The new Honda Accord Hybrid: What you hear isn't always what you get

What I learned about the 2017 Honda Accord Hybrid on a recent driving event in northern California is that it's similar to the conventional 2016 Accord Sedan that I was able to test late last year on the same roads.

2017 Honda Accord Hybrid
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

It has the same, excellent HondaLink infotainment system in the dashboard with its Garmin navigation software, HondaLink mobile app integration and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionalities. There's a decent stereo system. There's not much to complain about here, except for the weird capacitive volume slider instead of a simple volume knob, but hey, nobody's perfect.

The conventional Accord's Honda Sensing driver aid suite is also present, only this time it's standard on all Accord Hybrid models. That means that the forward collision alert system, lane keeping assistance system with road departure mitigation, adaptive cruise control and LaneWatch blind spot monitoring camera are all standard features on all hybrid models. Nice.

And the same MacPherson strut front and rear multi-link suspension setup that I saw last year, the same electric power-steering system and the "pretty darn good for a family sedan" handling that I learned to appreciate in the conventional Accord sedan are all present and accounted for. So far, so good.

Unique to the Accord Hybrid, of course, is the hybrid powertrain.

2017 Honda Accord Hybrid
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

The setup starts with a revised electric motor. The e-motor now features copper wire with a square cross-section that allows it to be wound more tightly and densely than conventional round wire. The new motor is, as a result, 23-percent smaller and lighter than before, but also more powerful by 14 horsepower and 6 pound-feet of torque. The new stated output for the e-motor is 181 horsepower and 232 pound-feet of torque.

I say the hybrid setup starts with the e-motor because it's the primary motivator under most driving conditions. Unlike most hybrid systems we're familiar with, it receives assistance from the gasoline motor, rather than the other way around. Multiple times during my testing, I'd glance down at the Accord's instrument cluster and see the light indicating full electric vehicle mode illuminated as speeds as high as 70 mph.

The 2.0-liter Atkinson cycle gasoline engine is not mated directly to the wheels under most conditions. From stop up to about cruising speeds, the 143 horsepower, 129 pound-foot combustion engine spins a second electric generator that supplies electricity to the main e-motor. At highway speeds, the gasoline engine is able to engage a lock-up clutch and directly drive the wheels in what -- for most cars -- would be a sixth-gear ratio, but when you squeeze the pedal to accelerate again, the gas engine disconnects and hands control back over to the electric motor.

Interestingly, the Accord lacks a conventional transmission that changes gearing ratios. Instead the electric motor acts as a sort of virtual, continuously variable transmission. It's confusing. It took me the better part of a day to understand how it works. Even once I'd wrapped my head around it, the system's weird on-road behavior had me scratching my head again. Imagine the Chevrolet Volt's powertrain with a much smaller battery and a lot more gasoline engine assist and you'll have a much better idea of what's happening under the hood.

2017 Honda Accord Hybrid
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Another upgrade over the previous generation Accord Hybrid is a physically smaller battery pack that frees up an extra cubic foot of trunk space, bringing the total capacity to 13.5 cubic feet. However, the presence of the battery's hump in the trunk still necessitates that the hybrid variant make do without fold-down rear seats or a pass-through for longer items.

Other technologies, including an exhaust heat recovery system, a lighter and more efficient power control unit underhood and a revised regenerative braking system help boost the Accord Hybrid's efficiency.

The net result is a class-leading, EPA estimate of 49 mpg city, 47 mpg highway and 48 mpg combined. Some may notice that city estimate is lower than the previous generation Accord Hybrid's. That, according to Honda, is due to a change in EPA testing methods that cost the sedan its 50 mpg city bragging rights. Still, the Accord's power and efficiency are, across the board, higher than the competing hybrid sedans from Chevrolet, Ford, Hyundai and, yes, even Toyota.

On the road, things get a little... weird.

Together, peak horsepower is stated at 212 horsepower, which is actually quite good. The throttle response leaves little to be desired with the electric motor bringing nearly the total might of its 232 pound-feet of torque to the table almost instantaneously. At highway speeds, the gasoline engine engages smoothly. In fact, I've only got a single complaint about the performance of the hybrid system -- but it's a big one.

As noted, the electric motor is the primary source of torque to the wheels under most circumstances, with the gasoline engine often kicking in as a generator to supply power to the e-motor. What I don't like is that when the gasoline engine comes alive, it does so in an audibly abrupt way.

Imagine you're cruising down the highway and need to pass the car ahead, or maybe you're approaching a hill and need more power for the climb. You give the pedal a little bit of a squeeze and get, almost instantaneously and seamlessly, a very nice boost in passing power. Then, about a second later, you hear the engine kick into full throttle -- "BWAAAH!" -- which is startling, because in every car you've ever driven before now, "BWAAAH!" means full throttle and you didn't ask for that. So you lift slightly and the cacophony totally disappears. However, you're still only partway through the pass or up the hill, so you give just a hint more pedal pressure and the engine goes "BWAAAAH!" again. Now your passengers are wondering why you're driving like a maniac, so you lift and everything quiets down again...rinse and repeat.

2017 Honda Accord Hybrid
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

What's happening is an odd disconnect between the acceleration that I felt from the electric motor supplying torque for passing and the loud scream of the gasoline motor that was only acting as a generator and really had no impact on the physical performance of the car at the moment. If I could only ignore what I was hearing and maintain steady pedal pressure, the Accord Hybrid felt great, but I've been conditioned by nearly two decades of driving to listen to what the engine is doing as an indicator of performance and just can't get past the audible contradiction.

It's unlike any other car that I've ever driven. When I cranked the stereo to a level where I couldn't hear the gasoline engine awkwardly doing its thing in the background, the drive became immensely more enjoyable. The passes were smooth and the performance was quite sporty for a hybrid. So while I had no real complaints about the acceleration and responsiveness of the Accord Hybrid -- it's actually quite good -- I didn't really like the way it made me feel.

Honda really should do something about quieting the engine noise when in generator mode or perhaps boost the battery size so the combustion engine doesn't need to work as hard. As is, the Accord Hybrid's powertrain feels like a stepping stone on the way to the Clarity plug-in hybrid system that is planned for future release, which is a shame because the car around this hybrid system and its fuel economy potential are so good.

2017 Honda Accord Hybrid
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

The 2017 Honda Accord Hybrid starts at $29,605 for the base Hybrid model and peaks at $35,955 for the loaded Touring trim level that I was able to test with its leather trim, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, navigation and more. That's a very reasonable price for a very efficient 49 mpg sedan, if you can get past a little bit (well, a lot) of auditory weirdness from its hybrid powertrain.

Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, travel costs were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgements and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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