NAPA, Calif. — Consider it the second first step.
Jeff Conrad, general manager of the Honda brand, describes the refreshed 2017 Accord Hybrid as the beginning of an electrification onslaught.
“This Accord Hybrid is at the forefront for our vision for Honda’s advanced environmental lineup of vehicles,” Conrad told a group of journalists at last week’s press launch here. “It’s the first step in our plan to create a true volume sales pillar for electrified vehicles of all kinds: hybrids, plug-ins, battery electrics and fuel cells.”
Honda isn’t alone in aggressively broadening its green car strategy; most automakers are doing the same to avoid hitting a painful regulatory wall in the coming years.
But Honda isn’t most automakers, nor is it new to electrification. This is, after all, the company that brought the first gasoline-electric hybrid to the U.S. market in 1999, beating even Toyota.
Despite that pioneering start, Honda’s hybrid offerings have come and gone mostly unnoticed — including nameplates such as the CR-Z and Insight. Meanwhile, Toyota dove deep into the hybrid waters, building the Prius into a powerhouse brand on the basis of eye-popping mpg numbers and spreading its hybrid technology throughout the Toyota and Lexus lineups.
Some of Honda’s shortcomings were tied to the general malaise the brand went through during parts of the past decade, not only in powertrain innovation but also design and technology.
“That was a period where Honda went into a lull,” Ed Kim, vice president of industry analysis at AutoPacific, told Automotive News. “They lost the spirit of innovation they were known for.”
Not that Honda needed to go deep in hybrids. It was able to meet emissions and corporate average fuel economy requirements without the considerable investment needed at the time to deploy the technology widely.
It also would have meant diverting r&d dollars and production capacity away from proven, profitable models, which didn’t make sense, Conrad told Automotive News in an interview.
Now, with stricter CAFE standards breathing down the necks of all automakers and advancements in Honda’s hybrid systems, the automaker feels it’s ready for prime time. “The market is mature” for alternative-powertrain vehicles, Conrad said.
The refreshed Accord Hybrid soon will be followed to market by a trio of Clarity models and the introduction of hybrid or plug-in hybrid iterations of Honda’s core models.
The 2017 Accord Hybrid starts things off on the right foot, even if it is only a light refresh of the earlier model. Subtle tweaks to the 2.0-liter gasoline engine and the smaller, lighter hybrid system put the Accord Hybrid at the top of the midsize hybrid sedan segment for fuel economy, at 50 mpg city and 47 mpg highway, based on 2016 rating criteria. (Those criteria change for the 2017 model year.)
Honda put the car on sale last month and is bullish on its prospects, targeting at least 30,000 sales a year in the U.S. despite the headwinds of cheap gasoline and consumers’ rapacious appetite for SUVs.
That would be a big jump from the previous Accord Hybrid, which sold 25,030 copies in 2014 and 2015 combined. By comparison, Ford sold 60,086 Fusion Hybrids and Toyota sold 70,155 Camry Hybrids over the same period.
Honda blames the previous model’s low numbers on capacity issues at its Marysville, Ohio, plant and trouble getting an adequate supply of batteries from its supplier, Blue Energy Co., a joint venture between Honda and Japanese battery maker GS Yuasa Corp.
“We knew that we would have capacity constraints, and we knew that we would have battery constraints,” Conrad said. “But at the time, we weren’t looking to expand that production into really big numbers.”
Now, the big numbers are feasible. For the 2017 model, Honda moved all Accord Hybrid production to its Sayama plant in Japan and has corrected battery supply issues, Conrad said.