2014 Honda Accord Plug-in review: Accord Plug-in plays keep-up

Understeer and balance both felt wrong when taking the Accord Plug-in through the turns, but the car held the road, even when I tried to keep pace with a curve-hugging Mini Cooper S.

Driving tech

Increasing comfort on the highway, the Accord Plug-in came standard with adaptive cruise control, the system doubling as collision warning. The cruise control was not as sophisticated as you get from other manufacturers; for example, not bringing the car to a full stop when traffic ahead was stopped. Instead, the car flashed a brake warning at me.

Honda also includes LED headlights and lane departure warnings.

2014 Honda Accord Plug-in
Energy-saving LED headlights come standard on the Accord Plug-in. Josh Miller/CNET

As on the standard Accord, the Accord Plug-in takes an interesting approach to a blind-spot monitoring system. Instead of using the alert icons other cars light up in side mirrors or A-pillars, Honda aimed a camera down the right side of the car. When I hit the right-turn signal, the image from that camera played on the center LCD, showing me precisely what was in the next lane over.

Ultimately, I would prefer the warning icons used in other cars. While it is useful to see down the side of the car, the system also activated when I was in the curb lane taking a right turn, putting a big, distracting image in the center LCD.

I should also clarify that the center LCD I mentioned above is actually the upper, non-touch-screen LCD. There is also a smaller touch screen placed midway up the center stack, within easy reach of the driver. And below that is a set of controls for manipulating content on the upper LCD.

Yes, it is confusing, and the more time I spent with it, the more I disliked it. There is duplicate functionality between the two screens and different control paradigms. For example, the middle screen defaults to an audio display, but only let me choose music sequentially from a media source plugged into the car's USB port. On the upper screen, I could browse a music library and select music by the usual categories of album, artist, genre, and track.

2014 Honda Accord Plug-in
The messy cabin tech interface mixes a dial controller, a touch screen, and an LCD. Josh Miller/CNET

When entering an address for navigation with the upper screen and its associated controls, the middle screen suddenly popped up a keyboard for alphanumeric entry. While that keyboard was convenient, its appearance felt completely random. There does not seem to be any cohesive scheme behind this interface.

Voice command in the Accord Plug-in wasn't much better. While it did let me request music by artist name, entering an address for navigation required tediously saying each component, number, street, and city, separately.

The navigation system's colorful maps showed in plan and perspective views but had problems tracking the car's location. It frequently showed the car off its current road, running through a building or forest. And although this system is capable of taking traffic jams into account in its routing, it still ran me into slow-moving traffic on a run back into San Francisco, when there was another, uncongested route that would have been faster.

Along with the USB port for drives and iOS audio integration, Honda reserves 16GB on the Accord Plug-in's hard drive for music storage. Bluetooth streaming was also available, but the car lacked satellite radio or HD Radio. With Pandora running on my phone, I could select my personal stations with the dashboard controls.

There was no premium audio system for the car, just a non-branded 180-watt system with six speakers. This system's music reproduction was merely adequate -- it did not bring anything to the music.

The HondaLink app integrates Aha Internet services in the car. Those mostly consist of online podcasts and radio stations. Aha also offers a couple of navigation services. When I selected "Hungry" from the HondaLink menu, it returned 20 results for nearby restaurants, each of which I could select and enter as a destination in the navigation system. However, it took so long to generate a results list that I had put the center of that search many miles behind me before I could select one.

Compelling competition

Although the 2014 Accord Plug-in shows some cutting-edge tech in its drivetrain, Honda is not exactly leading the charge. Toyota and Ford got there much earlier, and both the Ford Fusion Energi and C-Max Energi get substantially more electric range. In that light, Honda seems to be playing catch-up. The Accord Plug-in certainly does not exceed its competition in any significant way.

The exterior styling repeats this theme, giving the Accord Plug-in a reasonably modern look for a midsize sedan but introducing nothing new. It's a car that will blend in and may be difficult to locate in the mall parking lot. The significant loss of trunk space harms the Accord Plug-in's utility.

The cabin tech interface is, frankly, a mess. I can imagine the average user having trouble figuring out when to use the touch screen or the dial and buttons that control the upper LCD. It doesn't help that the dial is actually below the touch screen. Honda badly needs to simplify this interface.

There are limited choices for plug-in hybrid sedans right now, but the Ford Fusion Energi looks like a more well-thought-out package than the Honda Accord Plug-in, and the design is certainly more attractive.

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