First Drive: Honda’s Plug-in Hybrid Takes On Volt and Prius

By · December 09, 2011

Honda Accord Mule for Company's Plug-in Hybrid System

Honda offered drives of its mid-size two-motor plug-in hybrid prototype on the "Everyday Fun" part of a media event held on Nov. 29, north of Tokyo. (Photos: Brad Berman.)

Nearly all the media attention in the plug-in car world goes to pure electric vehicles, while plug-in hybrids mostly escape notice. That was true during the press days at last week’s 2011 Tokyo Motor Show, and during the media unveiling by Honda of its new powertrains prior to the show. The Honda Fit EV, as I reported on Monday, deserves a spotlight—based purely on the impressive amount of acceleration it delivers. But after five minutes behind the wheel of Honda’s Accord-sized plug-in hybrid, I believe it could be the breakthrough electrified vehicle that Honda needs.

Five minutes is not a lot of time to experience a car. For about four of those minutes I was trying to figure out when the gas engine was or wasn’t on. I started my drive in all-electric mode. When I eased up to 35 miles per hour, it was still purely electric. From there, I stomped on the accelerator and detected a very slight vibration from the 2.0-liter gas engine—but within a few seconds, it was quiet again as I continued to accelerate with more restraint. Is it on? Is it off? Except for a full throttle-down take-off from low speed to max speed—as if ramping up to a highway—I couldn’t tell.

Honda Accord Mule for Company's Plug-in Hybrid System

Honda is using the Accord as the mule for its new mid-size plug-in hybrid prototype. The prototype had basic separate fuel gauges for electricity and gasoline.

The driving experience of the Honda two-motor plug-in hybrid system reminded me of the Ford Fusion Hybrid’s smooth transition from gas to electric and back. Perhaps the key is Honda PHEV’s efficient 2.0-liter gas engine, just big enough to rev at relatively lower RPMs to remain quiet (with little vibration)—compared to the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid’s slightly smaller 1.8-liter engine that comes on with an unmistakable rumble.

As I complained about in September when I drove the production version of the Prius Plug-in Hybrid, the feel of Toyota’s PHEV is wimpy. The last thing an EV fan wants to encounter on a regular basis is the gas engine coming on and off. It’s annoying. The Honda system, which will go into a midsized vehicle (not necessarily but probably the Accord), avoids the engine-on-engine-off sensation. Moreover, the Honda Plug-in Hybrid delivers much more power than the Prius-with-plug. The size of the Accord’s 120-kW electric motor is fully double the size of the Prius’s 60 kW motor.

Combine a larger gas engine, with an electric motor that’s twice as big, and a battery pack that stores 6 kilowatt-hours of energy—compared to the Prius’s 4.4 kWh pack—and you have a much more capable plug-in hybrid. It drives with more power and confidence. And the size of the Accord is a bump from the C to D platform—a big step up for consumers looking for an efficient five-seat family sedan.

What About EV Range?

The size of the vehicle, motor and engine are also all bigger than those employed in the Chevy Volt. Just like the Volt, Honda’s midsize plug-in hybrid—to be produced by the end of 2012—is mostly a series plug-in hybrid. In other words, in almost all conditions, the electric motor is the sole source of propulsion for the wheels—with the gas engine called into service to power the electric motor and thereby extend the range. Honda specs say its PHEV has a total range of 500 miles (using the lenient LA4 cycle).

Honda Accord Mule for Company's Plug-in Hybrid System

GM has never really let go of its claim that—despite carrying a gas engine—the Volt is absolutely, without a doubt, and completely an electric car. Except when it isn’t. The company reluctantly admitted that the Volt can be more efficient during some highway cruising conditions, when it has the ability to transfer energy directly from gas engine to wheels. Honda avoids these mind games and openly acknowledges that the gas engine can mechanically clutch directly to the wheels. Efficiency rules: pure electric motoring can occur up to 62 mph, but the gas engine will be called into service whenever the load is heavy enough—most commonly during highway cruising.

Of course, the question most plug-in drivers will want to know is how many miles of EV driving the Accord-size plug-in hybrid will deliver. The Honda PHEV’s battery, at 6 kWh, is less than half the size of the Volt’s 16 kWh pack. So, the Volt’s 35 miles of electric driving is sliced down to 10 – 15 miles, according to Honda. Is that a weak choice? I don’t think so. The decision is an attempt to reduce the cost of the most expensive component—the battery pack—and put more of these cars on the road. Unless you’re a regular long-distance commuter, you’re more likely to use every bit of the battery pack you’re paying for with Honda’s smaller-battery approach. Honda’s not yet talking about price, so it’s too early to know how much the smaller pack will allow the company to reduce the purchase price.

It’s interesting to note that the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid also claims 15 miles of EV range, despite having a battery pack that’s 25 percent smaller. I’m guessing that Honda is going for performance rather than maximum EV range, to make its plug-in hybrid as fun to drive as possible.

Somewhere In-Between the Volt and Prius Plug-in

Again, the plug-in Prius drives like a hybrid, with mileage augmentation via a bigger battery that can be charged via the grid. The Honda plug-in hybrid has more of a (powerful-yet-quiet) EV feel—relying on the blending of gas and electricity more than the Chevy Volt.

Honda Accord Mule for Company's Plug-in Hybrid System

According to Honda presentations, its new two-motor system (available with plug-in capability) is both more powerful and sustainable than the company's existing IMA hybrid system.

It remains to be seen of any carmaker can upsize its EV (or Volt-like extended-range electric vehicle) to the larger family-size sedan. (Nissan’s Mark Perry told me that all carmakers, including Nissan, will need to go to a plug-in hybrid, rather than a pure EV, to get into the mid-size category.)

In a nutshell, the Honda Plug-in Hybrid uses Toyota’s small-battery blended PHEV approach, while borrowing a lot of the Volt’s series-hybrid EV feel. That’s placed in a five-seat car bigger than any other plug-in model coming to market (except for the Toyota Rav4 EV and maybe the Tesla Model S). It’s a welcome addition to the plug-in offerings—and I can’t wait to spend more time in the car and learn more about pricing and production numbers.

Combining Fun, Affordability, Size, and a Plug

When I asked Honda President Takanobu Ito about his company’s ability and willingness to compete on electric cars, he said that he sees a much bigger role for hybrids to address CO2 and sustainability issues. Honda’s current mild-hybrid IMA system can only take the company so far. The two-motor system to be used first in the plug-in hybrid that I drove—and within a year, to find its way to conventional hybrids—is a great step forward.

Honda Accord Mule for Company's Plug-in Hybrid System

Mr. Ito said that high fuel economy is not enough for a car. “It has to be fun to drive.” The Accord-sized Hybrid plug-in hybrid checks off a lot of boxes—very efficient; mostly electric; decent size for mainstream buyers; and fun to drive. (Price is still a question, but the relatively smaller pack compared to a pure EV seems like a smart strategy.)

If this car is what Mr. Ito has in mind when he talks about "driving fun," and hybrids taking prominence over pure EVs, then Honda should bring it on. We’ll know if Honda is serious when the company announces the sales price, if it will be offered for sale (or only as a lease), and how many the company will produce.

Comments

· · 2 years ago

Very exciting news! There is clearly an opportunity for this solution in the market.

· EV-Hopeful (not verified) · 2 years ago

Another good option!

My commute is 14 miles round trip, perfect for this car. Kids are in college and the Honda Odyssey has served us well but should be replaced in the next year.

Going to add this to my test drive list (for when its available).

· · 2 years ago

A lot of people drive 10 or 15 miles per day all but once a week or so when they drive some long distance. Weekend warriors or people who occasionally have to go to the next city over for work. This is the perfect car for them.

Or one of a set of two with a LEAF :)

· · 2 years ago

"Honda’s not yet talking about price, so it’s too early to know how much the smaller pack will allow the company to reduce the purchase price."

In theory - smaller battery will allow the MSRP to be lower - but in practice, after tax credit price will be similar to Volt, thus making the smaller range PHEV look less than good value.

This is because of the way tax credit is structured. The larger the battery - the larger the credit - upto a max of 16 kwh (not incidentally what Volt has).

In other words, the marginal cost of an extra kWh after tax credit is almost zero. So, why go for a smaller battery than a bigger battery ?

Ofcourse, Toyota & Honda know about this. Unless they are designing with outside US market in mind - why do they still put small batteries ? I think the answer is bulk - they simply don't have the space to put a larger battery without eating into trunc space. Ofcourse, larger battery also weighs more & cuts the efficiency.

· Londo Bell (not verified) · 2 years ago

@ EV Now,

I think that Toyota &, esp Honda, are banking on the elimination of those tax credit, when looking into the future (like 2013 or so).

Maybe a gamble...

· · 2 years ago

@ EVNow - That is a good point about the tax credits.

Another reason they could be doing it is that batteries are just so hard to source in volume right now. So with a given amount of available battery they can do more numbers of plug-in cars. That will change with time as more battery production capacity is built.

· Aristotle (not verified) · 2 years ago

This sound a lot like the nissan altima hybrid. I just test drivea 2010 and was blown away. It felt like a sports sedan. A fun hybrid. The instant torque from the motor hernias a rather sluggish cvt. I own a civic hybrid and its a dog compared too the altima. I hope honda makes this quick enough and uses a cvt.

· Chris T. (not verified) · 2 years ago

The tax credits are likely to change or even drop out entirely soonish, and anything presented today as a concept will take several years to hit any sort of mass market, so I think Honda may be on the right track here. I can't find good data easily on Honda's automobile sales outside the US, but it looks like sales all over Australasia are growing, too, and US tax credits don't do you any good if you're selling the car in Australia and Thailand.

The space issue is also an issue. :-) The Roadster and Karma are a lot of fun to drive but neither has enough room. Tesla's roadster comes by this courtesy of its Lotus Elise DNA, of course, but packaging both electric and gas motors and a lot of batteries and a gas tank (Karma) eats a lot of space. Pure EVs drop one engine and one fuel tank. If you decide to put in a lot of battery, you have a choice of pure EV (Model S) or giant footprint (Karma).

The high-range Model S is going to be pretty heavy as well, plus there's the extra $20k for the extra ~140 miles of range. Even with the space and weight savings of being a pure EV, it's going to be an issue, I think. Weight is an enemy of both acceleration (i.e., fun) and efficiency (cost), so if you're already going plug-in hybrid, sizing the battery to "minimum that gets you 90%" (or whatever) is a good choice.

· · 2 years ago

@Chris T. "The tax credits are likely to change or even drop out entirely soonish,"

No chance of that at all. Afterall Senate & whitehouse are still controlled by dems and atleast 6 or 7 senators, including some Rs, will filibuster any attempts to drop the tax credits (including Lamar Alexander from the home state of Nissan).

· · 2 years ago

I think the tax credits could go either way. Mitsubishi/Nissan/GM certainly have a reason to lobby to keep them. Then there's everyone else. Either way though, the Prius's tax credits are gone and people are still buying hybrids. When the EV credits do go, they'll probably cost less anyway.

As for the limit 10-12 mile range on the plugin Accord & Prius, why not sell it with that range. However, why not leave extra space in the battery compartment so people can add more battery cells when they're financially ready. That might even benefit the Leaf. Of course, the dealer would have to pass on nearly the wholesale volume price, or it wouldn't make any sense. :)

· · 2 years ago

The first Prius's tax credits are gone. hehe, I know I'll be corrected on the plugin model. Plus the California HOV lane sticker is gone. It may have been easy to see those as the only two selling points for hybrids, but they're still selling.

In fact, I've noticed in Marin, California, it seems like every other car there is a Prius now. I remember my last camping trip we counted Prius's versus Civics, and the Prius's beat the Civics virtually 2 to 1. Maybe it's just something bizarre about Sir Francis Drake Blvd, but that's what we counted. hehe

· · 2 years ago

@tterbo · "However, why not leave extra space in the battery compartment so people can add more battery cells when they're financially ready. "

Not that simple. Esp. in a hybrid. Battery size drives a lot of critical design parameters, including motor power, regen cability etc. Then there is the weight issue - which affects balance, suspension etc.

I don't think we will have port/dealer installed extra batteries for a very long time - if ever.

· theflew (not verified) · 2 years ago

I think the big difference with the Volt is while it has sufficient charge it can go from 0 to 100 mph with the battery alone. I can cruise at 70-100mph with the battery alone. Something that is rarely reported is even when the battery is depleted because of regerative breaking and excess charging from the generator the ICE will shutdown and you're running on battery alone until it hits the low charge point again.

My point is unlike the Plugin Prius and the Honda the Volt has an electric motor large enough to always be electric. The ICE engages because of efficiency not because it's required.

· · 2 years ago

"Nissan’s Mark Perry told me that all carmakers, including Nissan, will need to go to a plug-in hybrid, rather than a pure EV, to get into the mid-size category."

Not Tesla.

· · 2 years ago

@JRP3 · "Not Tesla."

But Tesla had to do a very large car to accommodate the needed batteries. They didn't make a mid-size car. Ofcourse in 5 years time, this should be possible.

· · 2 years ago

@JRP3 - "Not Tesla." But throw the word "affordability" in the mix, and the story changes. Battery costs are coming down, but it will always come down to a dollar-per-kWh equation. Six kilowatts is quite modest--especially compared to the Model S, which will have 40 to 80 kilowatt-hours of storage (depending on the desired range from 160 to 300 miles). The Model S will be awesome, but will come at a price for the pack that's anywhere from about seven to 14 times the Honda plug-in hybrid (or other PHEVs coming from Toyota, Nissan, Ford, etc.)

· · 2 years ago

@JRP3 - "Not Tesla." But throw the word "affordability" in the mix, and the story changes. Battery costs are coming down, but it will always come down to a dollar-per-kWh equation. Six kilowatts is quite modest--especially compared to the Model S, which will have 40 to 80 kilowatt-hours of storage (depending on the desired range from 160 to 300 miles). The Model S will be awesome, but will come at a price for the pack that's anywhere from about seven to 14 times the Honda plug-in hybrid (or other PHEVs coming from Toyota, Nissan, Ford, etc.)

· · 2 years ago

@JRP3 - "Not Tesla." But throw the word "affordability" in the mix, and the story changes. Battery costs are coming down, but it will always come down to a dollar-per-kWh equation. Six kilowatts is quite modest--especially compared to the Model S, which will have 40 to 80 kilowatt-hours of storage (depending on the desired range from 160 to 300 miles). The Model S will be awesome, but will come at a price for the pack that's anywhere from about seven to 14 times the Honda plug-in hybrid (or other PHEVs coming from Toyota, Nissan, Ford, etc.)

· · 2 years ago

Part of the reason Telsa needed a large car was because Elon wanted to carry two of his kids in the back. A smaller car could have used a smaller battery pack. I think they certainly could have done a midsized car with a slightly smaller pack and still gotten the range they wanted, they could have had a 250 mile range car in a smaller platform, still more than any other car maker.

· Londo Bell (not verified) · 2 years ago

"mid-size category"

And that's what the problem is with US - we are lazy, hence getting fat (I'm one) :(

Mid-size in US = full size or even luxury size in other parts of the world! (Or even full size in US back in the 90s.)

· · 2 years ago

@Brad,
Look at the base Model S, at $50K, how much more expensive is that than the Honda hybrid will be? I'd bet the Honda will come in around $30K, for maybe a 15 mile EV range, compared to 160 mile Tesla range. Another $20K for full EV range looks pretty good, and as I said Tesla could have made an Accord type EV with a smaller pack for less money.

· · 2 years ago

@JRP3 - No arguments from me on your logic. There's plenty of room for both a luxury midsize pure EV and a more affordable midsize 15-mile plug-in hybrid. The question is which one scales up bigger--considering issues of price, range, ability to fuel up with two different fuels, re-charge times, etc. I just want to see Honda jump into the plug-in world with both feet--and an Accord-like plug-in hybrid that has more power than the Prius Plug-in, and more size for less cost than the Volt, makes a ton of sense to me.

· · 2 years ago

EVNow: Ah that figures. Well it would be nice to have some modularity in there.

Now for a question of the day. What's involved in placing a stronger HP EV motor in say a Leaf? Is it a big aftermarket upgrade? Can you just go to Amazon or something and order a 1000 hp EV motor? Or do they make them?

I only ask because people are always challenging me on Leaf/Tesla's 0-60mph times.

· · 2 years ago

@JRP3 "A smaller car could have used a smaller battery pack. "

But would have been even more expensive. Given that the 300 mile pack has the higher density cells, I think 160 miles would have been ok with a smaller car - but 230 mile would have requiered the high density cells and 300 may not have been possible.

· · 2 years ago

tterbo,
No you can't just put in a larger motor, you need to match the motor and controller, and you need a more powerful battery pack to support both. It's really all about how much power the pack can deliver and if the controller and motor can stand up to it. There is probably some headroom in the motor and controller for higher peak power for short bursts, and in the pack as well, but you'll be reducing battery life, and possibly component life.

EVNow, are we sure the 160 mile pack is going to be the lower density cells, or just fewer of the higher density cells? I thought that was still up in the air.

· · 2 years ago

JRP3: So it's a bit of an undertaking to mod. That's probably just as well. Thanks for the info. :)

· · 2 years ago

@Brad,
I'm still a bit confused. Will this Accord PHEV drive at freeway speeds (75 mph) with only the electric motor?

Also, it actually isn't just $/kWhr. Most batteries today are limited by cycle life so the price metric currently is $/lifetime kWhrs through the motor. In other words, you have to count cycle life as well. Putting in a smaller battery may not save you any money in the long run if the cycle life is the same. A battery that is half the size will just have to be replaced twice as often.

As an example, the Tesla Roadster's battery is expected to last at least 500 full charge-discharge cycles (cycle life = 500). If you want the battery to last 100,000 miles, it will need a 250 mile range (guess what it is?). If you drop the range to 50 miles, it will only go 25,000 miles before you'll need a new pack. You'll put just as many batteries in the vehicle to go 100,000 miles regardless of the max range.

Nissan, of course, hasn't told us the cycle life to expect but if they're going to warranty their 100 mile battery for 100,000 miles, it had better be at least 1000 cycles or you're going to be buying that 200 mile range to get 100,000 miles anyway. The Volt's 50 mile pack had better last 2,000 cycles.

· sue jones (not verified) · 2 years ago

When I drive my Chevy Volt to the big city, I often chose to make it drive like it has a smaller battery, to increase the efficiency on the highway. The Volt's "Mountain mode" turns on the gas engine sooner on the highway, and leaves more battery capacity in reserve for when I get to the city and want to be totally EV.

I don't use mountain mode except when I am going to run the battery totally down, and wold like to control when that happens, to improve efficiency on the highway and pleasentness and smog in the city.

I also use "Low gear" all the time in the volt- what that really does is move Regenerative braking to the gas pedal so I can speed up and slow down with just the right pedal in traffic. Also a great way to get down a mountain. The Volt's low gear is almost as good as the normal regen braking in a Tesla. Way better than the Leaf's.

· · 2 years ago

@JRP3 ·"are we sure the 160 mile pack is going to be the lower density cells, or just fewer of the higher density cells? I thought that was still up in the air."

From what I see on TeslaForum - 230 mile will & 300 mile cars will have the same # of cells, but 300 will have the new chemistry.

· · 2 years ago

Sue: How do you like your Volt so far? How many miles do you have on it? How far does it tend to go on batteries before switching to gas?

Sorry for all the questions. I just haven't seen any owner reviews.

· · 2 years ago

Try http://gm-volt.com/forum/

· · 2 years ago

So far so good - kudos to Honda!

But I agree with this statement: "We’ll know if Honda is serious when the company announces the sales price, if it will be offered for sale (or only as a lease), and how many the company will produce."

· Anonymous (not verified) · 2 years ago

The real question with lithium battery technology is not so much the safety issue, which has probably been overblown, but durability and reliability. Conventional hybrids like the Prius, which use Ni-Cad batteries, keep their charge and therefore mileage over the long haul--Consumer Reports showed that a 10-year old Prius keeps the same MPGs as a new one. As for reliability, the Germans just rated the Prius the most trouble-free 3-year old car. Pretty amazing that their most reliable car happens to be a hybrid, with all its complicated mechanics. The jury is still out on lithium-ion hybrids and plug-ins.

· · 2 years ago

@Anonymous

Prius doesn't use Ni-Cad it uses NiMH.

Durability is a question - since we Lithium EVs are new. I don't see any issues with reliability.

I always suggest that people who are worried about durability should lease.

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