Friday, August 22, 2014

Test Drive: 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Touring

Every once in a while, a car reaches a crossroads and the automaker must select a path to follow that will set them on a road to either tremendous sales success or possibly to the great junk yard in the sky. For Honda's Accord Hybrid, we already knew the path that Honda selected when we tested the plug-in hybrid version of the Accord at the end of last year. However, earlier this year, we finally had a chance to check out the traditional hybrid version. In its last iteration, the Accord Hybrid was saddled with mediocre fuel economy and a high price tag. Honda appears to have learned a great deal from that experience because this new Accord Hybrid addresses everything that was wrong with that last version and adds a whole lot more to like.

On the outside, the Accord Hybrid largely resembles its conventional powertrain brethren. The few distinguishing elements are the wheels (which are unique to the Hybrid), the lack of visible tailpipes, and blue accents throughout the grille and lighting elements. The overall effect is subtle, allowing the car's unique powertrain to go largely undetected to the uninitiated. On whole, this latest generation Accord is a handsome enough car and the hybrid's unique elements do nothing to change that. If anything, the addition of the LED elements to the headlights further enhances the car's premium appearance.

Inside, there is also little to distinguish the hybrid from the traditional gasoline powered models. The only noticeable differences are a few parts of the gauges that had been specifically repurposed for use to show hybrid specific information. In the car's infotainment system, there are also a few elements that are unique to the hybrid, intended specifically to show fuel efficiency related information. Otherwise, the well appointed interior feels nice, with premium touches applied throughout to give the car a nice feel from any seat. The cabin benefits from the extraordinary roominess of the Accord's platform and allots excellent comfort to all passengers. Those in the rear seats will be especially pleased with the amount of leg room as with the driver's seat set for my driving position, I could not only comfortably sit in the back, but had sufficient room to cross my legs without making contact with the back of the driver's seat.

Press the start button and the dash lights up to indicate that the car is ready to drive. On this warm day, with the car having been baking outside for some time, the electronics decided that in order to keep passengers comfortable, it needed to fire up the gasoline engine to power the A/C compressor at full blast. Still, even with the engine running, the car idles smoothly and is fairly quiet. Putting the CVT into drive, I pull out onto the streets and am quickly impressed by how the transmission feels very much not like a CVT. It builds revs a bit in each "gear" to allow for a slightly more conventional feel but the "shifts" are smooth and entirely unnoticeable. Power delivery, thanks to the instant torque offered by the electric motor element, is exceptionally smooth and feels far more powerful than the numbers would lead one to expect.

Out on the open road, the car's manners are impeccable. Ride quality, with the heavy battery pack sitting behind the passengers adding more weight, is excellent as it feels comfortable without being floaty. Handling from the new MacPherson strut suspension is as expected from a Honda product with crisp turn-in, good balance with a tendency towards understeer when pushed. Even despite its large size and the fuel economy minded tires, the Accord Hybrid delivers adequately spry handling for its class and certainly is far more entertaining to drive than any other mid-size sedan based hybrid.

Technology wise, our Touring package is about as fully loaded as they come, with everything that one can possibly think of included. Honda's dual screen infotainment setup controls the navigation and radio while also displaying information from the "LaneWatch" camera mounted on the passenger side door mirror. This, in place of the traditional radar based blind-spot detection setup, is surprisingly effective and it is no wonder that Honda has decided to include it in nearly all trims of the Accord. Dual-zone climate control and heated seats offer plenty of ways to manage your personal environs. LED headlights cut through the darkness to provide excellent visibility in the dark and a radar-based advanced cruise control system with low-speed follow eases the burden during those pesky commutes. Given its $35k price tag, this car is an absolute bargain.

However, as good as it is, is it going to be enough to steal sales away from its competitors, like Hyundai's Sonata Hybrid or the Toyota Camry Hybrid, which seem to have proliferated quite a bit in the last few years? What about dedicated hybrid platforms like the Prius, which continues to sell in shockingly large numbers? At the end of the day, the buyer for the Accord Hybrid has to be someone who is looking for a fairly premium experience while needing the fuel economy benefits of the hybrid. It's rather high price tag puts it towards the top of the class and the lack of good lease rates on it at the moment make it a bit of a hard buy over some of the competition. Plus, the buyer of this hybrid needs to be able to get over the fact that there is still a tremendous sacrifice in cargo carrying capacity to fit the massive battery pack.

Still, despite these shortcomings, this is probably one of the few hybrid cars I would seriously consider. It offers a very premium experience at a reasonable price while bringing with it tons of technological innovation and one of the smoothest hybrid drivetrains available on the market. Those in the market for a seriously enjoyable stealthy hybrid experience should absolutely give this car a look.