Honda was the second carmaker in the world to launch a line of hybrid vehicles, though its compact and subcompact mild hybrids have long been overshadowed by Toyota's dominant Prius models.
That may be about to change.
Early next year, a new 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid--and equally significant, a 2014 Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid--will put Honda squarely into the crucial and competitive segment of mid-size hybrid sedans.
The new pair of Accord Hybrids, one without a plug and one with, will face off against the Prius Liftback (which has its own plug-in model) and the upcoming 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid and Energi plug-in hybrid.
The 2014 Accord Hybrid, the higher-volume of the two, will also compete with the Toyota Camry Hybrid, the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Kia Optima Hybrid, and other hybrid entries to come.
2014 HONDA ACCORD PLUG-IN HYBRID: DRIVING IMPRESSIONS -- coming next week!
While Honda offered an Accord Hybrid from 2004 to 2007, that model used a more powerful version of the company's Integrated Motor Assist mild-hybrid system. It didn't offer all-electric running, but just assisted the engine--and it was tuned for power, not fuel efficiency.
Seven years later, Honda has come back with its first full hybrid system, echoing Toyota and Ford in using two motors rather than the single-motor hybrid design employed by Hyundai, Volkswagen, and others.
New 2-motor design
Honda has taken a different approach, however, designing an exceptionally compact system with only a single clutch between the pair of motor-generators.
The first motor, which serves as a generator to charge the battery, is fixed to the back of a 137-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that runs on the ultra-efficient Atkinson Cycle.
The second motor, which can power the vehicle on electricity alone, is fixed to the differential that turns the front wheels. It also acts as a generator to recharge the battery under regenerative braking.
More operating modes than Prius
Honda notes that its system can run three ways: in all-electric mode, as a series hybrid with the engine turning the first generator to produce electricity that powers the second motor (with the clutch between them opened), or as a parallel hybrid with engine and motor together contributing torque (with the clutch engaged).
With its smaller motor-generators, the Toyota Prius Plug-In does not offer the series-hybrid mode. Honda points out that the plug-in Accord Hybrid is set to select among these powertrain options autonomously, so they are not user-selectable "modes".
The gasoline engine is completely beltless, with the water pump, power steering, air-conditioning compressor, and friction-brake servo all powered electrically.
Total output of the engine and motor-generators combined is 196 hp and 226 lb-ft of torque. Maximum electric-motor output is 124 kilowatts (166 hp).
As for range, Honda says the 2014 Accord Plug-In Hybrid will do 10 to 15 miles under electric power--and that it does not switch on its engine under conditions where the Prius Plug-In Hybrid must do so to maintain power.
$3,750 credit, HOV access
The lithium-ion battery pack, with a substantial 6.7 kilowatt-hours (against the 4.2 kWh of the Prius Plug-In), is mounted vertically at the front of the trunk against the rear seat back.
That capacity qualifies buyers of the 2014 Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid for a $3,750 Federal income-tax credit.
And the plug-in hybrid Accord will meet California's strict e-AT-PZEV emissions standards, qualifying it for the highly valued green sticker giving the car access to High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes with just a single occupant.
The Accord Plug-In has a "HV" (hybrid vehicle) switch that lets drivers opt to operate only as a hybrid, preserving the battery charge for later use where zero-emission operation may be desired (late at night or in European central cities that prohibit gasoline vehicles).
It is also fitted with a 6.6-kilowatt built-in charger, meaning that its battery can recharge twice as fast as those of the Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, and Nissan Leaf.
The 2014 Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid will be rolled out to select dealers in certain regions starting early in 2013. The non-plug-in 2014 Accord Hybrid will follow within a few months, and will be rolled out nationally. Both vehicles will be built in Sayama, Japan.