The Updated 2021 Honda Accord Hybrid Refines Its Transmission-Free Powertrain11/13/2020
Whether you like it or not, electrified powertrains are here to stay, becoming deeply entrenched in every corner of the market. They’re everywhere: sedans, SUVs, big cars and small cars. You’ll soon be able to get a plug-in hybrid Jeep for crying-out loud.
Honda, for its part, is playing the electrification game relatively conservatively with only one plug-in model, the Clarity. And it’s only adding hybrids to its line-up overtime. There’s the hybrid-only Insight, a Civic sized hybrid with a different name, the recently launched CR-V hybrid, and this Honda Accord Hybrid, updated for 2021, using the same basic system as the Insight and CR-V, but with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder replacing a 1.5-liter.
Technically speaking, the design is far from conservative. Engineers took a close look at the system and fundamentally changed how the powertrain works. Your typical hybrid adds an electric motor and battery pack to an engine and transmission layout. Honda instead uses two electric motors to replace the transmission. As a result, the Accord hybrid actually has fewer moving parts than its non-hybrid counterparts.
Here’s how it’s built: You have the engine directly and always connected to an electric motor used only as a generator and starter. After that motor is a wet-clutch pack functioning similarly to a torque converter. From there is a second electric motor providing propulsion to the wheels. Because the engine is clutched and electric motors have a much wider range of useful rpms, no transmission is needed.
Honda’s setup allows three modes of operation: EV mode, as well as Hybrid, and Engine operation. In EV mode, the electric motor, making 181 horsepower and 232 lb-ft of torque on its own, takes charge from the lithium-ion battery pack tucked under the rear seat to power the vehicle. When more juice is needed, the engine kicks on to spin the generator motor and create more electricity, while the electric motor continues to move the car.
The only time the 143 hp, 129 lb-ft of torque, Atkinson cycle 2.0-liter engine aids in vehicle travel is at higher speeds, think highway cruising. In those cases the wet-clutch engages and the engine is tasked with both supplying electricity for the rest of the system and moving you down the road. Because highway cruising is usually when you use a direct drive gear in your transmission anyway, there’s no need for one here. And viola, you have a very big, very expensive part deemed redundant.
In those conditions you get a full system 212 horsepower and 232 lb-ft of torque, good enough to reach 60 mph from rest in about 6.5-seconds. That puts you in Honda Civic Si territory, totally acceptable for a hybrid family sedan. But more pertinent is fuel economy numbers well into the fours. With the heavily optioned and 19-inch wheel equipped Honda Accord Hybrid Touring, the EPA thinks you’ll get 44 miles per gallon in the city, 41 on the highway, and 43 combined. Lower trims come with 17-inch wheels, narrower tires and less weight to deliver a stout 48/48/48 city/highway combined, according to the EPA.
For 2021, Honda played with the styling front and rear and added features inside, like standard Apple Carplay and Android Auto as well as more USB ports. But for the hybrid specifically, they fiddled with the software to improve livability, more specifically to make the acceleration under electric power feel more familiar to internal combustion engine users.
Put another way, Honda played with throttle and calibration so it sounds like the engine is propelling the car, even though it’s actually the very quiet electric motor. As you accelerate, engine revs climb more similarly to the way they would in a non-hybrid car. Funny, right? It shows that we, as a society, really do not like change.
Even though the powertrain is largely carryover from the 2020 Accord Hybrid , engineers did manage to eke out an additional mpg in highway driving. 2020 models could only manage 47. There were tangible improvements.
And the largely carryover powertrain suits me fine because it’s a good powertrain. The Accord Hybrid operates smoothly and delivers stellar fuel economy without driving satisfaction compromise. The interaction between EV, Hybrid, and Engine modes is largely seamless. Really, it drives just like a standard Honda Accord, a good thing. You get all the utilitarian function of a family sedan, but retain some engagement and enjoyment winding through a twisty road.
Just like any new car these days you get driving modes: in the Accord Hybrid its ECO, Normal, and Sport. And this is where it gets a little more interesting. The three modes affect the throttle map, just like most cars. But in the Accord Hybrid, switching to Sport also changes brake regeneration functionality.
The Accord hybrid comes with paddles on the steering wheel, just like many of today’s automatics. But without different gears to choose from, the paddle shifters are there to choose how much re-gen deceleration you get. There are four levels. In Eco and normal modes, the system resets after each time you brake. In Sport mode, however, it retains your settings until you turn on the cruise control or turn off the car. And that means, theoretically at least, you could actually achieve your best fuel economy in Sport mode.
A test is in order! I drove an 80-mile loop two mornings in a row, very similar weather, about 40 degrees; traffic, light; and road, dry; conditions. The loop includes lots of country roads, more than 50 miles, some city driving, and a 15-mile stint on the interstate. I drove the Accord Hybrid Touring as I do any car on the loop, spirited. In Eco mode I managed 39.5 mpg and in Sport mode—drum roll—39.6 mpg. It’s not much, but I call that a win.
More importantly, it was enjoyable to drive in either mode. No, ultimate grip from the tires isn’t that high, but response to inputs is positive. You get a responsive front end and even a little feel from the steering wheel. To do that and manage nearly 40 mpg on a back road drive is an achievement.
The 2021 Honda Accord Hybrid starts at $27,325, going all out and getting the Touring sets you back $37,195. You can get a Honda Accord LX with a 1.5-liter engine and one of those transmission things for $1600 less at $25,725. But, to be fair, you get 20 fewer horsepower, 40 fewer lb-ft of torque, and much worse fuel economy.
Not long ago, we reached a point where hybrids could keep up with “normal” cars. We’ve now reached a point where they’ve surpassed them. It’s time to embrace it and reap the benefits.
Hybrids are stupid! No they’re not! Actually, I disagree. Is that so? Then let us know in the comments below.
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