Review: Honda Accord Hybrid keeps it simple

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The adage K.I.S.S. — for “keep it simple, stupid” — has invigorated political campaigns. But it hasn’t worked for Honda’s gasoline/electric hybrid automobiles, though that may change with the introduction of the 2014 Accord Hybrid.

It’s the first mid-size sedan to achieve an astonishing EPA rating of 50 mpg — even more if you feather foot the throttle. A competitive 13.7-mile test run for this review in low-speed city traffic delivered 88.5 mpg. Another, on a 10.5 mile loop in city/highway traffic, ended with 66.2 mpg.

Such anecdotal evidence should boost Honda, which has been in a one-sided battle of hybrids with Toyota for the last 15 years, with Honda soundly defeated at every turn.

In 1997, Toyota introduced its Prius in the U.S. It used a complicated hybrid system in which the electric motor was primary, backed up by a gasoline engine.

A few years later, Honda delivered its Insight, which featured a relatively simple hybrid system — a small electric motor pancaked between the engine and transmission that boosted a low-powered gasoline engine.

Both systems delivered exemplary fuel economy. But there was one big difference. The Prius could be driven exclusively on electricity, though not very far. The Insight’s gasoline engine was engaged all the time.

Over time, the Prius dominated. Despite its intricacies, it proved to be sturdy and reliable, and its expensive battery pack exceeded expectations for longevity. In 2013, the Prius passed 1 million sales in the U.S. and 3 million worldwide. In 2012, U.S. sales totaled 236,659, up from 136,463 in 2011.

Meanwhile, Honda’s Insight trailed far behind. Sales of 15,549 in 2011 plummeted to 5,846 in 2012. Its CR-Z sports coupe, which used the same hybrid system, dropped from 11,330 to 4,192.

In recent years, hybrid systems have spread to other cars of various sizes, crossovers and even sport utility vehicles. You can order hybrids of varying designs from Ford, Hyundai, Volkswagen, Kia, Buick, Chevrolet and even Mercedes-Benz.

Most are unlikely to have the impact of the Toyota Prius because, like the new Accord, other hybrids are just one choice among various other power plants. All Prius models are hybrids or plug-in hybrids.

Honda’s new system, called i-MMD (for Intelligent Multi-Mode Drive) combines a 2.0-liter gasoline engine with an electric drive motor and a generator. Together, the electric motor and gasoline engine deliver 196 horsepower to the front wheels.

Because the electric motor delivers instant torque, or twisting force, there is no need for a transmission, and the Accord can be driven exclusively on electric power at speeds up to 70 miles an hour — though it will only go about a mile at that speed.

Once the car reaches highway speeds, the gasoline engine takes over for cruising. The generator and electric motor, along with regenerative braking and coasting, recharge the Accord’s battery pack, which resides in a space between the rear seatback and trunk. The batteries reduce the trunk space from 16 to 13 cubic feet, which is the only noticeable difference from a standard Accord gasoline sedan.

The 2014 model, with a price tag of $29,995, is not the first Accord hybrid. Honda produced an earlier model from 2005 to 2007, when it was dropped because of dismal sales.

In a miscalculation, that hybrid was designed as a performance car with a 255-horsepower V6 engine paired with an Integrated Motor Assist electric motor — the same system used on the ill-fated Insight. Together, they delivered zero to 60 acceleration times in the seven-second range, but real world fuel economy was well below the EPA city/highway rating of 29/37 mpg.

The 2014 Accord Hybrid, on the other hand, delivers 50 mpg or more and good road manners. With no transmission as such, acceleration from rest is a simple surge of power. A careful touch on the accelerator pedal keeps the car in full electric mode, but stepping hard causes the gasoline engine to fire up and help out.

With pure electric power, the Accord is funeral home quiet. But even when the gasoline engine starts, it’s not much different because of extensive sound deadening. Highway cruising on the gasoline engine is similarly silent.

Though not intended as a sports sedan, the Accord is well balanced and handles competently around corners. The ride is not cushy soft but the suspension system is supple and soaks up bumps without feeling upset.

Quality materials and workmanship characterize the interior and there’s comfort for four. Only the center-rear passenger gets an uncomfortable perch.

2014 Honda Accord Hybrid four-door sedan

  • Powertrain: 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine with two-motor electric system, 196 combined horsepower.
  • Transmission: Single speed.
  • Overall length: 16 feet.
  • EPA passenger/trunk volume: 103/13 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,550 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 50/45/47 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $29,945.
  • Price as tested: $29,945.

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