Honda's venerable Accord sedan is on the verge of reaching new fuel-economy heights. It's not as if the latest Accord was hurting for efficiency. With an EPA rating of up to 36 mpg, a 2014 Accord with an automatic transmission posts figures that not too long ago would have seemed almost impossible for a substantial midsize sedan. Now Honda is touting an even heftier number: 50 mpg.

That figure is attached to the all-new Accord Hybrid, which is the first mainstream hybrid in the Accord lineup since the largely dismissed variant that was last seen in 2007. And unlike the highly limited Accord Plug-in Hybrid introduced earlier this year, the 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid will be available nationwide. Honda boasts that the new hybrid's 50 mpg mark makes it "the top rated 4-door sedan in America in the EPA city cycle." On the highway, the 2014 Accord Hybrid is rated at 45 mpg, making its combined rating the same as what the Ford Fusion Hybrid earns across the board: 47 mpg. Meanwhile, a car that's become synonymous with "hybrid" -- the Toyota Prius -- earns 51 mpg city/48 mpg highway and 50 mpg combined, but rather than a 4-door midsize sedan it's a smaller 4-door hatchback.

Marketing and semantics aside, the Accord Hybrid's fuel economy numbers are impressive however you look at them. Another number that comes attached to the new Accord Hybrid is $29,945, the base Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price when it lands on dealer lots Oct. 31 in a bid to scare the competition. Will it do so? Honda invited us to the rolling hills around San Antonio, Texas, to find out.

Hitting the big 5-0

You're probably wondering how this Accord can go up to 14 more miles per gallon of gasoline. In a word, it's complicated, and not in the way a younger generation describes their relationship status on Facebook. 

To boil it down, the Accord Hybrid achieves its stellar numbers through the combination of a 4-cylinder gasoline engine, two electric motors (one acting as a generator to feed the other), and a lithium-ion battery pack. Buyers who are technology-inclined or just inquisitive about what makes their car go may be surprised to learn that the 2.0-liter gasoline engine used in the 2014 Accord Hybrid spends most of its time not directly driving the front wheels but instead powering the generator, which in turn provides energy to charge the battery or enables the electric motor to power the front wheels. At freeway speeds, though, the Atkinson-cycle gasoline engine can directly drive the wheels for maximum efficiency. We told you it was complicated.

Here's what isn't: The way the 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid drives. Despite all the engineering wizardry under this hybrid's hood, you probably wouldn't realize it in your everyday commute. And that's a good thing. Except for some unique badging and exterior/interior details, the hybrid version of the Accord doesn't look much different than the regular model, and the driving experience feels much the same in most regards and even better in others. 

One of the keys to a good hybrid experience is how such vehicles transition between powertrain sources, such as from purely electric power to assistance by a gasoline engine. In the 2014 Honda Accord, these transitions take place with Ninja-like covertness. When the gasoline engine turns on, it's smooth and not jarring. When it is running, there is some drone like in other hybrids, but it's not disruptive. And when the gasoline engine is off completely, such as when you're traveling on stored electricity, this Accord becomes remarkably serene. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the Accord Hybrid is no rocket, but with a combined 196 horsepower (compared with the regular Accord's 185 hp), the 5-passenger sedan gets up to freeway speeds with little drama. Like the regular 4-cylinder model, the Accord Hybrid delivers a pleasing combination of comfort and nimbleness. Unlike some hybrids, the Honda's brakes feel natural and not "grabby." 

Thankfully, Honda's Two-Motor Hybrid Intelligent Multi-Mode Drive (i-MMD) System is easier to use than it is to say. While you can manually switch to EV mode to travel short distances on electricity alone or shift to "B" mode to capture more regenerative energy from the brakes, all most drivers need to do is push the Accord Hybrid's start button, put the gearshift into drive and go on their fuel-efficient way. 

And here's the takeaway from our test-drive: We easily hit that vaunted 50 mpg mark without really even trying. In fact, after spending hours in the new Accord Hybrid and driving on a variety of roads, we averaged fuel economy in the low 50-mpg range. Our initial experience was, like the Accord itself, seamless and natural. We didn't have to "hyper-mile" to achieve 50 mpg by sweltering in the Texas heat with no A/C or by babying the throttle. We just drove normally and the Accord's hybrid powertrain figured out the rest.

Counting the costs

The 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid has raised the bar among its peers, but its refinement, stellar fuel economy and added features cost more upfront. With a starting MSRP of $29,945, the 2014 Accord Hybrid is more expensive than hybrid variants of the Toyota Camry (starting at $26,950), Ford Fusion ($26,995), Hyundai Sonata ($26,445) and Kia Optima ($26,700), but the Honda comes standard with features such as the LaneWatch blind-spot monitoring system and rearview camera not found on base versions of its competitors. Like its rivals, the hybrid Accord is also several thousand dollars over its gas-only siblings, with a base Hybrid costing $3,475 more than a comparatively equipped Honda Accord EX. If using the EPA's standards of 15,000 miles per year at current gasoline prices, it would take more than 5 years to make up that difference if solely considering our example's fuel costs alone. For some buyers, this may be the end of the equation.

Yet there are factors beyond this moment-in-time comparison. Like the regular Accord, we expect the hybrid model to retain its value very well. Additionally, we predict the Accord Hybrid will bring a dollar premium of $1,500 to $2,000 over non-hybrid models as a used vehicle. Then there are purchase motivators that have nothing to do with what shows up on a calculator, such as environmental considerations and the feeling of being "green." One we experienced came when, after driving for some time, the Accord Hybrid's computer estimated we still had over 700 miles of range, easily trumping the car's EPA-estimated range of 673 miles. Can you put a price on the ability to regularly sleep in an extra 15 minutes because you don't need to stop for gas on the way to work?

The Honda Accord Hybrid obviously won't be for everyone. Its higher upfront price will exclude some buyers, while others may shy away due to more minor tradeoffs such as a smaller trunk compared to a regular Accord and the inability to fold the rear seats because a battery pack hides underneath them. But for those contemplating a family-friendly hybrid sedan, consider the 2014 Accord Hybrid the new benchmark.


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