When a 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid in Touring trim was delivered to our driveway last week, we didn’t have time to read up on it. Instead, with dinner and a concert in Redwood City on the agenda, we just jumped in and drove off.
We were happily impressed with this midlevel sedan – which sells for approximately $36,000 – though we didn’t notice anything unusual about it. But that’s the strange thing: Everything between that gearshift and accelerator pedal and the powered front wheels is completely different from any other automobile on the road and we didn’t even notice.
A different road
That Honda would take a different road shouldn’t be surprising. When the Japanese automobile manufacturers were first stepping out on the global stage, Toyota and Nissan (then Datsun) were the major players, marching in lockstep. To compete against them, first in Japan and then in world markets, Soichiro Honda had to find a way to stand out, as he had neither the resources nor the reputation to face the competition head-on. He drew his strategy, he said, from the lessons of martial arts: Notice where the opponent is moving and then move in a different direction or in a different way.
That’s exactly what Honda has done with its version of the gasoline-electric hybrid powertrain. It’s different from everyone else’s hybrid in one overarching way: It has no transmission. On the Accord Hybrid, at slower speeds and where acceleration is not required, an electric motor, connected directly to the wheels through a differential, powers the front wheels. Because an electric motor puts out maximum torque at any speed, no gearing is required.
At medium speeds around town and when acceleration or power is required – both of which we needed to do on our first outing in the car – the gas engine cuts in to power the generator in order to supplement the battery and allow the electric motor to run for sustained periods at high rpm. The noise is a little unusual but not unpleasant. Because the engine in those circumstances isn’t connected to the wheels, there is no need for a transmission.
Once the car reaches highway cruising speeds, a clutch engages automatically to connect the engine directly to the driving wheels and – like many other automobiles – with engine speed matching wheel speed, there is no need to use the gears.
Gaining the edge
The advantage of taking this straightforward yet innovative way to get power to the wheels is that all of the friction and inertia of a transmission is unnecessary, prompting a significant savings in fuel consumption. So, in addition to the inherent efficiency of electric motors that makes hybrids more fuel-efficient than standard gas or diesel engines, power isn’t lost in the powertrain. Long term, without the controls and gears of a transmission, there is one less costly component to fail.
For the Accord Hybrid, this adds up to EPA efficiency ratings of 50 mpg highway, 45 mpg in town and 47 mpg combined. That’s only a few miles per gallon less than the leading Prius models. But what little is lost in fuel efficiency is made up for in acceleration. The Accord Hybrid can reach 60 mph almost three seconds faster than the Prius, and in heavy traffic on Interstate 280, that’s all the time in the world.
The Accord has an edge in other ways as well. In contrast to the Prius, while still in the same price range, the Accord is larger, more comfortable and has better cabin appointments.
Of particular note to our friends was the expansive legroom in the back. The space measures 38.8 inches, only half an inch shorter than the rear legroom on the limo-like Hyundai Equus that we drove the previous week.
Unfortunately, the additional room required for the batteries comes at the expense of luggage space, which is only 12.7 cubic feet and can’t be expanded. On the positive side, the space is neatly rectangular, so if you and your three passengers have luggage that would pass the airlines requirements for roll-aboard carry-ons, you’ll be fine.
But let’s go back to that driving experience. The main attribute we noticed was the smooth, seamless behavior of the car. Because the power is delivered from the electric motor under all but highway use, there is no sensation of shifting or hunting for gears. Even when the clutch is engaged to transfer the drive to the gas engine, the engagement is cushioned by the electric motor, so that change is imperceptible as well.
Where Honda did have to do some work is in the area many people have complained about when it comes to hybrids: The grabby characteristics of most regenerative braking systems. Here, Honda has developed an electrically assisted brake system that makes braking responsive, with good pedal feel and control.
Beyond that, we noted with pleasure that the suspension, steering and ride quality for which Honda has been recognized for many years carry over into this car. This is one area where Honda hasn’t attempted to reinvent the flywheel. Steering is quick, vehicle movement is responsive and the car always feels under control. Moreover, Honda uses a two-stage shock damping system that provides cushioning when running around town but tightens up on twisty back roads and tight off-ramps.
One other component merits comment, and might have been the lead if the powertrain wasn’t the headline grabber. While several newer cars come with systems to warn if there is a car in the passenger-side blind spot when changing lanes, Honda does something completely different.
Engage the turn signal to indicate a right turn, or a lane change to the right, and the screen in the middle of the dashboard shows the view of a camera mounted under the passenger-side mirror. This image is larger and has a much broader field of view than what could be seen in the mirror, demanding much less of a head turn than would be required to check the outside mirror. This device, standard on the Touring model that we drove, is a shoo-in to win our “Best Assistance Device of 2014.”
Bottom line: If we were in the market for a mid-priced sedan, the Honda Accord Hybrid would be at the top of our list.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.