When Toyota Motor Corp. introduced the first Prius gas/electric hybrid in the U.S. in July 2000, Ward’s 10 Best Engines judges argued whether to include it among the year’s winners.

No doubt the technology was relevant, but its performance did not stand up to conventional gasoline engines or the diesel vehicles being evaluated.

Most importantly, it did not attain the promised gas mileage, albeit still achieving 40-plus mpg (5.8 L/100 km). After lively debate, we honored the Prius: Its significance to the industry could not be denied.

This year, the Ward’s judges again found themselves arguing about hybrids. This time, the discussion was not whether to include a hybrid, but how many to leave out. The contestants were somewhat disparate – the much-improved second-generation Prius, the new ’05 4-cyl. Ford Escape Hybrid SUV and Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s ’05 6-cyl. Accord Hybrid sedan.

Judge McClellan had an emergency appendectomy in November, but it did not disrupt her Best Engines duties.

While the second-generation Prius is an improvement, it still cannot attain promised gas mileage. None of the judges achieved better than 43 mpg (5.4L/100 km). And although the Escape Hybrid is an important step toward fuel-efficient SUVs, Ford licensed some of the technology from Toyota’s first-generation hybrid, and it shows.

The vehicle is under powered and, like the Prius, constantly reminds that it is a hybrid, especially when attempting to accelerate after a dead stop, when the engine has shut off. The purported mileage – up to 40 mpg – only is attainable in city driving, certainly not in highway commutes. Ford can and should do better.

The ’05 Accord Hybrid, on the other hand, clearly is Honda’s best effort yet, combining an abundance of torque and horsepower with a nearly seamless hybrid system. The car produces smooth, sporty performance, while its competitors suffer from an excessive push-pull sensation as the engine and electric motor cut in and out.

Honda puts fun back into the equation, as well as refinement, power and most of all familiarity. Unlike the Prius, the driver is not confronted with an exotic instrument panel and start-engine procedure. Just hop in and drive.

Honda’s 3L SOHC V-6, mated to an electric motor, serves up 255 hp vs. the gasoline V-6 at 240 hp. And it is the first hybrid to include cylinder-deactivation technology that shuts down half the engine’s cylinders under light load to save even more fuel.

Although Honda says the Accord Hybrid achieves real-world fuel economy of 30/37 mpg (7.8 L to 6.3 L/100 km), compared with the conventional Accord V-6’s 21/31 mpg (11 L to 7.5 L/100 km), some Ward’s judges argued the difference is not worth the additional $3,400.

I say the Accord Hybrid is a car people will buy and enjoy. It is what hybrids should be about, and it sets the benchmark for the next generation.