The Honda Accord covered my 11-mile morning commute to downtown Los Angeles, downhill on the 110 Freeway, without burning a single drop of gas. In the evening, I made it halfway back before the gasoline engine tapped the tank.
In all, the plug-in hybrid version of one of America’s favorite sedans netted almost immeasurably high mileage for a large and surprisingly powerful car.
The trade-off? A $40,570 price tag — about $10,000 more than loaded gasoline-powered models — and a trunk that’s been cut in half to make room for the big battery.
FOR THE RECORD:
Hybrid vehicles: An article in the Nov. 2 Business section about plug-in hybrid cars said Ford had revised the fuel economy ratings of its Fusion hybrid and Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid sedans, from 47 miles per gallon to 43 mpg. Ford revised the rating only of its C-Max hybrid; ratings for the Fusion sedans have not changed. The Fusion hybrid is rated at 47 mpg; the Fusion Energi is rated at 43 mpg. —
Today’s plug-in hybrids may make little economic or practical sense for most drivers. But testing three leaders in the emerging segment — the Accord, the Ford Fusion Energi and the Chevrolet Volt — felt like a glimpse into the future of driving.
For now, automakers are rolling out many competing technologies to save fuel: diesels, hybrids, battery electrics, fuel cells, turbos, hydrogen and more. But none of these technologies alone will win the fuel economy wars; rather, they will converge.
Plug-in hybrids are the first phase of that convergence. Like conventional hybrids, they have gasoline engines that work in unison with an electric motor and a battery. The battery draws its power from the gasoline engine and regenerative braking systems, which capture energy from friction.
But unlike conventional hybrids, the bigger (and way more expensive) batteries in plug-in hybrids are rechargeable — like those in fully electric cars. So the battery provides enough power to drive the car without gas for a limited distance. When that charge runs out, the gasoline and electric motors work together, as in any hybrid.
The goal is to merge gasoline and electric power to eliminate the downside of each. Gasoline engines require $4-a-gallon fuel and pollute the air. Electric cars have short driving ranges and long recharging times. But in combination, you get unlimited range and extremely high efficiency, particularly for drivers with reasonable commutes.
In our testing, the Chevrolet Volt immediately emerged as the efficiency champ, with an electric-only range of about 38 miles, triple the range offered by the Accord and nearly double that of the Fusion. Volt also costs less, with a base price of $34,995 for 2014 models. (Chevrolet recently dropped the price by $5,000 to spur sales.)
But the contest for best car to drive narrowed quickly to the Honda and the Ford. The Volt feels cheap by comparison, with a relatively cramped interior covered in shiny plastic more suited to an economy car. The Honda and the Ford each combine high efficiency and high-end fit and finish.
Here’s how they did in our testing:
To many observers, General Motors defined the emerging plug-in hybrid segment with the Volt. But the automaker says the Volt is no mere hybrid.
Although it combines gasoline and electric power, GM calls the Volt an “extended-range electric vehicle.” GM originally intended to build the Volt as an all-electric car, but practical concerns won out, and the automaker installed a 1.4-liter gasoline engine to assuage buyer concerns about range.
But the Volt’s electric-only range blows away the Ford’s and the Honda’s. And those 38 miles are pleasant, for the most part, behind the wheel. The Volt has decent power and a silent, stable ride. Its 149 horsepower is substantially less than the other two competitors here, but plenty for most drivers.
But the Volt feels less impressive after the charge runs out and the gasoline “range extender” kicks in. With the engine running, the Volt got 35 miles per gallon in our testing, a touch below its Environmental Protection Agency rating of 37 mpg in combined city and highway driving. That’s decent, but it’s nothing some gas-only economy cars can’t pull off.
While most hybrids employ a relatively seamless mix of gas-and-electric power to the wheels, the Volt keeps the gas motor one step removed, like a generator. The engine isn’t connected to the drivetrain; instead, it charges the battery, which powers an electric motor that turns the wheels.
The disconnect is apparent from the driver’s seat. The engine doesn’t always rev when you step on the accelerator. And it sometimes revs at a high idle even when the car is stopped.
The interior is another disappointment. The center console is a cheap, shiny piece of plastic with way too many tiny, touch-sensitive controls that aren’t necessarily sensitive to the touch. Displays on the in-dash screen are garish and often less than intuitive. The cabin is a bit cramped because of the large T-shaped battery riding underneath, which limits available seats to four.
The battery placement also contributes to slab-sided exterior styling, with tall doors and small windows. The windows, when down, produced an annoying problem: unbearable wind noise, as if a helicopter were landing on the roof. In Southern California, that’s a deal-breaker.
Some buyers will overlook the Volt’s flaws because of its class-leading electric range. And GM deserves credit for building a unique and revolutionary car. But buyers who care about performance, style and comfort will gravitate toward a growing number of highly efficient competitors.
Honda Accord plug-in
Any evaluation of the Accord plug-in hybrid starts with broader praise for any version of the Accord. The new Accord is shorter and sportier than its predecessor, yet larger inside. Exterior styling is simple, with clean lines flowing slightly downward from the trunk to the front grille.
Our plug-in test car came loaded with about everything available on any Accord, including four heated seats, a back-up camera and adaptive cruise control.
But few plug-in Accords will end up in driveways. Honda built the car more as an engineering exercise than a sales leader, with plans to sell just 1,100 of them in 2013 and 2014, and only in California and New York. In August, 44 plug-in Accords sold — compared with 1,152 plug-in Fusions and 3,351 Volts.
The Accord plug-in’s stiffest competition may come from within: The Accord hybrid — with no plug — is rolling into showrooms now. The conventional hybrid will be essentially the same car without the huge battery in the trunk. This means many good things: less weight, less cost, more performance, more trunk. Expect the hybrid to start at less than $30,000.
The advantage of the plug-in, of course, is the electric-only miles. But the Accord gets only about 13 miles out of a charge, about a third of what the Volt gets.
However, the Accord plug-in excels after the charge runs out. In a week of testing in hybrid mode, we averaged 50 mpg — better than its EPA rating of 46 mpg in combined driving. On that same downhill commute from Pasadena to downtown L.A., the Accord consistently achieved a remarkable 65 mpg.
Those are huge numbers for a spacious and quick car. The combination of the Accord’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and its lithium ion battery produces a healthy 196 horsepower.
Among our quibbles was the Accord’s interior, which was functional but stylistically confused, with mismatched faux-metal trim pieces and tacky-looking tan “bio fabric” seats. Speaking of tacky, the “aero” plastic wheel covers belong nowhere near a car this expensive.
But if our plug-in Accord test gives an accurate preview of the traditional hybrid, Honda will have a big hit on its hands.
Ford Fusion Energi
Of the three cars we tested, the Fusion proved the least efficient by a good margin, achieving 37 mpg in hybrid mode over about a week of driving, along with an electric-only range of 16 miles. That compares with an EPA rating of 43 mpg in hybrid mode and an electric range of 21 miles.
But the Fusion Energi proved the clear winner in style and comfort, and it equaled the Accord in driving dynamics.
The Fusion felt more like a luxury car, worthy of a high price tag. The cabin of our test model came in all black, with tasteful and understated accents. The cross-stitched leather seats felt even more comfortable than they looked, and well-placed metallic and piano-black trim pieces rounded out a classy package. Dash controls came in a spare and simple layout, though the car’s MyFord Touch infotainment system could have been simpler to use.
The Fusion felt more substantial, if just slightly less nimble, than the Accord. It felt heavy — in a good way — yet retained stability in the corners and cruised over bumps with little drama and even less noise.
The powertrain differed little from the Accord’s, with 195 total horsepower from the combination of a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and the lithium ion battery. Like the Accord, the Fusion’s powerplant stayed nearly silent at lower speeds but packed enough power for easy highway passing with the gas engine.
The Fusion distinguished itself in build quality and fit and finish. Its well-insulated cabin kept wind and road noise at bay, which is all the more impressive in an environment often devoid of engine noise.
Too bad Fords seem to have a habit of lagging behind their EPA efficiency claims in real-world driving. The Energi, along with the conventional Fusion hybrid and Ford’s C-Max, was originally rated at 47 mpg in both city and highway driving. But Ford in August revised those figures down to 43 mpg after persistent customer complaints, and our testing put the figure even lower.
Still, many customers won’t mind spending a little more on gas for a better driving experience. And the Energi’s mileage in hybrid mode will matter less to drivers with shorter commutes and at-home charging stations to maximize its electric-only miles.
All three cars are pricey, but federal tax credits help soften the blow. The Honda and Fusion are eligible for $3,334 and $4,007, respectively, while the Volt is eligible for the full $7,500. That additional government help — along with the Volt’s lower sticker price, longer range and higher sales volume — may make the Chevy the best bet for getting your money’s worth over the long term. You’d just have to settle for less car.
In the final analysis, these cars of the future are still too expensive for today. Many strong traditional hybrid or diesel offerings probably would go easier on your wallet when all factors, including resale value, are considered. (Don’t expect a swarm of buyers for a used early-adopter plug-in.)
But in five or 10 years, don’t be surprised if you have a charging station on your garage wall.