick’s eAssist Delivers With Big Mileage Gains

Small car fuel economy, big car roominess.

by on Jul.21, 2011

Buick makes the eAssist system standard on the 2012 LaCrosse sedan.

There are plenty of small cars on the market now nudging into 40 mpg territory, but for those who want great mileage, the sacrifice is usually in the form of roominess and comfort.  Buick, with the debut of the new eAssist system – standard on the 2012 LaCrosse – aims to let buyers have their automotive cake and eat it, too.

The 2012 Buick LaCrosse with the now-standard eAssist system also demonstrates that smaller, hybridized powertrains can actually deliver a peppy, even more aggressive ride than the V-6s and V-8s Americans are used to.

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Using a variety of technology and exterior enhancements, the 2.4-liter, Ecotec 4-cylinder engine on the 2012 Buick LaCrosse with e-Assist gets an estimated 36 miles per galon on the highway and 25 mpg in the city.  That represents a 20% improvement in highway mileage and a 32% boost in city mileage over the V-6 package of prior years.

How does it get there?


First Drive: 2012 Buick LaCrosse eAssist

Getting a (battery) boost.

by on Jul.01, 2011

Buick makes the eAssist system standard on the 2012 LaCrosse sedan.

We’ve come to think of hybrids as an expensive option – requiring a buyer to pay an often stiff premium in exchange for higher mileage.  But Buick has something different in mind.

Starting in August, the General Motors division will offer its LaCrosse sedan in two new ways, with an improved 3.6-lirer V-6 engine that adds 26 more horsepower, or with a 2.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine with its new eAssist mild hybrid system, which will be standard equipment, not an option.

Buick says the combination of the gasoline engine and the power booster will improve fuel mileage to an EPA 25 city, 36 highway, best in class, without the cost, weight and complexity of a full hybrid system.

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The eAssist system is a combination of a 32-cell lithium-ion battery pack, a motor/generator unit, the control electronics, and a clever belt-drive system that adds torque directly to the engine’s crankshaft.  It’s an on-demand system designed to be used for startup acceleration, long uphill grades, and freeway on-ramps, adding about 15 horsepower to the engine’s 182 horsepower and 172 foot-pounds of torque.