In the face of Toyota's hybrid juggernaut, Honda has struggled to compete, coming out with hybrid systems that appear as pale imitations. So I was excited to try out the 2014 Honda Accord Plug-in, which would not only debut a new hybrid system, but also could work as an electric vehicle with power from the grid.
After testing out the real-world electric range and driving the Accord for many more miles in hybrid mode, I found it didn't quite show off Honda's old engineering prowess, which brought us VTEC in 1989. Instead, the system merely keeps Honda even with competition from Toyota and Ford.
A plug-in hybrid starts with a typical gasoline-electric hybrid system, in which the wheels can be driven by either the gasoline engine, an electric motor, or a mix of both. The automaker adds a larger battery, a 6.7-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack in the case of the Accord Plug-in, which can be plugged into a wall outlet or charging station. With an adequate charge, a plug-in hybrid will leave the engine off, using electricity to drive the car. Once that charge runs out, the car switches to a hybrid mode, using its gasoline engine and regaining charge through regenerative braking.
And like the few other plug-in hybrids available,the Accord Plug-in has a relatively short electric range, only 13 miles according to Honda. The Toyota Prius Plug-in also claims a 13-mile electric range, while Ford boasts 21 miles for its C-Max Energi. The Chevrolet Volt gets 34 miles, although GM classifies that car as a range-extended electric vehicle.
Putting the electric range to the test, I left the Accord Plug-in plugged in overnight, using the standard J1772 charging port mounted in the front-left fender. When I got in the car the next morning, the trip computer told me I had 12.3 miles of electric range.
I drove conservatively on city streets, avoiding the steeper hills and watching the trip computer and odometer. After driving 7.8 miles, electric range had dropped to 3.6 miles, showing I had used up 8.7 miles of estimated range. By the time I had consumed all 12.3 miles of my estimated range, I had driven a total of 11.7 miles, not a lot of bang for your buck, although that range would make up more than half of a 20-mile commute.
As the Accord Plug-in is a retrofit of the standard Accord sedan, there are a few compromises. The battery pack takes up a large amount of space, nearly halving the trunk room of the standard Accord. The ride felt more tightly sprung, as if Honda's engineers tuned the suspension to deal with the extra 400 pounds of the battery.
Due to that tuning, the ride was harder than I would expect in a modern midsize sedan, but it remained competent as it dealt with rough patches in the road, preventing oscillation over the larger bumps. In later handling tests, I would find a bit of lean in the corners but nothing too severe.
The steering wheel turned easily, its electric power-steering system feeling a little overboosted. However, the steering tuning felt appropriate for the car's mission as a commuter and suburban family sedan. It was kind of refreshing to find no sport button or sport mode on the transmission, something too many decidedly non-sport cars feature.
Running off the battery, I had the torque from the 124-kilowatt electric motor to turn only the front wheels. It proved adequate for all my in-city driving and didn't have so much punch that it chirped the tires.
When the electric range dropped to zero, the 2-liter four-cylinder engine, running on Atkinson cycle valve timing, kicked in, its noise not quite covered by the counter-frequencies generated by the Accord Plug-in's active noise-canceling feature. On its own, this engine produces 141 horsepower, not the most power ever pulled from a 2-liter, but with the addition of the electric motor, Honda rates the total system output at 196 horsepower.
I wouldn't call it peppy, but the power was reasonable for the car's mission. When I floored it, the engine noise hummed through the cabin, the mysterious workings of the electronic continuously variable transmission turned, delivering power to the front wheels. Given this type of transmission, there were no fixed gears to cause abrupt shifts under acceleration. The only choices for the transmission were P, R, N, D, and B, that last letter standing for regenerative braking.
The Accord Plug-in's drivetrain really only impressed me in three ways. First, as I let off the accelerator at 60 mph, it would go to EV mode, shutting down the engine to save some fuel. Second, after a long downhill run, I had restored enough electricity to the battery pack for a couple of miles of EV driving.
And finally, my overall fuel economy for a daylong test route that began with a full charge came out to 42 mpg. That's a bit less than the 47-mpg hybrid fuel economy Honda estimates, but it is still very good for a car of this size, and about what I saw from the Ford Fusion Hybrid.
These power train points don't exactly blow away the competition, merely keeping the Accord Plug-in apace with the current state of technology.
Getting a bit outside the Accord Plug-in's comfort zone, I took it through some curvy roads to see if there were any surprises in the handling. The steering system allowed for precise wheel pointing, but the weight of the battery felt like it wanted to drag the car sideways. At even moderate speeds in the turns, I could hear the tires whining. These all-seasons showed a 94V designation, meaning they were rated for speeds up to 149 mph and a load of 1,477 pounds each, pretty strong stuff for a midsize sedan.
Understeer and balance both felt wrong when taking the Accord Plug-in through the turns, but the car held the road, even when I tried to keep pace with a curve-hugging Mini Cooper S.