2014 Honda Accord Hybrid

DETROIT — The Ford Fusion Hybrid’s reign as the top mid-size hybrid sedan didn’t last long. (Yes, I know, Toyota claims the Prius is a midsize sedan, but most buyers don’t equate the car’s two-box, fastback design and compact exterior with your average midsize sedan.) Along comes Honda with its Accord Hybrid, and — wait a minute — ties the Fusion with a 47 mpg combined rating?

So why all of the cheering at Honda’s bases in Japan and Ohio? Simple. Though the Accord’s highway mileage number is a credible 45 mpg, the city number is a solid 50 mpg. That’s three mpg better than the Fusion, which is rated at a monotonous 47 city/47 highway/47 combined. Yet, despite having the same combined number, expect the Accord Hybrid to be touted as the mileage champ.

The ninth-generation Accord is an improvement on the very similar looking (and structurally related) generation it replaces. To this the Accord Hybrid  adds an all-aluminum front subframe (in place of the standard car’s steel and aluminum piece), aluminum rear bumper beam, 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle four cylinder-engine, electric CVT transmission, electric water pump, regenerative braking system, Amplitude Reactive Dampers and, of course, the lithium-ion battery pack.

There are trim differences as well, not to mention the requisite unique gauges, but the transition from all-gasoline to hybrid power is pretty straightforward.

Perhaps the best part of the transition to hybrid propulsion has been the addition of the Amplitude Reactive Dampers (ARDs). In the past, Hondas often felt underdamped, especially in the rear, where a sharp bump would make the tail hit the deck instead of gliding over the irregularity. This tendency worked in the other direction as well, making the car float as it came over a rise. Mix in a tendency to feel almost too light in terms of control input and reaction, and you had a recipe for ride and handling that felt immature and poorly resolved.

By adding the ARDs, Honda engineers seemingly have squashed the irregular ride by fitting two pistons with unique orifices that tailor flow to vertical wheel speed. The faster the wheel moves (in either direction), the more resistance it meets. As the motion is slowed, the response is reduced, giving the suspension a chance to “flatten” the damping curve. The result is an Accord that feels very un-Honda in the way it glides over irregularities, and provides a comfortable ride.

Comfortable is not always capable, but the Accord Hybrid acquits itself well around corners, on the highway and in the city. The electric power steering has a nice heft but, like most such systems, is devoid of some of the feel found in a good hydraulic power steering system.

Yet, unlike the more egregious electric power steering systems out there (Hyundai and Kia immediately come to mind), the nose goes where you point it, the response at the wheel is smooth and linear, and the feel is both substantial and fluid. Thus, the Accord Hybrid can be made to arc through turns confidently, and handles dips and swales with more composure than expected.

If the dynamic equation falls flat anywhere it is in the braking system. It’s not that the brakes aren’t capable of hauling down from speed or that they give up quickly. On the contrary, the combination foundation and regenerative braking system handles the day-to-day quite well. It’s just that, in their haste to make the transition between the two forms of braking seamless, the Honda engineers have taken a bit too much feel out of the system. Also, the smoothness of the transition between regenerative and friction braking leaves you wondering just how hard you can push on the pedal for the maximum energy recovery.

In a car like the Ford Fusion, you get leaves “growing” in the energy monitor or some other representation of how efficient your regenerative braking is at the time, and this helps calibrate your response. The Honda energy monitor, as far as it was possible to discern in our short drive, doesn’t provide this feedback. This makes it more difficult to tell when energy recovery stops and real braking begins.

Difficult, but not impossible. Over a short in-city loop at the regional launch, I was able to increase my average mileage from 52 mpg to 75.5 mpg. However, I was never really certain of how close I was dancing to the edge. If I had been, I’m pretty sure I could have edged the reading closer to 80 mpg with a continuation of driving speeds and styles that rightfully would get you pulled from your car and beaten to within an inch of your life in real traffic.

Driven normally, the Accord Hybrid will return (according to the on-board computer) a 44 mpg average. This combined mileage included a short run on the freeway at speed, some smooth but enthusiastic driving on the side roads, and time in the city. Through it all, the powertrain responded well, despite the fact that — based solely on the gasoline engine’s ratings — this car shouldn’t have enough power to pull the skin off pudding.

The twin cam 2.0-liter engine produces 141 hp at 6,200 rpm and just 122 lb-ft of torque from 3,500 – 6,000 rpm; this in a car that weighs from 3,550 lb. (base) to 3,602 lb. (Touring). It’s the electric motor’s 226 lb-ft maximum torque that gives it the grunt to accelerate with dispatch, and makes it flexible when the need arises to sprint. However, what makes the whole powertrain a bit… spooky is the lack of a conventional transmission.

Honda calls the Accord Hybrid’s gearbox an E-CVT, or electric continuously variable transmission. Unlike a mechanical CVT there aren’t any variable diameter pulleys between which run a metal drive belt and connect the engine to the wheels. Instead, there are two electric motors, one of which, the generator, is connected to the engine through a small gearset.

Most of the time, the gasoline engine does little more than power the generator that charges the 1.3 kWh battery pack and/or sends current to the drive motor. At higher speeds, a lock-up clutch between the two electric motors engages and sends power from the engine to the front wheels through both motors. The drive system is both simple and complicated, and the powertrain controller shuffles through the drive modes — full electric, hybrid or gas engine — in response to power demand.

Simple complication is a term that also could be used to describe the Accord Hybrid’s interior. Honda went for a 3D effect with the main instrumentation, but did so with stacked mechanical gauges instead of a video screen. There’s an eight-inch information display in the center stack, and all of the controls are reasonably intuitive. You won’t get lost in menus and submenus when trying to change the temperature or radio station.

The most jarring aspects of the interior are the odd mix of hard and soft-touch plastic on the door panels, and the large air vents located on either side of the rear seatback. The hard plastic cuts across the front half of the door panel and intrudes into touch zones, something most automakers work hard to avoid.

Even more jarring are the black plastic air vents on either side of the rear seatback that feed cabin air to the battery pack located in the trunk. It’s an effective, and surprisingly visible, solution to the problem of keeping the pack ventilated, but one whose visual impact will diminish over time.

So, where does the 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid stack up? It’s hard to say definitively from a one-day test drive. However, it’s 50 mpg city rating will get lots of play, and the inattentive undoubtedly will crown it the hybrid mileage champ.

On balance, the ninth-generation Accord is quieter and more sophisticated than its predecessor. The hybrid model married these traits with a flexible and efficient powertrain and premium dampers to create a hybrid you never have, or want, to think about. Whether this is enough is yet to be seen.

— Christopher A. Sawyer
(The Virtual Driver)