If things go as planned, the days of Honda’s hybrids playing second fiddle to Toyota may be coming to an end.
The 2014 Accord Hybrid will be launched the last day of this month, and its full hybrid technology innovates beyond the class-leading Toyota Camry Hybrid by enough of a margin that mainstream media have written things like Honda is aiming to dethrone the Prius.
Secretly, Honda may have such aspirations, but when we asked how he thought the Accord Hybrid would do sales-wise, last week, its Executive Vice President of U.S. sales, John Mendel modestly said he’s taking a wait-and-see approach.
And if Honda is to eventually dethrone the Prius, it will need to get the Accord’s tech into actual Prius competitors. More realistically the Accord Hybrid is positioned against hybrid sedans from Toyota, Ford, Hyundai, and Kia – and represents a powertrain formula that could lead Honda out of hybrid also-ran status.
Honda will continue for a while with Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) mild hybrids carried forward this year, but the Accord Hybrid indicates Honda has otherwise learned much. And it knows it, as company reps have been drumming into the media’s collective cerebral cortex the happy refrain of the Big-Five-O.
That is, 50 mpg, its official U.S. EPA city rating that’s so much better symbolically than 49. The car is also rated 45 mpg highway, and 47 mpg combined. For sure, 47 is a sizable jump over the 41/42 combined for the Camry Hybrid models – and not lacking meaning either – it’s the same number which Ford has boasted for its Fusion Hybrid.
While there’s doubt how easy the Ford can touch 47 mpg, we’ve seen it in the new Accord Hybrid and then some.
This happened last week in San Antonio, Texas, where mid-40s were attained on the highway with only mild care, and – with much greater care – a contest saw a journalist cresting over 66 mpg on a combined driving route, and over 85 mpg on a city route.
As always, the heavy footed can plummet below these heights, but the potential is there.
Leapfrogging The Leaders
The Accord Hybrid is essentially based on the limited-market 2014 Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid without ability to plug in. It lacks the 6.7-kwh battery of the over-$40,000 plug-in, but shares the rest of its Two-Motor Hybrid Intelligent Multi-Mode Drive (i-MMD) system, for which Honda is keen to observe advantages.
“No one else is doing hybrid propulsion quite like this,” said Koji Ninomiya, chief engineer for the Accord Hybrid.
And he’s basically right. Under most conditions the i-MMD system utilizes the gas engine to power a generator, which in turn provides energy to charge the hybrid battery and/or for the electric motor to drive the wheels.
The paired propulsion motor and motor generator effectively serve as a six-speed transmission that simulates stepped gear ratios in lower speeds, and in its lock-out mode at higher speeds, it simulates sixth.
The drive system is connected via a clutch to the engine, and a Honda rep admitted the six-speed “Electric Continuously Variable Transmission (E-CVT)” is a essentially a misnomer.
The system also takes advantage of “the world’s most efficient mass produced gasoline internal combustion engine” said Ninomiya.
More specifically, the 2.0-liter i-VTEC inline-four running on the Atkinson cycle offers 214 g/kwh of 87-octane gasoline, which is the highest thermal efficiency of any mass produced engine Honda has seen.
Its compression ratio is 13:1 and it contributes 141 horsepower at 6,200 rpm, and 122 pound-feet torque at 3,500-6,000 rpm.
The aforementioned propulsion motor it’s mated with is a 124 kilowatt AC synchronous permanent-magnet motor delivering 226 pounds-feet from zero rpm.
This motor is powered by the engine turning the paired motor generator, along with a 1.3-kwh li-ion battery.
Maximum system output is 196 horsepower, good for mid-seven-second 0-60 mph runs.
Three Operating Modes
EV Drive Mode
The default upon startup is all-electric with the gas engine decoupled and this means of operation is not unlike how the Chevrolet Volt – or a diesel-electric freight train for that matter – operates in concept, efficiently using the combustion engine as a generator in series hybrid mode.
It operates at a sedate pace, at lower speeds and when braking and is one of the chief innovations Honda is using to achieve mpg a notch or more above competitors.
Hybrid Drive Mode
As speeds increase, or under harder acceleration, or simply when the battery needs to be recharged after its brief range, the electric motor and gas engine work as a pair.
In this mode, the front wheels are turned solely by the electric motor – acting, as mentioned, like a transmission.
At the same time the decoupled gas engine powers the generator motor, which in turn charges the battery. In turn again, the battery may supplement the propulsion motor as needed and as able.
Engine Drive Mode
At medium to highway speeds, this mode sees the lock-up clutch connect the generator motor (always linked to the engine) and the electric drive motor to send power directly from the engine to the front wheels. This is gas-only mode, and here that “world’s most efficient mass produced gasoline internal combustion engine” propels the car while maintaining battery charge.
The rest of the car is all ninth-generation Accord in its design and styling, excepting only for hybrid badging, nicely designed, and easy to read hybrid-specific instruments, strategically placed blue accents on the exterior, and model-specific alloy wheels.
Trim Packages: Premium, Better, Better Still
For all the talk about miles per gallon, the Accord Hybrid is first an Accord. While you’ll hear quibbles with any new intro, the evolved iteration of the long-established nameplate does not really disappoint in operation as an effective mid-sized sedan.
In fact, Honda is packaging the Accord Hybrid in three trim levels with the base being an “EX” level. Officially called merely the “Hybrid,” Honda’s people confide it’s an EX, a designation that has traditionally denoted a premium model.
And it is premium, but that’s where the Accord Hybrid line starts. Above this, Honda offers the EX-L which is even more thoroughly equipped, and there’s a level above that called Touring.
How It Functions
Our experience began with a Touring edition and we drove a mixed route of highway and secondary roads.
Starting out in EV mode, the car pulls away on par with a Camry Hybrid, navigating with ease.
Power steering is light and predictable, ergonomics can be comfortably set up, and the seats are supportive.
Bumps are smoothed acceptably despite – or even because of – the couple hundred pounds of extra curb weight of the Hybrid over regular Accord. The Hybrid uses what Honda bills as Amplitude Reactive Dampers, an upgrade to its McPherson Strut Front, Double-Wishbone rear suspension.
The base “Hybrid” weighs 3,550 pounds, the EX-L weighs 3,595 and the Touring, 3,602 pounds. This is within a hundred or so pounds of the competitors.
Over some choppy pavement, a bit of harshness does get through, but the car is otherwise controlled and comfortable.
Pressing the accelerator hard will engage the engine. One tester said the car was hushed, while another said the engine was relatively noisy. To allow evaluation of this and other points of comparison, Honda had confidently brought in competitive cars – Camry Hybrid, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Kia Optima Hybrid, Ford Fusion Hybrid.
The Accord Hybrid’s engine can be heard from the driver’s seat, but the noise was not obnoxious to our ears, and actually, the car can be pretty quiet.
Otherwise, power delivered from the gas engine or motor was not detectable for how seamless it was toggling between sources, and the instruments indicate it likes to stay in EV mode as much as possible.
Honda also has an EV button to select this mode if you’re in parallel hybrid mode. It only works if there is enough battery charge, and rate of acceleration is not too great.
Driving with less than a hypermiler’s effort on a highway route, occasionally and mildly testing acceleration, and velocities, the on-board mpg instruments said we averaged nearly 44 mpg on one run, and low 45s on another.
We suspect the higher you go over 65, the more the impressive mpg figures will fall. Plus, if a driver likes to jackrabbit start and speed, low 40s and mid to upper 30s may likely result.
Braking action from the electric servo regenerative system offers a solid feel. Like a traditional system, it’s fully hydraulic from the master cylinder all the way to the calipers.
Lifting off of the accelerator initiates the regenerative action and the electric drive motor slows the vehicle before the friction brakes engage.
This system should extend pad life as the brake pedal signals the Electronic Control Unit (ECU) to determine braking force assigned to regenerative braking by the motor and friction brakes.
In milder stops, Honda says the friction brakes may not engage until 5 mph and below. In harder stops, the ECU initiates a chain reaction of commands to brake system components, proportioning friction brake energy to each wheel.
You don’t feel it as any sort of artificial system, and it basically works like normal.
Like other alternative-energy cars, the Hybrid also has a B transmission mode that accentuates regen action and as an alternative to regular D.
As for the super mileage reported, we can take no credit for that as during a rushed afternoon, we were elsewhere working on another project when Honda held its mpg test.
Among the half-dozen journalists who participated, everyone beat the EPA numbers. The worst on the “combined” loop beat the EPA’s city number with 51.5 mpg. The worst on the “city” loop did even better at 59.7 mpg.
This is encouraging. On the intro to the 2012 Camry Hybrid, on what was a longer and probably tougher route for mileage, HybridCars.com’s Larry Hall hit 58 mpg his first time out, and that was considered a decent run among peers.
Anyone remotely following hybrid cars knows the 2013 Fusion Hybrid has polarized buyers, and Ford has been sued by those alleging it embellished its mpg claims. The two Korean cars have also had similar issues, are rated for less mpg, and less likely to hit into the stratosphere.
That plenty of people have proven the Accord Hybrid’s ability to even transcend its official estimates is a feather in Honda’s cap.
Honda clearly has technology poised to convince more people to go hybrid. Its pricing strategy however aims at an upper-level demographic that eschews plain Jane trim levels.
The company says the household income for its projected Accord Hybrid buyers is over $90,000 annually, and folks in this bracket ought to have no qualms opting for a “50 mpg” sedan that starts (including $790 destination) at $29,945 (Hybrid), ascends to $32,695 (EX-L), and then to $35,695 (Touring).
Honda is quick to observe a high degree of standard content included at each level should be factored when comparing prices to the competitors. All the competitors start in the mid to upper-mid 20s and can be optioned up to Accord levels.
As for how they drive, overall we liked the Accord’s road manners, fit and feel essentially the best, but they all have their redeeming qualities, and the Camry Hybrid frankly remains an arguable alternative.
And here’s where we sign off, and leave it up to buyers to ideally test drive prospective purchases, and decide what’s most important to them.
We will add – despite Honda citing market studies to the contrary – that we still wonder whether Honda could sell sufficient quantities of a somewhat less-fully contended Accord Hybrid albeit with core Accord competencies, plus great mpg.
We also pondered whether Honda does not want to cannibalize its regular Accord sales?
That is unknown, as is how the market will go for a premium-content technological winner – that knows it, and is priced accordingly.
Our bet is the Accord Hybrid will have to overcome Toyota’s years of perceived superiority, but stands to rank solidly in the mix as word gets out.
Honda would be well served to get this technology into more models as soon as feasible.