In a desperate plea to make this the least boring of the many fuel-miser comparison tests in which it has competed, the 2013 Volkswagen Passat did the unlikely: It bettered the EPA's combined fuel economy estimate by 4.8 mpg.
Whether this is a result of unusually light editorial feet, excessive highway miles or straight dumb luck isn't clear. But one thing is certain: The Passat needed to bring its "A" game to beat the 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid.
After all, the new Accord Hybrid recently won the gnarliest fuel-saver skirmish in the history of fuel-saving skirmishes: The Great Honda Accord Throwdown of November 2013.
So as you can see, this is an honest, no-nonsense comparison of utilitarian technologies — one proven and one an all-new take on a modern theme. Forget about vanity, frills and flourish. This is the pragmatic-man's comparison test and all it will deliver are the facts.
If All You Care About Is MPG
Despite the Passat's EPA-besting success, the Accord Hybrid utterly dominated all aspects of fuel saving in this test. During the hundreds of miles covered in each, the Accord's 46.3 mpg handily trounced the Passat's 39.8-mpg average.
The domination continued on our 116-mile test loop, where the Honda snubbed the Passat by 3.1 mpg (47.5 mpg vs. 44.4 mpg). The EPA, too, acknowledges the Hybrid's miserliness. At 47 mpg combined (50 city/45 highway) according to the Feds, there's little reason to think the 34 mpg combined (30 city/40 highway) Passat was going to equal that performance.
The foundation of the Accord Hybrid's powertrain is a 141-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that runs on 87-octane gasoline. In place of a conventional transmission are two electric motors. One motor acts as a generator to charge the battery while the other drives the wheels. When necessary (primarily at freeway speeds), the gas engine is locked to the drive wheels via the electric motor. A 1.3kWh lithium-ion battery resides in the trunk. Combined output of the gas engine and electric motor is 196 hp and 226 pound-feet of torque.
This novel approach to power delivery allows the Accord Hybrid to run in three modes: full EV mode up to 74 mph, series-hybrid mode where the engine is powering the batteries for the electric motor that is driving the wheels and gasoline-only mode for those long, steep climbs.
The Passat, for its part, delivers 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque from a thoroughly modern 2.0-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder engine lashed to a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission.
The only clue that there's anything unconventional about the Passat's powertrain comes on cold mornings when there's a slight delay between when you push the start button and the engine fires. From behind the wheel the Passat is quiet and torque-rich.
Do They Feel Like Fuel Misers?
You'll not want to rush either of these sedans onto the freeway in front of a charging tractor-trailer. However, should you find yourself in such a circumstance you'll be better served in the Accord, which hits 60 mph a full 1.6 seconds before the Passat (7.4 seconds, or 7.1 seconds with 1 foot of rollout as on a drag strip vs. 9.0 seconds [8.7 with rollout]). The lighter German (3,500 pounds vs. 3,569), however, closes the gap to 1.1 seconds at the quarter-mile. Its 16.7-second pass is off the pace of most four-cylinder gasoline-powered midsize sedans, while the Accord Hybrid is slightly better than average at 15.6 seconds.
As important as the outright speed, though, is the way both cars deliver power. There's plenty of midrange torque in the Passat, but it arrives only after turbo boost builds and the transmission finds the right gear ratio. It helps a little to drive the Passat around in Sport mode, which awakens the transmission to a small extent. Whichever setting you choose, it's a powertrain that's as smooth and quiet as it is forgettable in everyday use.
In the Accord, however, there's an immediate response to throttle input that's both welcome and usable. The combination of instantly available electric torque and the lack of a need to downshift gets the credit here.
Handling tests were a virtual wash despite the Passat's larger 18-inch rubber. Only 0.1 mph separated the two in the slalom (Accord 63.7, Passat 63.6 mph), while the Passat eked out a small advantage in lateral acceleration at 0.85g to the Accord's 0.83g.
Similar Size, Different Feel
Though its wheelbase is 1.1 inches longer, the Passat is marginally shorter in overall length and narrower than the electrified Accord. Inside, both cars do an admirable job of accommodating even large passengers in either the front or rear seats. The Passat, though its measured interior volume is smaller, wins any comparison of perceived interior space. Credit here goes to the Volkswagen's less sculpted dash, pushed-back pillars and better legroom front and rear.
There's also 3.6 additional cubic feet in its trunk, which isn't burdened with carrying batteries. With this benefit comes a split-folding rear seat, too.
But the small compromise the Accord makes in utility it gains back in style, quality and personality. Put plainly, the Passat isn't as nice inside. We applaud Volkswagen's use of three knobs (Honda uses buttons) to manage the Passat's dual-zone climate control, but its mix of wood and plastic is dull at best. Even configured without the wood trim, the Passat's sterile interior is no match for the Accord's finely finished materials and coherent style. Honda brings together soft-touch black plastic, leather and satin trim to elegantly finish the Accord.
Drive Them Both Before You Decide
When it comes to effortless efficiency in the daily task of moving people, both cars make a strong case. If your intended use includes disproportionate amounts of highway time, the Passat is very good. During one highway-heavy tank on this test we drove 128 miles and then noticed its range indicator predicted 623 miles still remaining. Few backsides or bladders will desire more miles per tank.
It's in long, stopless road-trip legs that its diesel power plant shines most brightly, offering long-haul capacity coupled with virtually nonexistent noise and harshness. It's a diesel, but it's a quiet, smooth diesel.
If the Accord has a weakness it's on the freeway where its gas/electric transition — while cruising between 60 and 70 mph — results in a small but perceptible drivetrain surge. Though many buyers won't even notice, this will, for some, be an annoying deal breaker.
Still, if there's an athlete here, it's the Honda. Its steering is quicker and its response to inputs more welcome than in the Passat. And it offers these benefits without a corresponding deficiency in ride quality. What's more, in all-electric mode, you'll not find a quieter midsize sedan.
Cost vs. Benefit
Both cars in this test are feature-laden examples and include navigation, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, rearview back-up cameras, keyless entry and ignition as well as power front seats. Both offer leather seating, though the Passat adds suede inserts and a memory function that isn't present in the Accord.
But the Accord's feature list is more heavily stacked. It also offers LED headlights, adaptive cruise control, a lane departure warning system, front collision alert and Honda's Lane Watch, which displays the rear-quarter view on the center screen when the right turn signal is activated.
Unsurprisingly, with this functionality and efficiency comes a higher price tag. At $35,695 the Accord Hybrid Touring cost $1,985 more than the range-topping Passat TDI SEL Premium, which tallied $33,710.
It's hard to condemn the Passat given its relatively impressive fuel economy, its admirable daily driver practicality and its substantial comfort and utility. But there's no denying that it falls short when compared to what's probably the best hybrid sedan in the world today.
In the Passat we have a large, comfortable sedan with bladder-busting range, a family-size backseat and enough trunk space to accommodate multiple international-size suitcases. Its size and weight are a liability if you ever need to really hustle, but that's not a task we find ourselves needing often in midsize sedans.
Though the price difference is less than $2,000, you'd need 11.5 years with the Accord (assuming 15,000 miles annually) to save that much in fuel cost. That's longer than most people keep their cars and it's a solid reason to opt for the Passat. Plus, that's $2,000 you pragmatic folks can sink into your kids' college funds. Speaking of pragmatism, many will find comfort investing in proven diesel power and reliability over hybrid technology. Or maybe you just want to cruise at 80 mph for hours on end. If so, the Passat is your car.
Meanwhile, we'll drive the winner...
It's not what the Accord Hybrid does that wins it this test. Rather, it's what it doesn't do. Finally, we have a sedan that fully embraces hybrid technology without boastfully displaying it in every detail. In fact, the nuances differentiating it from the standard Accord are subtle enough that only those in the know will notice. And that's a good thing.
More importantly, from behind the wheel, the Accord is a hybrid that doesn't require a full restructuring of your expectations about how a car should drive. Sure, you'll notice its nuances if you're paying attention. But you don't have to. It's a hybrid you can drive like a normal car, should you choose. And if you're so inclined, the Accord provides sufficient indulgence to satisfy even the most fuel-pump-averse hypermiler.
Yes, it costs more than the 2013 Volkswagen Passat, but in every area except cargo space and range, you get more. And if fuel economy is the main priority in your next vehicle it's hard to do better. The bottom line is that the 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid is as impressive as a fuel-saving sedan as it is as a family sedan. And we can't ask for more than that.