The redesigned 2013 Honda Accord goes on sale this month, boasting new features, upscale enhancements, and improved fuel economy. But the bigger news is a plug-in hybrid version due this winter. We had a chance this week to experience this new electrified variation and came away impressed.
The plug-in marks a change in Honda's philosophy about hybrids. In the past, Honda focused on mild hybrids that added as little new technology (and cost) as possible. The new 2014 Accord Plug-In Hybrid takes a giant leap beyond the full-hybrid technology used by some other automakers into a full, series hybrid architecture, most similar to the Chevrolet Volt. This Accord, however, has only a 6.7-kWh battery, good for a claimed 12-15 miles, rather than the the Volt's measured 35 miles.
According to Honda, the plug-in Accord operates as a fully electric vehicle (a series hybrid) up to highway speeds (about 50 to 60 mph). For the first 15 miles, as long as you stay below those speeds, the gasoline engine won't start. If the battery is depleted, the gas engine will run a generator to provide electricity.
Above 45 mph, a clutch engages and connects a 137-hp, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder gas engine to the wheels mechanically through a single-speed overdrive gearbox, which is more efficient for highway cruising than electric power. If you accelerate moderately, the electric motor can provide some boost. If you accelerate hard at highway speeds, the car reverts to electric drive mode, with the engine acting as a generator. This delivers more power than either the battery or the gas engine alone can provide.
The battery can't release enough energy quickly enough to take advantage of the electric motor's full output. So, the gas engine turns a generator to provide peak power to the motor. (The Fisker Karma works this way, too.)
The plug-in Accord has three driving modes: Normal, Hybrid Vehicle, and Hybrid Vehicle charge. In Normal mode, the car will use electricity first, then start the engine once the battery is depleted or the car reaches highway speeds.
Hybrid Vehicle (HV) mode is designed to preserve the charge in the battery for later driving; for example, if you're leaving a distant suburb to drive into the city and want to have full battery power to drive around the city. It forces the engine to start and the drive motor to get electricity primarily from the generator.
HV Charge mode requires a two-second push on the mode button to engage. With the battery depleted, it will run the engine at all times to recharge the battery. Charge times depend more on time than mileage. Unless you're driving hard, the engine should be able to charge the battery in under an hour. But running the gas engine to charge the batteries defeats one of the purposes of a hybrid, which is to burn less fuel. (We didn't have a chance to measure fuel economy.)
The plug-in hybrid Accord uses 6.6-kW onboard charger that can fully charge the 6.7-kWh lithium-ion battery in just under an hour, Honda says. The bad news is that the battery takes up more than half the trunk, leaving a tiny receptacle more akin to a sports car.
Yasuyuki Sando, the chief engineer of the Accord Plug-in Hybrid, says while he had to give up trunk space, he made sure it is big enough for the guitar he loves to play to lie flat inside a hard case. That should leave plenty of room for a bag of golf clubs, too.
The final price hasn't been announced yet, but the Accord Plug-in Hybrid qualifies for a $3,750 federal tax incentive.