First Drive: 2017 Honda Accord Hybrid
Excitement for Engine Tech Geeks
NAPA, California — When a publication with the motto "No Boring Cars" asks you to review the mid-cycle refresh of a hybrid sedan, a sensible person may seriously question his standing in the organization. Not me. I dived into the assignment with a zeal that borders on disturbing. Because when it comes to powertrains, I am an inveterate nerd. The 2017 Honda Accord Hybrid may not be the most thrilling car on a curvy road—actually, there's no may about it; it's simply not—but Honda's latest hybrid system is perfect for getting your geek on.
You'll notice immediately after you hop in, power up, and take off that this Accord doesn't feel like other hybrids. If you've driven an all-electric car or a Chevy Volt, the Accord's smooth and seamless flow of power will feel familiar. This is because, like the Volt, the Accord uses its electric motor to drive the wheels. The 2.0-liter gas engine's primary job is to turn a generator that provides electricity for the motor, supplemented by the battery in the trunk. As with other hybrids, when demands are light—or when driver presses the "EV" button—the engine takes a snooze and the battery provides the juice. With no mechanical connection between engine and wheels, the mixing and matching of power sources is completely fluid. The system is effective, efficient, and elegant.
There's one exception to the electric-drive rule: When cruising steadily at around 60 mph, mechanical transmission is more efficient than electricity. Under these circumstances, a clutch connects the Accord's engine to the drive motor, allowing it to drive the wheels directly. You have to love Honda's devotion to efficiency: No doubt the driveline would be cheaper to build without the clutch, but why leave a couple extra mpg on the table?
Another advantage to Honda's system is that the controller is generally able to match the engine note to the accelerator position. Mat the pedal, though, and pretense goes out the window: The engine revs to max-torque speed, and the taps from the battery are opened wide. I generally avoid passing on a two-lane road in a four-cylinder hybrid, but when a local yokel in a Chevy Malibu made a concerted effort to ruin my day, I decided to give it a go. The Accord Hybrid responded with a rapid surge from 40 to 60 mph, which I found both unexpected and rewarding.
Though the basic operation of the Accord's hybrid system is unchanged since its introduction in 2014, Honda has made a series of improvements for 2017 that will delight the geeks. The motors are smaller and lighter thanks to copper wire with a square profile, which can be wound more densely than traditional round wire. The powertrain control unit (PCU) has been repackaged and downsized, as has the battery, freeing up an extra 0.8 cubic feet of much-needed trunk space.
They've also cranked up the regenerative braking system, which uses the drive motor as a generator when the driver applies the brakes, charging the battery and creating resistance that slows the car. The Accord's system is now capable of creating enough resistance that the hydraulic brakes only come into play under harder stops. Chief engineer Koji Ninomoya told me that with the regenerative brakes now doing so much of the work, an Accord Hybrid owner could, theoretically, drive the car for more than 100,000 miles without having to change the brake pads.
No surprise that the Accord's EPA fuel economy estimates are, once again, best-in-class: At 49/47/48 mpg city/ highway/combined, the Accord Hybrid beats out the Chevrolet Malibu (46 mpg combined), Ford Fusion (42), Hyundai Sonata (42), and Toyota Camry (40). (Come on, Toyota, get with the program!) Keen eyes will notice that the city number is down from the 2014-'16 Accord Hybrid's 50 mpg. That's because the EPA changed their test methodology for 2017. (Under the old formula, the 2017 model's figures would have been 50/47/49 versus 40/45/47 for the outgoing model.)
All Accord Hybrids now get Honda's Amplitude Reactive Dampers, which separate oil paths for short- and long-travel inputs. The Accord Hybrid's compliant ride reminded me of the heavy V-6-powered Accords from a couple generations ago. But the Hybrid stays relatively flat and poised as you bend it into the corners, with the front tires squealing out a warning long before the onset of understeer—which, I should add, came sooner than I expected. Choose your entry speeds and line judiciously and the Accord will link the bends together nicely, though it lacks the raw fun factor of the Mazda6 or the Ford Fusion. It'd be great to see the hybrid powertrain ported over to the Sport trim, which has a lighter and more direct feel than other Accords. The Sport is one of the Accord's best-selling variants, so I'm sure a case could be made for it.
The rest of the changes to the 2017 Accord mirror those made to the gasoline-powered models for 2016. The front-end fascia has been revised (though the hybrid gets a unique hood) and the taillights, which used to look vaguely like they came from a Hyundai Genesis, now look vaguely like they came from a Mercedes E-Class. There's the usual fussy application of chrome that seems to be part and parcel of half-hearted styling refreshes. The Accord Hybrid is not a bad-looking car, but it still looks frumpy compared to most of its rivals.
Inside, Honda has shuffled a few bits around to provide more storage space, and a wireless phone charger is now available as a dealer-installed accessory. That's all well and good, but I still can't wrap my head around the dual-screen center stack in EX-L and Touring models. I prefer the simpler stereo in the base Accord Hybrid, though I still don't think the layout is as visually cohesive as that of the Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, or Chevy Malibu hybrids. Accords with a display stereo now have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality, but what they really need is a proper volume knob, which Honda says is coming in the not-too-distant future.
Would I buy an Accord Hybrid? It's not a slam dunk for me, because the Ford Fusion Hybrid is better to drive and the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid has a more cohesive interior. That said, if one is buying a hybrid, does it make any sense to get anything but the most fuel-efficient one? When it comes to fuel economy, the Accord Hybrid is the undisputed champ, warts and all. And even if driving one doesn't exactly stir your soul, your inner geek is going to love it.
2017 Honda Accord Hybrid Touring Specifications
|Price:||$30,440/$36,790 (base/as tested)|
|Engine:||2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4/143 hp @ 6,200 rpm, 129 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm plus electric AC motor/181 hp @ 5,000-6,000 rpm, 232 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm; 212 hp @ 6,200 rpm combined|
|Layout:||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan|
|EPA Mileage:||49/47 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H:||194.1 x 72.8 x 57.5 in|