The 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid should surprise no one. Its look is something we've seen since the non-hybrid versions went on sale last year. Its powertrain, mostly, we are familiar with from the already-on-sale Accord Plug-In model. And the overall vibe of the car? Well, it's an Accord, which has been a strong seller in the US for three decades, so much so that there's a very good chance you've been in one at some point, whether you noticed or not.
Honda's first attempt at an Accord Hybrid, released in 2005, put dynamic performance first, but it didn't match the public's maturing perception of what a hybrid is all about: fuel economy. The 2005 version was capable of a measly 28 miles per gallon combined, 25 in the city and 33 on the highway. Remember those numbers, and that the first-generation Accord Hybrid lasted all of three model years before being axed.
Despite all that, the idea of an Accord Hybrid makes sense, especially in an era of tightening fuel economy regulations. After all, Honda sells around 350,000 Accords a year, and improving the fuel economy of your most mass market vehicle, even by a little, makes a big difference when you're concerned about the "A" in CAFE. While Honda won't say what percentage of Accord sales it expects the Hybrid to make up – "We'll sell as many as we can" was the refrain – the addition of the 50/45/47 (city/highway/combined) Hybrid version means Honda finally has a deep lineup of powertrains and trim levels for this ninth-generation Accord family, with prices that range from $21,955 for the base standard version to $39,780 for the Accord Plug-In.
An Accord Hybrid makes sense, especially in an era of tightening fuel economy regulations.
The Accord Hybrid starts roughly in the middle at $29,155, though doesn't in any way feel $10,000 cheaper than the Accord Plug-In, in part because its non-EV mileage figures are actually better than its more expensive brother (except for a 1-mpg win by the Accord Plug-In on the highway). The reason lies in the near-identical powertrains the two cars share.
So, let's start there, with the powertrain. It's a complicated mess to understand if you're not a Honda engineer (and maybe even then), but it's a complicated mess that works well. We got our first introduction when we drove the Accord Plug-In model a year ago. The engine and the two-motor setup are the same and, in fact, the powertrain differences are limited to battery size (6.7 kWh in the plug-in and 1.3 kWh in the hybrid) and software. That bigger battery pack means the Accord Plug-In offers more electric-only range, up to 13 miles. The maximum EV range of the Accord Hybrid depends on the battery level, but it will be a rare situation indeed when you get more than one combustion-free mile out of the car – after letting the regenerative brakes do their thing over a two-mile downhill, for example.
Along with the Accord Hybrid, the Civic Hybrid, CR-Z, and Acura ILX Hybrid all now use newer lithium-ion batteries.
Honda is using the same powertrain in both cars because the whole thing is part of a bigger mission to improve efficiency throughout the lineup, known as Earth Dreams. In its hybrid portfolio, Honda has mostly gotten rid of using the older nickel-metal hydride batteries. Along with the Accord Hybrid, the Civic Hybrid, CR-Z, and Acura ILX Hybrid all now use newer lithium-ion batteries. Only the forgotten Insight carries around the older NiMH technology. When it comes to Earth Dreams hybrids, the Japanese domestic market Fit Hybrid uses a one-motor system and some upcoming performance vehicles like the NSX will get a three-motor system. The two-motor setup, though, is all-new in the gas-electric Accords, and is accompanied by a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder DOHC i-VTEC Atkinson Cycle engine with a maximum output of 141 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 122 pound-feet of torque. The two motors, meanwhile, have a combined maximum output of 166 hp and 226 lb-ft.
The Honda Accord Hybrid is the first application of this two-motor system, but it will not be the last. Honda calls it Intelligent Multi-Mode Drive (i-MMD), and it is very different than the Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system used in other Honda hybrids we know in North America.
The key to the new powertrain is its "multi-mode" nature, which allows the Accord hybrids to move down the road using only their electric motors (powered either from the battery, called EV Drive, or from electricity generated from the on-board gasoline, called Hybrid Drive) or directly by the gasoline engine (called, unsurprisingly, Engine Drive) once you get above around 43 or 44 miles per hour. That doesn't mean the Accord Hybrid is being driven by the engine alone any time you're going 45 mph or more. It can go up to 70 mph on electricity running through the motors, but it's up to the software to decide when to draw power from where, depending on the demand for acceleration, battery state of charge and other factors. While there is an EV button that encourages as much electric distance as possible, there is no way for the driver to choose one drive setting over the other. The car simply picks whatever is best to maximize fuel efficiency.
The car simply picks whatever is best to maximize fuel efficiency.
Another complicating angle is the fact that there is no traditional transmission gearbox or even a torque converter involved. Instead, the two motors and a lock-up clutch act like an electric CVT (the kind both Toyota and Ford use in their hybrids) and, when the engine is powering the front wheels directly, like a fixed sixth gear. The benefit of all of this reduced complexity is fewer moving parts – and thus lighter weight and less friction – in a powertrain that can still deliver a maximum combined output of 196 hp along with an impressive 50 mpg in the city.
As you drive, which Honda invited us to do in the hills and highways around San Antonio, TX recently, all of that complicated shifting happens without so much as a "hi-how-are-you?" Lovely and instant electric torque is available when you get going, but instead of that great EV silence when you stomp on the gas, an engine whine that will sound familiar to Prius drivers filters its way into the cabin. When you're not demanding much acceleration (that is, most of the time in daily commuting), you won't notice the engine kicking in or turning off. We spent more time paying attention to the nicely weighted steering that kept us true on the highway but was responsive enough that we felt we could avoid any surprised that might dart out into the road.
If we couldn't swerve quickly enough, the brakes also felt rock solid, and Honda has done an excellent job blending the regenerative and traditional friction methods. The electric servo brake system was originally designed for the Fit EV, and the motor does all the braking up to a brake force of 0.2 G. If you go above that, and when you come to a full stop, the friction brakes kick in. The MacPherson struts in front and independent multilink suspension in back kept us stable and confidently in contact with the road at all times. The Accord Hybrid (3,550-pound curb weight) is 250 pounds lighter than the 3,799-pound Plug-In Hybrid (thanks, smaller battery) and about 350 pounds heavier than the lightest gas-powered Accord (3,192 pounds). Weight isn't everything when it comes to handling, but the middle-of-the-pack gas-electric does not massively alter the engaging driving dynamics compared to the other models.
Honda has done an excellent job blending the regenerative and traditional friction methods.
From the driver's seat, where we couldn't get the adjustable lumbar support to feel quite right, the first thing we noticed was the Honda's great visibility. The pillars don't get in the way too much no matter where you look. The outside edge of the left mirror is curved in a way that will be familiar to Europeans and shows off more of what's behind you, and even the base model features Honda's excellent LaneWatch camera that shows your right side blind spot in the dashboard display when you're turning or changing lines to the right (view it in action in our Short Cut video below). We liked it in the Accord Plug-In and we like it here.
There are other nice touches, like a cool 'floating' speedometer indicator (really, just a u-shaped part) that leaves room inside the ring of numbers for a display screen. The infotainment system in the base model we drove wasn't anything special, but served us just fine. We didn't like the way the system wasn't able to display our iPod album art for a few seconds at the beginning of each song, but this is a minor complaint. The most useful screen was the fuel economy readout, showing us a record of our current trip and recent ones to see if our driving was getting more efficient or less. On our 30-mile non-highway route when we didn't baby the vehicle, we got 38-39 mpg. A minor adjustment into very light coasting and gentle starts quickly pushed that figure up to 47, and other journalists who were trying to win Honda's efficiency challenge for the day managed to get the in-dash display to show over 80 mpg. Your mileage may vary, as always, but we preferred using air conditioning in the Texas heat. We're fancy like that.
Journalists who were trying to win Honda's efficiency challenge for the day managed to get the in-dash display to show over 80 mpg.
Standing in that heat while looking at the car, you notice the hybrid-specific touches, like exclusive 17-inch aero-style wheels, new LED-trimmed headlights and blue accents around the grille. Inside, the only difference is a gloss black steering wheel finish (instead of matte) and a different multi-information display to give out hybrid-specific details. Put it all together and you realize you don't have to give up anything, really, from the standard Accord, other than losing three cubic feet of cargo space to accommodate a larger battery. Oh, and rear folding seats, which is an unfortunate packaging reality from the company that has those clever Magic Seats in a car as small as the standard Fit.
Which brings us back to figuring out where the the Ohio-built Accord Hybrid fits. The 50-mpg number could catch the eye of Prius owners who are used to believing the only way to hit that number is in their gas-electric hatchback. What's significant about Honda's package is that it starts under $30,000. That doesn't make it the cheapest hybrid on the market, but for a car this size, achieving 50 mpg for $29,155 is impossible otherwise. There are some real contenders in the Accord Hybrid's segment – Toyota Camry Hybrid, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid – but none of them can claim that level of fuel economy. The Fusion comes closest, officially, but we all know the problems Ford has had with its EPA ratings. The rest are all around 10 mpg worse.
What's significant about Honda's package is that it starts under $30,000.
There are three trim lines for the Accord Hybrid. The base model we drove (Hybrid) comes standard with things like USB ports and an eight-inch screen, but does not have any navigation information to display there. You don't get that even in the mid-level EX-L trim ($31,905), where you do get heated front seats and two nice safety features (warnings for lane departure and forward collision). The top-of-the-line Touring trim ($34,905) not only adds nav, but also adaptive cruise control and Honda's Homelink technology. Honda expects Accord Hybrid sales will break down this way: 45 percent will choose the Hybrid, 40 percent the EXL and 15 percent will splurge on the Touring.
We were suitably impressed by the Accord Plug-In, but Honda is doing its best to make that vehicle irrelevant with the Accord Hybrid, which makes a whole lot of sense compared to its pluggable brother – a car that is still only available in New York and California. You lose 12 miles of EV range but save $5,000-$10,000. You do pay more than you would for the non-hybrid Accord with an automatic transmission, but that only achieves 30 mpg combined (27 city and 36 highway).
When we drove the Accord Plug-In, we were told the Accord family is "Honda's most important product." When you get behind the wheel of the Accord Hybrid, it's clear that a lot of thought and engineering was considered, implemented and then made to disappear. Automakers know that mass-market buyers are not interested in complicated powertrains or advanced MPG settings. They just want a decent-sized car that doesn't cost an arm and a leg and posts amazing fuel economy numbers. The Accord Hybrid delivers. Actually, that is kind of a surprise.