– Napa, California
Imagine a Venn diagram. There's a circle for driving character, one for performance, another for utility, one for comfort, yet another for affordability, and of course, one for fuel efficiency. At the center of this diagram is the 2017 Honda Accord Hybrid, a stellar fuel-sipper with the utility for a family, a driving character uncommon in today's midsize sedans, a high level of comfort and tech, and segment-leading fuel economy that doesn't sacrifice performance. This is the most balanced hybrid vehicle on the market, even if it isn't the most fuel-efficient hybrid).
At the Accord Hybrid's heart is a revised two-motor powertrain, or Intelligent Multi-Mode Drive system in Honda-ese. Engineers updated the old 2.0-liter, Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder, adding its first exhaust heat recovery system and tweaking the engine management software for a small power boost. The 2015 model's 141 horsepower and 122 pound-feet of torque jump to 143 hp and 129 lb-ft in the 2017. Paired with a 1.3-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery and two electric motors – a 142-hp and 63-lb-ft generator unit and a new, lighter drive motor good for 181 hp and 232 lb-ft of torque – the Accord Hybrid's 212 total system hp is 27 more than the gas-only four-cylinder Accord and 16 more than the 2015 hybrid.
Despite the bump in power, fuel economy actually improves. Yes, Honda lost a mile per gallon in the city – from the coveted 50 miles per gallon to 49 – but the EPA's new formulas, set to sting manufacturers across the US in 2017, are to blame. (Honda says efficiency has actually increased despite the lower figures.) But even with the new EPA estimates, the Accord's highway and combined numbers are both up, from 45 and 47 mpg in 2015 to 47 and 48 in 2017. I’ll call this a net win.
Hitting those numbers is easy – even driving hard on winding sections of Northern California tarmac, the Accord Hybrid returns economy in the mid-to-high 30-mpg range. But testing in Detroit needs to happen before Honda earns a full endorsement. What I can say for certain is that the powertrain performance is plenty for 3,500-pound sedan.
The Accord Hybrid can claw its way out of corners and manage freeway passes without strain; the power is comparable to a normal, four-cylinder Accord, but with more torque.
With 232 pound-feet of zero-rpm torque, the Accord Hybrid is brisk off the line. The electric motor's grunt wears out at 2,000 rpm, but the gas engine's 4,000-rpm torque peak keeps performance from falling off. The Accord Hybrid can claw its way out of corners and manage freeway passes without strain; the power is comparable to a normal, four-cylinder Accord, but with more torque.
The updated powertrain suffers in low-speed, low-throttle applications due to its unusual transmission. The new Intelligent Power Unit is smaller and lighter than the 2015 version, but it behaves similarly. The trunk-mounted unit, integrated with the battery pack, juggles the interactions of the electric motors, gas engine, and a lock-up clutch to mimic the behavior of a continuously variable transmission – hence the “e-CVT” in the data panel. But when the gas engine fires in certain conditions, there's a small, unrefined surge in power that disrupts the illusion of a single, unified power source. It's the powertrain's biggest fault. Otherwise, the e-CVT is excellent. It's quick to engage off the line and doesn't exhibit the rubber-band-like behavior of conventional CVTs.
The powertrain's other new feature, a dedicated Sport mode, scores a solid “meh.” When engaged, Honda says there's “more battery assist to the propulsion motor for increased acceleration performance.” I’m sure that's true in the lab, but there's no big bump in performance noticeable from behind the wheel. If Sport adjusted steering weight – like on nearly every other car on the market – it'd be a more useful feature.
Once again, the Accord Hybrid's regenerative brakes are a headline-maker. Like most hybrids, Honda use the electrical generator motor to recapture energy and slow the car down before engaging the traditional friction brakes. But Honda manages to do it without the grabby, hard-to-modulate pedal feel of its rivals. They feel natural, like a car without regenerative brakes, and that’s one of the nicest things I can say about a hybrid.
Like the last-generation Accord Hybrid, Honda kept the aesthetic changes from gas to hybrid to a minimum. There are blue accents in the grille and headlights and unique 17-inch wheels. Otherwise, everything, including the Hybrid-specific aluminum hood, looks like a normal Accord. Changes in the cabin are minor, too; aside from a few new buttons and some different upholstery options in the cabin, it's hard to pick out differences from the gas-powered car.
That's the case for most other aspects of the car. The Accord Hybrid skipped the 2016 model year, when Honda updated its gas-powered brothers, but it's subject to all the same refinements. The Accord Touring's new amplitude-reactive dampers are standard across the Hybrid line – they do what it says in the name, managing to make big potholes feel like smaller bumps. But like the gas-powered Accord, this is an affable dance partner that slots in below the Mazda6 but is better than everything else in the midsize sedan segment, gas or hybrid. Aside from feeling floaty on undulations and heavier in turns – it's only around 130 pounds heavier than a gas-powered Accord Sport – the Hybrid's body motions are precise and its feedback plentiful for a 3,500-pound family sedan. Honda also tweaked the electric power steering. It's light on feedback, but fast, direct, and weights up smoothly in the bends. Again, there's a lot to like here.
Aside from feeling floaty on undulations and heavier in turns, the Hybrid's body motions are precise and its feedback plentiful for a 3,500-pound family sedan.
There's a lot to like about the price, too. The Accord Hybrid starts at $29,605 (not including the $835 destination charge), and that includes the excellent Honda Sensing Suite that combines collision mitigation braking, lane departure warning, forward collision warning, lane keeping assist, road departure mitigation, and adaptive cruise control. But I recommend the mid-range EX-L. If this is the most balanced hybrid around, the EX-L is the most balanced Accord Hybrid trim. It adds a touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, leather seats, a sunroof, SiriusXM satellite radio, and a seven-speaker stereo to all the goodies on the base car. And it's only $2,300 above the starting price. At $33,740, that's roughly equal with the Ford Fusion Hybrid Titanium, but it's about $1,500 more than an equally equipped Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, although with the Chevy you’ll be missing adaptive cruise control and a few of the other goodies in the Honda Sensing Suite.
Buying a car usually requires compromise. If it's efficient, it's at the expense of performance. If it's affordable, give up on tech. And if it's comfortable, it's a bore to drive. The Accord Hybrid doesn't force drivers into those compromises. It balances the things midsize sedan buyers value most – fuel economy, safety, comfort, and tech – but it's not a boring isolation box. It's just balanced. That's all I can ask for in a family sedan.
Photos: Brandon Turkus / Motor1.com
Gallery: First Drive: 2017 Honda Accord Hybrid