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Honda hits 50—mpg, that is—on new Accord Hybrid

2014 Honda Accord Hybrid
Source: Honda
2014 Honda Accord Hybrid

In the battle for bragging rights in the high-mileage category, Honda has landed a solid blow against the competition, with its 2014 Accord Hybrid delivering an EPA-certified rating of 50 mpg in city driving.

That's a full three miles per gallon better than the previous king-of-the-fuel-economy-hill, the 47 mpg Ford Fusion Hybrid. The Toyota Camry Hybrid comes in at 43 and the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid at 40.

But to put Honda's achievement in another perspective, the 2014 Accord Hybrid gets about 10 percent better fuel economy around town than the original Toyota Prius, a dedicated gas-electric model that used all sorts of tricks, including a super-aerodynamic, ultralight body to maximize mileage.

As with other hybrids, Honda's latest is likely to appeal most to motorists doing a lot of stop-and-go driving, where its batteries routinely get recharged to boost fuel efficiency. Gas-electric vehicles tend to be less effective on the open road because the batteries don't get recharged as often, and that's reflected in the fact that the 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid gets "only" 45 mpg on the highway, with the EPA giving it a 47 mpg combined rating.

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The closest competitor in the midsize sedan segment is the Ford Fusion, which also delivers a 47 mpg combined rating and 47 on the highway, for a distinctive 47/47/47 rating. The classic Toyota Prius hatchback still leads the pack at 51 city, 48 highway and 50 combined, while the Camry Hybrid is rated 43/39/41.

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"Even before it hits showrooms this fall, the Accord Hybrid is already surpassing the competition and claiming segment leadership," said Mike Accavitti, senior vice president of auto operations at American Honda. "For customers looking for a 50 mpg-rated four-door sedan, there is no other choice than the 2014 Accord Hybrid."

Honda completely redesigned the Accord last year but waited for the 2014-model year before launching the updated hybrid as it finished developing a trio of new gas-electric drivetrains. Replacing the original integrated motor assist system, the 2014 Accord Hybrid adopts a two-motor electric drivetrain that is paired with 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-four-cylinder gas engine. Honda calls it the Sport Hybrid Intelligent Multi Mode Drive.

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(The maker also has a new lower-cost, single-motor system for the Civic and other entry-level models. And it is developing a three-motor hybrid that will provide an electrified version of its older, gas-powered Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive drivetrain. Look for that system in hybrid versions of the Acura MDX crossover and RLX sedan, as well as the luxury division's reborn NSX supercar.)

Notably, Honda migrated from time-tested nickel-metal hydride batteries to lighter, smaller and more powerful lithium ion chemistry with the 2014 Accord Hybrid. A number of manufacturers are following that path. Toyota continues to stick with NMH batteries on its conventional hybrids, citing their reliability and lower cost.

While Honda's latest hybrid largely maintains the same body as the conventional Accord, a few visual cues alert friends and passersby you've gone green—including the hybrid's unique badging, LED daytime running lamps, blue-accented grill and headlight lenses, as well as functional tweaks to improve aerodynamics, such as the rear spoiler and more efficient wheel design.

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What sort of difference will the 50 mpg rating actual mean for the typical consumer? In fact, city mileage for hybrids—and highway numbers for conventional vehicles—is more about bragging rights. Unless you spend all your time in traffic, the combined number is what really matters. And for the typical American motorist clocking 15,000 miles a year, that means the new Accord Hybrid would suck down about 319 gallons of fuel.

With its 30 mpg rating, the regular Accord would need 500 gallons. So, with $4 a gallon gas, the hybrid would yield savings of about $724 annually.

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Motorists should use that number to calculate whether the added fuel efficiency justifies a hybrid's typically higher cost. Honda has not yet announced pricing, but gas-electric models generally carry a premium that can run $2,000 to over $5,000. The base car is $21,995 before shipping and handling charges, and the maker offers a more advanced plug-in hybrid starting at $39,780.

By CNBC Contributor Paul A. Eisenstein. Follow him on Twitter @DetroitBureau or at thedetroitbureau.com.

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