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Is the Honda Accord Hybrid Set to Fail Again?

Drew Dowdell

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This morning, William Maley posted his First Drive Review of the 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid. To the surprise of almost no one, Honda seems to have put together a compelling combination of their class leading Accord mid-size and hybrid technology. In spite of the fact that Honda introduced hybrid vehicles to the North American market, beating the Prius here by a few months, Honda has since then taken a back seat to nearly all of the other manufacturers that build hybrids except perhaps General Motors. The problem for Honda, a problem they share with GM, is that their old Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) is only a mild hybrid system. The new 2014 Accord Hybrid uses a new system which I'll explain later, but I am pointing this out to underscore why and how Honda is playing catch-up in the hybrid market and why I think this newest of their entries is already doomed to be a Wikipedia footnote.

General Motors got a lot of flack for the minimal returns their initial hybrid system provided. Much of that criticism was justified, however a substantial portion of the blame lays at the feet of GM's marketing department for trying to pass off what was essentially an Engine Auto-Stop system with mild engine assist as a full hybrid system at the same time Toyota was marketing their new star, the Toyota Prius. Once GM marketing changed their tune and re-branded the slightly more powerful yet also more efficient hybrid as E-Assist instead of as a hybrid, much of that criticism stopped.

Why is the GM Mild-Hybrid relevant to a post about Honda's Hybrid? Because the main technological distinction between the GM E-Assist system and the Honda IMA system is solely the location of where the electric motor is mounted. On the GM System, the electric motor connects to the crank shaft at the front of the engine via a belt; on the Honda IMA, the electric motor connects to the crankshaft at the rear of the engine by being built into the engine's flywheel. All the rest, from gasoline engine efficiency, to transmissions used, to battery capacity was just fluff. Honda managed to pull of slightly better results in the Civic than GM did with the initial Saturn Aura and Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, and thus were able to avoid most of the criticism, but the basic layout of both systems is remarkably similar. (View our article on How GM's E-Assist Works)

Honda's first try at an Accord Hybrid took the performance route, trying to offer V8 performance with V6 efficiency. This was a problem for two reasons; First, no one was looking for V8 performance from a Honda Accord. Second, the standard 2004 V6 Accord Coupe was already pretty fast with a 0-60 time of 6.1 seconds. For comparison, a 2003 Ford Mustang V8 automatic was only half a second faster. The typical Honda Accord driver simply didn't need or want more performance than that. This generation of Accord Hybrid suffered another setback when its fuel efficiency ratings were down-rated. Initially starting at 29mpg city and 37mpg highway, the Accord Hybrid was down-rated in 2004 to 25 mpg city and 34 mpg highway with the addition of a sunroof and standard spare tire that bumped the vehicle into a higher EPA weight class. Shoppers stayed away and the Accord Hybrid was dropped after the 2007 Model year.

After skipping a generation, Honda is back with a new take on the Accord Hybrid. This time Honda is fully focused on the fuel efficiency aspect, sporting an EPA rating of 50 mpg highway, 45 mpg city, 47 mpg combined from the new 2 liter 4-cylinder hybrid. Honda has ditched their mild hybrid IMA system in favor of an entirely new Dual Motor system called "Sport Hybrid intelligent Multi-Mode Drive". In addition to the regular hybrid, Honda is offering a Plug-In model to compete with the Ford Fusion Energi.

2014 Honda Accord Hybrid 9

Click Picture to Enlarge

In William's review, the Accord Hybrid appears to be the competent and capable car people expect the Accord to be and that makes it one of the top selling mid-size sedans in the U.S. He even managed to meet the advertised EPA ratings during his drive. Everything you might love about a standard Honda Accord is there.

So what's my problem? Why this long-winded post and inflammatory headline? Why do I think the 2014 Accord Hybrid is doomed to fail all over again in spite of being a perfectly competent vehicle from a company with established credibility for fuel economy? One word: PRICE.

The 2014 Accord Hybrid Pricing, which includes a $790 destination charge, is as follows:

  • Accord Hybrid - $29,945
  • Accord Hybrid EX-L - $32,695
  • Accord Hybrid Touring - $35,695

Read that again. Did your eyes pop out? For $29,945, you get base Accord Hybrid. Granted, it is fairly well appointed, but select any option more than the Smoker's Package and you're instantly over the $30,000 price point.

The Camry Hybrid starts at $26,950, the Fusion Hybrid is $26,995, Optima Hybrid is $26,700 and the VW Passat TDI is $27,115 - $33,815 all after destination. The Passat TDI can also can get over 50 mpg highway real world though the official EPA numbers are in the 40s.

On the plug-in side, Chevy recently shaved $5,000 off the price of the 2014 Volt ... meaning that if you qualify for the $7,500 tax credit, you can get a base Chevrolet Volt for $27,495 and then not use any gas during your normal commutes and today, Toyota announced a $2,000 price cut on the 2014 Prius Plug-In resulting in similar price points there.

The news isn't great if you prefer your cars fully loaded either - Ford Fusion Hybrid Titanium is $32,296 after destination charge, a full $3,200 less than the Accord Hybrid Touring.

Source: 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid

$29k for a base Accord Hybrid!?! Good lord! With prices like that, this hybrid system may have been more appropriate for Honda's Acura luxury brand. It would certainly mesh with Acura's high tech image. Honda may have priced themselves out of the hybrid market by a few thousand dollars. Ten years ago Honda may have gotten away with it when the only other real competitor was Toyota, but today, most mainstream brands have a hybrid or high fuel economy diesel option.

Is Honda setting themselves up to fail on the Accord Hybrid again?

Photography by William Maley

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$30K to start?! There is no way it will sell at that price for an Accord. Now as an option for a TL or RLX, that could work extremely well.

Honda's real problem is that it has no single dedicated hybrid model like the Prius. Prius drivers want everyone to see that they are eco-conscious. A Civic Hybrid or an Accord Hybrid does not say that. A Prius does, especially in CA where gas is still 40-50 cents higher than anywhere else in the lower 48. Of course the Accord Hyrbid will fail, because the average consumer still want their new car to make a statement that a middle schooler would instinctively understand.

Remember, when the Prius was first released, Toyota subsidized it with selling the first Tundras. It worked extremely well for Toyota's bottom line.

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Honda has the Insight and CR-Z as dedicated hybrids.

Then how come NOBODY buys one of those? All I see are Priuses around here.

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Because they don't get the MPGs the Pruis does and it looks a lot like the Pruis. I get what you're saying, that a hybrid buyer likes the image of driving a hybrid and wants a unique vehicle. I was just pointing out that Honda does have two dedicated hybrid models.

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