Honda Needs an Electric Minivan to Fight the Tesla Model X

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Honda (HMC) made the first gasoline-electric hybrid car for the U.S. market with the Insight, over a decade ago, before the Toyota (TM) Prius overtook the segment. It has now delivered its first plug-in electric hybrid sedan, with a version of the Accord, starting at $40,000 before tax incentives.

Does Tesla (TSLA) have to worry?

I spent a week and 250 miles in the car, and I'm sad to say the Honda plug-in sedan falls short compared to the critical competitors. But let's first describe what the car really is.

Most people are familiar with the regular Honda Accord. A mid-size sedan best-seller for decades, the latest iteration has grown and is larger than ever. Getting in and out is easy thanks to large doors. It's the new "large American car for large, corn-fed Americans" which I like and appreciate.

In general, the passenger interior is spacious, except for rear-seat headroom, which is a shade less than passable. In this plug-in electric hybrid version, close to half of the luggage space is lost, which is catastrophic. It is likely a deal-killer for many people. This also means the rear seat doesn't fold.

The Accord plug-in hybrid has a new kind of electric motor and transmission, which is almost similar to what is in General Motors' (GM) Chevrolet Volt and Cadillac ELR, except it's not nearly as powerful, of course. It's too complex to describe here but suffice it to say that it functions differently from the "power-split" combiners used by Ford (F), Toyota and potentially others.

What does that mean in practice, and how does the Accord plug-in hybrid drive as a result? The first thing you will notice as you pull away is how light the car feels. The car is a predictable 3,800 lbs but feels about half. Why?

It is obviously mostly an illusion, but the illusion is a combination of three things: 1. The steering is extremely light. Blow some air onto the steering wheel, and it moves. 2. The pedals, notably the accelerator, has minimal resistance. 3. The gasoline engine revs very easily.

Gasoline engine? Isn't this mostly an electric car? Um, not really. The battery will only take you an average of 13 miles, according to the EPA rating. That was consistent with my testing, but keep in mind that if you apply more than, say, 25% or so of the power -- the gasoline engine comes on.

Unlike the Ford plug-in hybrids (C-Max and Fusion), there is no "EV only" button you can select to try to keep the Honda in electric-only mode, even under reduced power. Of course, even the Ford "EV only" button didn't work all the time in my testing (a year ago) either, but at least it got somewhat closer to the all-EV experience than otherwise.

At least the upshot of the Honda engine is that even though it comes on at the slightest drop of a hat, aka pressing of the accelerator modestly, it is silky-smooth for as far as a gasoline engine goes. It spins like a sewing-machine, seemingly friction-less.

As a result, it's almost no surprise that the Honda yields 46 miles per gallon in gasoline mode, when the battery has been depleted, which is only a hair behind the Prius. This is better than the Chevrolet Volt's 37 mpg and the Ford's 43 mpg ratings from the EPA. In my testing, I got 33 mpg in the Ford and 38 mpg in the Chevrolet.

So pressing the accelerator yields a different result than in the Ford -- and most other competitors -- but what about when you let up the accelerator? In other words, what about the regenerative braking? In the Accord plug-in, it's the mildest yet, perhaps even milder than in the Fiat 500e. I really don't like this. Regen braking should be very stiff, or at least a setting for it.

The regen champ is the BMW i3, which has the most flawless pedal calibration of any car. Tesla's (TSLA)Model S is right behind, a close second. The Honda is the least good I've tested to date.

What about the instrumentation? I'm sad to report that in a field where most entries are far from acceptable, the Honda is at or near the bottom of the field. It is hard to find where the electric drive information can be obtained, even though it improves once you have discovered the settings buried deep into obscure menus.

The navigation of these menus is among the worst, with a knob that is is hard to use. All sorts of weird questions pop onto the screens asking me to reconfirm settings I have obviously not asked to change.

One of the few good things that can be said about the Honda's instrumentation is that it displays video of the blind spot once you use the turn signal. There are cameras in the side mirrors. Absolutely awesome, and every car ought to have this! I bet this will be copied by every automaker soon enough.

So what is the appropriate object of comparison for the Honda Accord plug-in? It's crystal clear that the most direct competitor is the Ford Fusion Energi. They are similar in most respects. The Honda yields better miles per gallon in charge-sustaining mode, and the gasoline engine seems smoother.

However, the Ford can stay in EV mode longer if you utilize its "EV only" button, and can go approximately 20 miles on electric -- 50% longer than the Honda. In addition, the instrumentation is slightly better in the Ford (but still depressingly inadequate). The luggage spaces of both cars are equally miserable.

Compared to the Chevrolet Volt, the Honda's powertrain doesn't hold the faintest candle. The Volt averages 38 miles on full 100% EV power. Not a close call. The only meaningful advantage of the Accord plug-in is the superior back seat, which fits three people among other things. The Volt wins the luggage space comparison, as well as the infotainment/instrumentation comparison.

So what about the original question? Does this Honda compare with the Tesla? It clearly does not. Obviously the Tesla is a much more powerful and pure electric car, but that's far from the only reason the Honda doesnt measure up. The lack of luggage space is a huge deal-killer for the Honda, and the instrumentation is very, very bad in comparison.

Even if this Honda Accord plug-in didn't measure up against the competition, broadly speaking, what could Honda do in order to become successful?

I have a four-step plan to turn defeat into victory for Honda:

    1. Use the Odyssey minivan body. This enables you to pack a much larger battery while retaining a large space for passengers and luggage alike.
    2. Increase the battery size from the current 6.7 kWh to 16 kWh, which is close to the Chevrolet Volt and where federal tax benefits top out. This would vastly increase the electric range of the car.
    3. Increase regenerative braking, making it similar to the class-leading BMW i3.
    4. Fire the person responsible for the instrumentation/infotainment-related functions. Buy a Tesla Model S. Copy it.

 If Honda follows my four-step plan, and does so very quickly, it would have a car that would sell more than 100,000 per year instead of perhaps 1,000 per year of the current Accord plug-in.

For a 100-fold increase in sales, I am available to help. Honda, you know how to find me.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

More from Technology

Key Numbers for Investors to Watch as Amazon, Microsoft and Intel Report Results

Key Numbers for Investors to Watch as Amazon, Microsoft and Intel Report Results

Facebook Stock Set for Biggest Gain in Two Years After Q1 Earnings Top Forecasts

Facebook Stock Set for Biggest Gain in Two Years After Q1 Earnings Top Forecasts

AMD Shares Explode After Solid Q1, Robust Outlook That Defies Chip Sector Gloom

AMD Shares Explode After Solid Q1, Robust Outlook That Defies Chip Sector Gloom

Amazon Wants to Use Your Car as a Mobile Warehouse - Here's What That Could Mean

Amazon Wants to Use Your Car as a Mobile Warehouse - Here's What That Could Mean

Twitter's Turnaround Continues but Investors Don't Seem Entirely Convinced

Twitter's Turnaround Continues but Investors Don't Seem Entirely Convinced