There has been a particularly notable absence from the Honda Australia range since the start of 2015. The hybrid pioneer, which introduced the then-radical Insight in 2001, has been without a petrol-electric option since February of this year.
That’s because it axed no fewer than four different hybrid models over a 12-month period starting with the second-generation, Prius-fighting Insight in early 2013, culminating with the demise of the expensive and unloved Civic Hybrid, Jazz Hybrid and CR-Z shortly after.
For a company that had such strong leverage in this largely untapped eco market, being without any petrol-electric car may just have seemed a little galling. It’s with no small amount of celebration, then, that the company returned to the fray this week with the Accord Sport Hybrid.
Based on the familiar Accord and likewise made in Thailand, the Accord Sport Hybrid comes into the line-up as the new range-topper, with a rather eye-opening $58,990 plus on-road costs starting price — $7000 more than the former flagship V6L.
Reflecting this, Honda is making clear its aspirations for this car to be a premium contender, a la the now discontinued Legend. In fact, the company calls the $57,000 Lexus IS300h — rather than the Toyota Camry Hybrid — the car’s chief rival. Ambitious. You can even get the Lexus ES300h for $60,500, which is roomier still.
Given the company axed the Civic Hybrid and CR-Z due to low sales resulting from excessive pricing, it’s an interesting approach. And frankly, this doesn't seem like a $60,000 car. The fact that Honda is only selling it in five dealers — in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth — tells you it will be a low-volume prospect. The company doesn’t even have fixed targets
It does come loaded with equipment though (see full pricing and specifications here) and has some nifty technology under the skin that differentiates it from the rest of the Accord range. This is no ‘mild’ hybrid like its predecessors, given it is the first car to offer Honda’s much-hyped Earth Dreams two-motor system in Australia.
First, there’s a 2.0-litre VTEC port-injected petrol engine running on the Atkinson Cycle and making 105kW and 165Nm. This is paired to a 124kW electric motor AND a smaller supplementary generator motor, paired to a 1.3kWh Li-ion battery with an eight-year warranty (the rest of the Accord’s mechanicals are covered under Honda’s three-year/100,000km warranty).
This is matched to an E-CVT, but there’s actually no physical transmission. It operates without the need for a torque converter, mechanical pulley or belt. It instead uses the two motors for driving and generating power, coordinated by a decision-making IPU.
Interestingly, there are three driving modes. There’s a pure EV mode for low speeds, and another for higher speeds in which the multi-plate wet clutch and controller system decouple the electric motor and the petrol engine solely powers the front wheels (you don’t need multiple stepped gear ratios at cruising speeds).
Most of the time though, you’ll be in Hybrid Mode. Here, a petrol engine powers a generator, which powers another motor that powers the wheels. Like a Holden Volt, but without the plug-in function.
Standard system output is 146kW and 307Nm, which exceeds the regular 2.4 petrol Accord’s 129kW/225Nm. However, it weighs 70kg more and is no faster from 0-100km/h… despite the ‘Sport’ badges. It also loses out to the V6L’s superior 206kW/339Nm.
What it is, though, is the most fuel-efficient car in its segment, with claimed Australian combined-cycle fuel use of 4.6 litres per 100km. This is compared to 7.9L/100km for the 2.4 Accord and 9.2L/100km for the V6. We managed 5.7L/100km on our test run.
The powertrain is certainly technologically impressive. What it amounts to as a driving experience, though, is about par for the course for a hybrid car. It’s smooth and punchy at low speeds and right off the line thanks to all that zero-rpm torque, and it’s quiet at low speeds on pure electric power until you apply heavier throttle.
Once you do that, the petrol engine chimes in and strains through its rev band, and the slurring ‘CVT’ still coaxes a powertrain drone (there are no stepped ratios) that’s alienated from your forward progress. It doesn’t feel sporty, despite the badge on its bum.
There’s a fair degree of tyre roar from the eco hoops and wind noise from the B-pillars at cruising speeds too, which dulls refinement and takes away from the air of luxury.
On the plus side, the electric-assisted steering system is well-weighted and progressive to a degree, while the ride — firm on the 18-inch rims — is nevertheless effective at dispatching and insulating occupants from long stretches of average road surface. It’s a little brittle over sharper bumps such as road joins, though.
Honda has done commendably well with the brake pedal feel, given it lacks the wooden-ness of many hybrids, a result of brake-based energy regeneration systems. There’s also a B mode in the transmission that captures additional kinetic energy via engine braking that spares your brake pads.
In daily driving, a number of driver assist systems are helpful. The system that displays your blind spot, when you indicate to turn left, on the eight-inch screen is great. But why doesn’t it work when you’re turning right as well, aka overtaking on a dual carriageway? Cost-cutting, we assume. The regular Accord gets a five-star ANCAP rating, which should carry over here.
The adaptive cruise control works well, though not in B mode, as does the system that flashes brightly if it senses an imminent collision (it has an autonomous braking function too).
Given Honda is overtly targeting Lexus, there’s a real onus on the cabin to feel premium. It isn’t just about having a long list of equipment. Heated leather seats, sat-nav (a proper integrated system, not the naff app-based one in most other Hondas), electric window blinds and a panoramic sunroof are nice, but how’s the ambience?
There’s no doubt the cabin is comfortable and spacious. There’s room for five adults easily, and the seats are soft and plush. But this is the case for the regular Accord models too. The batteries are behind the second-row seats, meaning boot capacity is cut to 415L, 42L less than the regular internal combustion versions. The rear seats are also fixed in placed and there’s no spare wheel.
The instruments are generally well laid-out, and the silver and faux wood (remember, Honda says it wants an older demographic for the car) inserts actually look quite pleasant. Being a Honda, everything is screwed together well, and there are lots of leather surfaces and soft plastics. But it feels a few rungs below proper luxury cars in terms of the quality of its materials. This is a car pricier than a Lexus IS and nudging a base Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and those cars have cabins that beat this one.
Like the Infiniti Q50, there are two display screens — a lower touch unit for audio, and a large eight-inch unit perched above, controlled by a rotary dial and buttons in easy reach, that displays everything else. It’s a little ‘busy’, but it all worked fine for us on our sample drive. The multi-mode reversing camera is also large and has good clarity.
Externally, the Accord looks pretty sharp. Those 18-inch wheels, and the blue highlights alongside the daytime running lights, make it stand out. The prominent shoulder lines and wedged profile put it at the pointy end of the class for style, to my eyes.
But we keep coming back to that price. The Accord Sport Hybrid is spacious but less practical than the regular version, no faster, and the $7000 cost differential between this and the thirstier V6 buys you a lot of fuel. And if it's green motoring you aspire to, the Lexus IS and ES hybrids are price-equivalent and more overtly luxurious.