You’d assume by now, more than a decade into the hybrid era, that Honda would have done something significant in the space after launching the Insight in 1999, the first hybrid sold in the United States. But as the years passed, Honda has suffered diminishing returns; the hybrid Civic was once successful, but Honda's hybrid lines have been overtaken by Ford, Hyundai and even Kia. Honda did some cool stuff with fuel cells and natural-gas powered cars, but it appeared to lose interest in hybrids, the preferred alternative-energy method in the American market.
Well, finally, with the 2014 Accord Hybrid, Honda has decided to come to the party, late. But they’re showing up like someone on New Year’s Eve carrying a crate of high-end champagne: They waited until they had something good.
Last year, Honda dipped its toe into the brook with the Accord plug-in hybrid, which seemed like an afterthought to the 2013 Accord reboot. It received scant praise and sold poorly. That’s not going to happen with its new offering. The 2014 Accord Hybrid has a drive train technology, part of Honda’s creepily named EarthDreams line, that’s beyond anything in the hybrid world. It’s an extremely clever evolution of the technology.
Here’s the first thing you should know: The Accord Hybrid has no transmission, at least not like we traditionally think of one. It has no torque converter or clutch. Instead, it contains a pair of electric motors, one of which serves to propel the vehicle, and the other of which is attached to the gas engine, meaning it serves mainly as a power source. That engine is a 2.0-liter in-line four cylinder yielding 141 hp and 226 lb-ft of torque. Under highway cruising conditions, it works in concert with the electric drive train, placing in the car in a rough equivalent of top gear.
Honda calls this the “Harmonization Control G-Design Shift,” which probably sounds better in the original Japanese. Regardless, it’s very cool stuff for gearheads, a totally different conception of what a drive train can do. Like most hybrids, the Accord has a standard engine mode, a hybrid mode, an EV mode (which it can only hold for about a minute). But it’s separated from the pack, like Dr. Who, by its ability to regenerate. The Hybrid charges its 1.3kWh lithium-ion battery while the engine is running via the generating motor, but via the other generator while decelerating or braking — making maximum use of its momentum.
How does this translate on the road? Honda tried to sell it to us as “Environment + Fun.” It does extremely well on the former. The Accord comes with a label of 50 mpg city, 45 highway, and 47 combined — trouncing the hybrid Camry's 41 mpg combined rating. A three-hour test drive covering at least 150 miles on urban and rural roads, as well as some major Interstate stints, revealed that to be spot-on. On one leg, my drive partner and I got almost 49 mpg. That would be good even in a Toyota Prius C. For the Accord, which tops 3,500 lbs. in any trim level, it’s just extraordinary, leaving other mid-sized hybrids like the Toyota Camry and Hyundai Sonata sucking lithium.
As for “fun,” well, it’s a hybrid. If you want a car that’s fun to drive, go buy a vintage Miata. The Accord is adequately fun, in the way that monitoring your digital exercise wristband is fun. You watch the MPG meter with great attention and try to brake on the downhills for extra regeneration power. Anything traditionally known as “driving” gets done reluctantly. Most of the time, the car runs blissfully quiet, but when you’re going uphill, it makes a noise somewhere between a whine and a roar, kind of like a lawnmower. Then you take your foot off the brakes, and it begins to cruise again, doing its regeneration dance, what it does best.
The styling of the car, other than some token blue accents, is exactly the same as the current Accord, bland, efficient, vaguely comfortable, but not matching the smooth, beautiful lines you can find in contemporary Mazdas or BMWs, or higher end Toyota products like the Avalon or the Lexus ES. It’s boring. But no one is going to shop for an Accord Hybrid looking for great leaps in styling or drive performance. The car’s strengths lie in solid safety features, including excellent forward and side-collision warnings in an upgraded technology package, and its absolutely, unquestionably, best-in-class gas mileage.
The base price for the Accord Hybrid will be $29,155 all the way up to $34,905 for its touring package. Unimaginably, that puts it at about average price for a new car. That high end seems like a bit much. A better option might be $31,905 for the EX-L pack that includes a power roof, XM radio, and the excellent electronic safety features. But all options will come with the special E-Harmonization Magical Pixie Dream Girl engine technology, or whatever Honda is calling it, and that’s a huge bonus.
It’s going to be years before another car of the size reaches the mileage potential of the Accord Hybrid. They have made the winner. Toyota should be warned: Honda may have come to the hybrid party late, but it looks like it’s going to stay a while.