Accord Hybrid vs. severe cold in novelty duel

February 25, 2021 by
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

The 2021 Honda Accord Hybrid glistens in the whiter-on-white snow.

By John Gilbert
The novelty has worn off. Living in the Great White North of Duluth, Minnesota, is almost always fulfilling, but after two weeks of daily temperatures of, say, 22 below actual and 39 below windchill, and notifying our friends and relatives living elsewhere of such extremes, we’ve have enough. The saving grace for me is that it was a great time to evaluate the severe-cold worthiness of the 2021 Honda Accord Hybrid.

As we hurtle toward a future of electric cars, soonere rather thn later, there is one serious issue still to be solved for vehicles powered by electric power, and that is severe cold, which tends to drain the power from battery packs, and in cars can greatly reduce the driving range of electric power. It affects camera batteries, and it cuts down the range of function of the late and comparatively unlamented Chevrolet Volt, which saw its range drop from mid-20s to mid-teens before the gasoline engine would have to take over.

While we await the sooution for electric cars in the cold, hybrid cars, which have a limited pure-electric range but can be recharged via the affiliated gasoline engine, make a lot of sense. The 2021 Accord is typical Honda, with striking appearance and features and a choice of power. You can get asimple and strong gas engine version, a 1.5-liter turbo 4-cylinder with a hybrid, or the third alternative of a 2.0-liter 4 coupled with the Honda hybrid system. Door No. 3 was the one we opened for a grigid week of driving.

Longer and sleeker, the Accord is called midsize but now has added luxury.

The 2.0-liter 4-cylinder stands at an adequate if not racy 143 horsepower, and the boost from the hybrid electric system lifts that tally to 212 horsepower. That is more than enough to whisk the Accord along in a sporty fashion. The transmission in the test car was a CVT, the somewhat boring “one-speed” systdem of internal pulleys that keep the revs the same and increase the constantly varying transmission to meet demands of your right foot.

I am not a fan of CVTs, but Honda has an interesting way to make them satisfying, which is to offer steering wheel paddles to manually control shift points if you so choose, using the right paddle to improve the ratio upward, or the left paddle to squeeze it to a lower range — almost making it feel like a normal automatic transmission. Much more fun to drive, I think.

The week I had the Accord Hybrid to test, the temperature never rose as high as zero. Think about that. It dropped to nasty minus numbers overnight as something called a Polar Vortex circled down from northern Manitoba as far as central Wisconsin, then circled back up over Lake Superior and rejoined the seemingly endless cycle somewhere above my home on the North Shore. It was sort of like keeping track of the Daytona 500 without the crashes, when they just went around and around, reloading with frigid air to bring back our way on the next lap.

Upscale leather and luxury-car features makes the Accord interior inviting.

The weather guys on television went haywire, making me certain many of them were not from Duluth and couldn’t believe their good fortune at having such extremes to tell us about breathlessly as their work grew to three or four segments on the half-hour 10 o’clock nightly newscast. After they told us how cold it was all across Northern Minnesota, then — ta-da! — they could tell us about the windchill!

At our house, located up on a hill above the North Shore of Lake Superior, the nastiest I saw on our thermometer as we entered February 2021 was 23 below overnight, with a windchill of 39 below. Up near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, nearer the Canadian Border, the temperature hit 50 below one night in Ely, Minnesota, causing one rookie weather guy to claim that was a windchill reading, when it was an actual temperature. We don’t really know what its windchill was.

What I will tell you was that the Accord was a worthy companion, parked outside in that setting. It looked fantastic in pure white metallic with a lot of highlights reflecting the bright sun that shown down from beautiful blue skies every day, defying logic by producing absolutely no appreciable heat. Still, it was fitting to have a white car on the white ice driving past fields of white snow. To do that, of course, you have to start the car, and for that I am eminently thankful for auto-start. A push-button feature on the key fob, so once you’ve locked the doors from the fob, you to push a special button and the car blinks at you briefly to notify you that it got your message and yes, it will start its engine.

A few minutes later, you have your hooded sweatshirt on under your down parka and your warm gloves, and you trudge out to the driveway reminiscing, perhaps, about being a kid in the same vicinity and listening to the radio renditions of “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” where the intrepid Mountie used dogsleds to catch the bad guys all across Canada’s version of Minnesota. It’s only a few seconds until you’ve unlocked the Accord and climbed in, thankful that if you left the heater and fan blowing, it will resume with the auto-start, making it not bad inside.

Pay attention to uyour instruments, including the changing panel to alert you to cold-affected power in the battery pack.

On the instrument panel, the left-side gauge can be changed to give you all sorts of information, including a message on the coldest mornings that said, in red: “Power Reduced,” and adds that because of low temperature, the power may be reduced until this baby warms up. That means, until the electric part of the hybrid gets warmed up to full function, I would guess.

The heater took its time blowing sufficient heat, but the seat-heaters came through admirably until everything got functional. Power for driving was excellent, on Duluth’s steep avenues or on the level East-West streets. The bucket seats were excellent and while we didn’t use the back seat, room was spacious on the classy leather seat coverings.

The Accord Hybrid we test drove was loaded with enough options to boost the price up to nearly $40,000, but the car — which has maintained a position among the top-selling midsize favorite purchases — has evolved into a near-luxury vehicle that can challenge Honda’s own Acura upscale sedans for looks and features.

This car had everything, from lane-departure alert and warning to full back-up camera and front and rear parking assistance. Another feature of severe winter driving is that the tires tend to feel like they might be square when you drive on uneven pavement, but the Accord suspension was smooth and the car took the roughest sections without harshness. We even took a drive up the North Shore to gaze out over the serious blue water of Lake Superior as we headed up to Castle Danger and our favorite Rustic Inn restaurant, which has opened for limited seating, but not limited pie, during the pandemic.

You would think that maybe the severe cold might prevent COVID-19 from surviving in the area, but no such luck.

On another day, as we drove downtown from our house, we were startled to see dozens of dark objects out on the ice that blanketed Lake Superior out from our shore across to Wisconsin. Most of the big lake is still open water, but at the western arrow-like tip of the big lake, it was all iced over, and almost immediately it was sprinkled with ice-fishing houses. You can’t stop those intrepid ice-fishermen, who have amazingly efficient portable ice-fishing houses they set up in seconds to offer shelter against the bone-chilling cold while they drill their holes and watch their lines deliver everything from walleyes, to lake trout, to steelheads, to herring, and maybe even a wayward salmon. We just weren’t sure the ice had been in place long enough to be secure.

We drove by the other way, and they were still out there, and while protecting occupants from bone-chilling cold it might be more accurate to say they protect them from bone-chilling winds. They still are sitting on a giant ice sheet and the term “bone-chilling” prevails unless they also have a space heater.

The next morning we heard the news: A few of those ice fishermen sitting in their dark tent-like huts heard a strange cracking sound and when they looked out, not unlike Puxatawny Phil, they were properly horrified to see open water where ice used to be. Quite a wide swath of it, and getting wider. One fellow acted quickly and made an Olympic-style leap to make it back to the “mainland” ice, but 27 others, complete with their fishing equipment and ice houses, were being blown by the just-changed westerly winds up the shore, toward Two Harbors.

It took a Fire Department rescue crew, DNR folks, Coast Guard and police to act promptly and take some small inflatable boats out to rescue all 27 of them, bringing them back two at a time until all of them were safe. One asked what about the thousands of dollars of expensive fishing gear, and some were allowed to get their own boats and chase the still-moving ice floe to retrieve their gear.

They could have waited for the wind to shift again, which it did, and when it came blowing out of the northeast, the big ice floe sailed back toward Duluth, smacking into the existing ice and buckling into large and artistic geometric shapes of ice. It is an occasional treat for those of us who might otherwise be wondering why we haven’t left the Great White North for Arizona, where there are actual clubs of expatriate Minnesotans who gather and wear sweaters when the temperature dips to 60. Above.

The Accord Hybrid fuel economy dipped down into the 20s if we warmed it up a bit each time we went out, but it has EPA estimates of up to 48 miles per gallon, both in city driving and combined operation, and just slightly less on the highway.

In its never-ending duel with Toyota’s Camry and facing new challenges from the likes of South Korea’s Hyundai Sonata — which also has a fantastic hybrid — the Accord holds its prestigious place up among the most desired and most owner-satisfying vehicles available anywhere.

Smooth seams and striking design give the new Accord another annual upgrade in style.

And while we still are unsure how much range might be reduced  from a pure EV (Electric Vehicle), we do know that a good hybrid not only relieves us of such “range anxiety,” but also can be tuned in contemporary form to have the electric power bolster the gas engine for a horsepower boost. And that will more than suffice while manufacturers such as Honda figure out how to move us to the next level of pure electric, seamlessly.

For now, I’ll take a hybrid. With seat heaters and auto-start.

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