Honda has been dithering about with hybrids since at least the ugly ducking Insight – a two-door masterpiece of function over form – that went on sale in North America in 1999. That Insight’s fuel efficiency was brilliant (4.4 litres/100 km) but the car itself was a visual catastrophe, one further burdened by a cheap interior, a primitive manual gearbox and the driving manners of high school science experiment.

Since then, Honda’s hybrid story has been something of a stop-start-stop-try-again-what-are-we-doing travesty. Not that any of Honda’s various hybrid forays have been terrible; it’s just that none have been brilliant, either.

Honda’s problem has been a lack of commitment to a formal hybrid strategy, along the lines of Toyota, its larger Japanese rival. Toyota has based its entire electrification plan on gasoline-electric powertrains. What started with the Toyota Prius as long ago as 1997 (first sold in Canada in 1999) has spawned millions and millions in hybrid sales worldwide. Even now, Toyota is being dragged kicking and screaming into the pure battery electric car world, finally conceding that hybrids aren’t enough of a bridge to hydrogen fuel cell cars.

Honda, a mid-sized auto company by global standards, has always a small-engine company with a chip on its shoulder and contrarian sensibilities. Honda has never really seemed committed to electrified vehicles of any sort, other than, perhaps, a passing interest in hydrogen fuel cells. I think Honda has long though battery cars were a fad and not worth much serious bother.

This has become a big problem for Honda, now that the world is becoming electrified. Therefore, last year Honda and General Motors announced an agreement on EVs and other “green” vehicle technologies that appears to allow Honda to piggy-back on GM’s previously announced US$20 billion plan for EV and autonomous vehicle development through 2025.

GM plans to launch 20 EVs globally by 2023 and says Cadillac, its lead EV brand, will have a fully electric lineup within the decade. With Honda on board in the alliance led by GM, some of the larger American company’s EV investment will be offset by Honda’s participation. Seems to me, Honda has realized that it’s way behind in the race to electrify the automobile, and has therefore hitched a ride with GM. Something of a win-win.

Honda, of course, will tell you that in the last 20 yeas, its engineers have been “perfecting” the hybrid powertrain. There was the Honda Civic Hybrid (2001 to 2015); the original Honda Accord Hybrid (2005 to 2007); and the Honda CR-Z (2010 to 2016). None set the world on fire. All of them used a different version of Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system, rather than reflect the kind of wholesale hybrid engineering commitment we’ve seen at Toyota.

In fact, Honda’s solution is elegant in its simplicity: an electric motor is mounted between the internal combustion engine (ICE) and the transmission to provide oomph and improve fuel economy. This is nowhere near as sophisticated a solution as Toyota’s Prius-based hybrid technology, though. Honda has spent little time and energy, or even creativity, in promoting its hybrids, which is one reason why Toyota has sold more than five times as many hybrids over the past two decades.

The latest 2021 Accord Hybrid I’ve been testing perfectly illustrates Honda’s modest commitment to hybrids. This version of the Accord Hybrid was launched in 2018 and while there are no significant technological improvements for 2021, a mid-cycle refresh brings us some visual updates – a revised grille, more effective LED headlamps and some other odds and sods.

Despite the design updates, this Accord Hybrid looks very much like the 2018 car. The cabin is nice, even roomy, too. The touchscreen interface for infotainment and such is functional, but the screen itself is small compared to the best of what’s out there now. The software responses are much quicker than in many Honda’s I’ve driven lately.

The seats are fine, not brilliant. There is a trunk, but it’s not overly roomy. The ride quality is fine, but not particularly sophisticated or luxurious or sporty. There is good headroom, clear instrumentation, lots of storage and a nice, fat steering wheel with mounted controls for the sound system and cruise control.

So, it’s an efficient package.

For power, we have a 2.0-litre four-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine and an electric motor which combined deliver 212 horsepower. Power goes to the front wheels via a CVT or continuously variable transmission. The get-up-and-go is fine, but if you push hard, everything gets very noisy and buzzy, as if the powertrain is being taxed for all its worth. Fuel economy combined is 5.1 litres/100 km, which you will notice is not as good as a 20-year-old Insight.

All in all, this is handsome enough offering and not a terribly expensive one, with a starting price of $36,830. The 2021 Accord Hybrid should prove itself reliable and cost-effective for a decade or two.

The challenge for Honda, it seems to me, is to create a compelling case for customers. Why buy this Accord Hybrid over, say, Toyota’s Camry Hybrid, which starts at just under $31,000 and is part of a fleet of Toyota-branded hybrids numbering at least nine, not to mention all the Lexus hybrids?

The Accord Hybrid seems like a case of good is not good enough in the face of the competition and because of a lack of commitment from Honda.

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