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Honda Needs an Electric Minivan to Fight the Tesla Model X

Stocks in this article: HMC TSLA F TM GM

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Honda (HMC) made the first gasoline-electric hybrid car for the U.S. market with the Insight, over a decade ago, before the Toyota (TM) Prius overtook the segment. It has now delivered its first plug-in electric hybrid sedan, with a version of the Accord, starting at $40,000 before tax incentives.

Does Tesla (TSLA) have to worry?

I spent a week and 250 miles in the car, and I'm sad to say the Honda plug-in sedan falls short compared to the critical competitors. But let's first describe what the car really is.

Most people are familiar with the regular Honda Accord. A mid-size sedan best-seller for decades, the latest iteration has grown and is larger than ever. Getting in and out is easy thanks to large doors. It's the new "large American car for large, corn-fed Americans" which I like and appreciate.

In general, the passenger interior is spacious, except for rear-seat headroom, which is a shade less than passable. In this plug-in electric hybrid version, close to half of the luggage space is lost, which is catastrophic. It is likely a deal-killer for many people. This also means the rear seat doesn't fold.

The Accord plug-in hybrid has a new kind of electric motor and transmission, which is almost similar to what is in General Motors' (GM) Chevrolet Volt and Cadillac ELR, except it's not nearly as powerful, of course. It's too complex to describe here but suffice it to say that it functions differently from the "power-split" combiners used by Ford (F), Toyota and potentially others.

What does that mean in practice, and how does the Accord plug-in hybrid drive as a result? The first thing you will notice as you pull away is how light the car feels. The car is a predictable 3,800 lbs but feels about half. Why?

It is obviously mostly an illusion, but the illusion is a combination of three things: 1. The steering is extremely light. Blow some air onto the steering wheel, and it moves. 2. The pedals, notably the accelerator, has minimal resistance. 3. The gasoline engine revs very easily.

Gasoline engine? Isn't this mostly an electric car? Um, not really. The battery will only take you an average of 13 miles, according to the EPA rating. That was consistent with my testing, but keep in mind that if you apply more than, say, 25% or so of the power -- the gasoline engine comes on.

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