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.

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