With the new Accord Hybrid, one could say then that the war for fuel economy has been won, but the battle against electric-vehicle weirdness goes on.
VISUALIZE 50 MILES, any 50 overland miles: Los Angeles to Irvine, Rochester to Seneca Falls, from somewhere in the Carolina lowlands to nowhere in particular, all stud pines and little houses. Fifty miles. You wouldn’t want to walk it.
The 2014 Honda Accord is a solid, dutiful car that represents a whole new way to engineer hybrids, Dan Neil explains on the News Hub. (Photo: Honda)
Now turn, with gratitude, to a gallon of gasoline. Go ahead, pick it up. It weighs just 6 pounds, fills a container about the size of a shoebox, yet it represents about 114,000 BTUs of potential heat energy, depending on the seasonal blend at the pump. Anybody who has spent time around cars has marveled at the disproportion of it. That little jug (of foul, toxic, potentially life-ending flammable fluid) can release energy sufficient to whisk this steel-bodied four-door sedan, with passengers, a distance of 50 miles. It is amazing.
A gallon of gas gets a lot of help in the 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid. Propelled by the company’s new gas-electric powertrain architecture (Intelligent Multi-Mode Drive, or i-MMD), the Accord Hybrid posts an EPA fuel economy rating of 50 miles per gallon in the city, 45 mpg highway. So, it can fairly claim the highest EPA mileage of any five-passenger, four-door sedan, besting the Ford Fusion Hybrid’s 47 mpg.
(You should grab hold of something because I’m about to delve into the nuances of hybrid powertrain design. People have been known to tear their clothes off in excitement.)
The Accord Hybrid joins a small fleet of midsize sedan hybrids, including familiar names such as the Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata. These cars represent their companies’ best thinking on hybrid powertrains and green technology (and reflect available resources, etc). Taken as a class, these cars would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Mid- to full-size, mass production sedans with bins full of interior amenities, some averaging 50 mpg? “Right! And I suppose one day Joe Biden is going to be vice president?”
But because of the way these machines operate—relying mostly on the electrics to move the vehicle at low and moderate speeds and reserving the gas engine for transient periods of high demand—they can behave strangely and in ways that are primarily disconnected from the driver: Their engines start and stop randomly, and moan faintly and spectrally under hard acceleration. Some make R2-D2 noises when they warm up in the morning. Sometimes it is hard to tell if the thing is in drive, or forward, or whatever they call it, and even to know if the car is switched on. I hereby shake my cane at them angrily.
You could say then that the war for fuel economy has been won, but the battle against weirdness goes on. In this struggle the Accord Hybrid makes acutely uneven contributions.
On the one hand, you have a car that feels in most respects exactly like any other Accord, which is to say, excellent. These are dutiful, refined, quietly rewarding cars, with spacious, airy cabins—note the relatively upright windshield rake and ample windows—five-star safety and impeccable build quality (North American market Accords are built in Marysville, Ohio). This is the ninth generation of one of America’s favorite cars (the best-selling midsize sedan in retail sales, says Honda) and it didn’t get there by misjudging its audience. It is true, the Accord’s exterior styling makes no one pant with desire, but neither does it repel. It is a solid, impassive, sublimated car for those who can be described likewise.
In addition to two body styles (sedan and coupe) and choice of gas engines (a 2.4-liter/185- to 189-hp in-line four and a 3.5-liter/278-hp V6), and multiple trim levels, the Accord is available in two flavors of gas-electric hybrid—one with a plug, one without.
2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Touring
Base price: $29,945 (incl. $790 delivery)
Price, as tested: $35,695
Powertrain: Series-parallel gas-electric hybrid, Atkinson-cycle 2.0-liter direct-injection DOHC inlne four cylinder with variable valve timing (166 hp/122 pound-feet of torque); 105 kW motor-generator; AC synchronous permanent magnet traction motor (166 hp/226 lb-ft); 1.3-kwh lithium-ion battery pack; front-wheel drive.
Net system output: 196 hp
Length/weight: 192.2 inches/3,602 pounds
Wheelbase: 109.3 inches
0-60 mph: 7.5 seconds
EPA fuel economy: 50/45/47 mpg, city/highway/combined
Cargo capacity: 12.3 cubic feet
Honda’s i-MMD is, in fact, a hybrid of a hybrid system. So long as there is sufficient juice in the battery (and typically at around-town speeds and moderate throttle demand) the Hybrid operates as a series hybrid, with the engine driving the generator that powers the e-motor and recharges the battery. As speeds increase—and, again, depending on a host of efficiency-minded powertrain algorithms—the car switches to more conventional parallel-hybrid power flow, with gas engine and e-motor contributing torque. The advantages are many, starting with packaging. Honda’s system dispenses with a conventional continuously variable transmission (CVT), relying instead on fixed ratios between engine, e-motor and wheels. This power flow also avoids the slippage and incremental inefficiency of a CVT.
Here is where the clothes come off. Both hybrids use the new i-MMD architecture, which is very much EV forward in nature. Under most circumstances the gas engine isn’t mechanically connected to the driven front wheels at all, but only drives a generator that in turn sends current to the 166-hp electric-traction motor with any overspill of electrons directed to the lithium-ion battery pack.
In low-speed, pure-EV mode, the electric motor’s output is carefully rationed—I gather to avoid overheating the power electronics—but with 226 pound-feet of torque available at 0 rpm, the Accord Hybrid has a crisp, elastic step off. As the battery state-of-charge declines, the 2.0-liter, Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder switches on to charge the battery; however, this so-called hybrid-drive mode doesn’t change the highly EV-fied feel of the car. The steering system is electrically assisted, not hydraulic, and while there is a hydraulic brake system down there somewhere, vehicle braking is dominated by regenerative braking effect—that is, the car relies on the drag from the generator to slow the car. Between the rheostatic behavior of the throttle pedal and the very remoteness and isolation around the gas engine, the Accord Hybrid has an EV’s motor-controller linearity and smoothness.
Only at highway speeds, where electric-motor efficiency starts to flag against system rpm and increasing drag, does the appropriate clutch pack close, finally connecting the Accord Hybrid’s engine directly to the wheels. In its full humming gas-electric anger, the Accord Hybrid net system output is 196 hp, sufficient to get to car to 60 mph from a standing stop in a brief 7.5 seconds.
The Honda system is also highly modular. In fact, the only powertrain difference between the plug-in and regular hybrid is the size of the battery. The Accord PHEV has a respectable 6.7 kwh lithium pack wedged behind the rear seats, giving it about 13 miles of all-EV range. The regular Hybrid, like our test car, gets by with a comparatively small 1.3 kwh battery pack, which wholly accounts for the difference in price and weight. The PHEV sells for $40,570, while a comparably equipped Hybrid costs about $5,000 less. The former weighs about 200 pounds more than the latter.
With the Accord Hybrid, we have a smart, technically sophisticated, value-focused sedan built by one of the world’s most reliable car makers, a car that works frantically to squeeze every therm, calorie and kilometer out of a gallon of gas. What could be wrong with that?
Not much, really. Just a certain futuristic weirdness is all, which is inherent in the Accord Hybrid’s sorta mostly EV nature. Sometimes the car will be trafficating around town on EV power, when the gas engine will awaken with a low drone, revving vigorously in an effort to maintain charge in the battery (Atkinson-cycle engines run more efficiently at mid rpm). Then it falls asleep again. When the car slips into drive mode, the powertrain software zings the engine momentarily to match rpm with wheel speed (the fixed-gear ratio between engine and wheels is equivalent to about sixth gear in a conventional car).
At moderate speeds, when you put your right foot down, the Accord Hybrid first surges with demanded electric torque, and then only several beats later will the engine begin to pick up the revs as the computers instruct the generator to restock the battery. Lift the throttle, and the engine keeps revving, counter-intuitively, the car slows down.
We have all grown up knowing the direct, satisfying, intuitive linearity of gas-engine powertrains, in which when we squeeze the throttle pedal, the engine’s pitch and volume rise, and the car accelerates. The next generation of super-efficient automobiles will increasingly privilege the EV side of the hybrid equation, and relegate the internal combustion engine to generator duties, working inscrutably in the deep background.
Still, 50 miles per gallon. It sure beats walking.
Louisville Kentucky Honda Dealer, Bob Montgomery Honda, http://www.bobmontgomeryhonda.com