Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Test Drive: 2014 Honda Accord Plug-In

MSRP: $40,570
Price as tested: $40,570

Hybrid cars are not really my thing. I admit, the only hybrid I have driven to date is a Toyota Prius and yes, it is as boring as all the automotive publications claim it to be. Hybrids have always been seen as appliances by the enthusiast crowd and while there are manufacturers working on making enthusiast friendly hybrids and hybrid super cars, the bulk of hybrids will still always be people movers. But can a manufacturer straddle both sides of the fence and make a hybrid that is both practical and fun?

With the lease on our long-term 2011 Acura RL about to expire, East Brother and I discussed what cars to consider. Given the driving habits of the primary driver, we felt that a hybrid was worth considering, especially given the long stretches of purely city driving that will be done. The problem is that most hybrids are, for a lack of a better word, boring. They are incredibly slow, and handle as well as a wet noodle. When Honda announced the specifications of the 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid, East Brother and I both perked up our ears and after reading the initial impressions of the car by various automotive publications, our interest was genuinely peaked. It would seem that Honda has created a hybrid that is not only practical and efficient, but fun to drive too. Maybe not quite a 4-door CR-Z, but certainly more fun than any Prius.

Unfortunately, as of this writing, the 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid was not available for us to test, but we got the next best thing, a 2014 Honda Accord Plug-In. Seeing as how both East Brother and I enjoyed the 2013 Honda Accord Sport sedan, and how impressed the automotive press is with upcoming 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid, I figured I would give the Accord Plug-In a go. Maybe Honda is able to capture the magic of being efficient and fun in this car as well.

There are a couple of differences between the Accord Plug-In and its pure gasoline burning siblings. The first thing most people will notice is styling. While the Accord Hybrid is designed to look more closely related to the four-cylinder and V6 versions of the Accord, the Plug-In comes with a giant front grill and 17" aero-design alloy rims that look a lot like plastic hubcaps. It is definitely an interesting look, to say the least. While the look does help it stand out from its more conservative looking siblings, I am not so sure I am a fan of the look.

Considering its price tag, Honda made sure the Accord Plug-In comes with every bell and whistle at its disposal. Simply put, the Plug-In comes with everything the V6 Touring comes with, sans the moon roof and leather seats. Even without these items, the interior of the Plug-In still feels very luxurious. The eco-friendly fabric used for the seats is surprisingly comfortable, and feels much softer than the fabric used in the lower trims. Most of the plastic bits have a nice, solid feel to them, and the aluminum trim adds a sporty, yet classy look to the interior. Not all is perfect in this car though. I have to wonder why the nice plastic used for the dash and center console was not carried over into the lower console surrounding the cup holders and shifter. The shiny plastic used here looks cheap and is just a giant magnet for finger prints.

Gone is the button clad center console from the previous generations, and in its place are two LED screens. The top one displays vehicle information as well as navigation information. The bottom screen is a touch screen, and controls functions for the radio and navigation. If this set up sounds familiar, it is because it is essentially the same set up as in the 2014 Acura RLX Tech that we reviewed a while back. Despite being virtually the same system, I found the touch screen in the Accord to be a little bit more responsive than the one in the RLX. Let us also not forget that this is a car that costs $15,000 less, and has the same set up. Curious, is it not?

My main concern about the Plug-In was how it would drive compared to its purely gasoline counterparts. The first thing I found unnerving was the lack of any sound when the start button was pushed. I know I should have expected it, what with the hybrid drivetrain and all, but it was still very strange. Despite the lack of sound though, stepping on the gas left me pleasantly surprised. The instantaneous torque from the electric motor can catch you off guard, but is also a fantastic feeling. And unlike the Prius that I got as a rental, I found the Plug-In's throttle to be quite responsive. Great throttle response combined with instant torque was definitely a great way to start this test drive.

As I accelerated out of the parking lot, still no noise coming from the engine compartment, I noticed that the Plug-In accelerated quite briskly running in pure-electric mode. It did not take long for the gasoline engine to kick in though. I must have been pushing the car a lot harder than I had expected, as the 2.0 liter inline-4 came to life after only about 10 minutes of running on just the electric motor. A bit shorter than I had expected, but considering that the car was sitting out in the dealer's lot not being charged, it was not all that surprising either. Under hard acceleration, with both the electric motor and gasoline engine running, the Plug-In certainly accelerated much quicker than expected. Based on my butt dyno, it felt roughly the same pace as the Sport trim's 2.4 liter four-cylinder.

It is a shame that the good feelings I was getting from driving in a straight line ended as soon as I stepped on the brakes. Stopping the car is uneventful, to say the least. Sure, the brakes are fine, but just like with the Sport trim we tested, the brakes felt soft. Being a hybrid though, the brakes are not just stopping the car, they are also working to regenerate the battery. On top of the double duty of the brakes, all that additional weight from the batteries is still being stopped by the same size brakes as every trim in the Accord line up, except the LX trim. This is potentially a huge problem, as Honda's brakes are known to fade after hard use. All of the extra heft will only make the brakes wear out faster.

Handling. Something hybrid cars are not exactly known for, and the Plug-In is certainly no exception. However, the Accord Plug-In still fared a lot better going through corners than I had expected. It obviously does not handle as well as the Sport, with steering that feels fairly nervous and quite a bit of body roll, but it certainly handles better than the Prius could ever dream of. The nervous steering and cornering can be attributed to the slippery, eco-friendly tires and the not very communicative electric power steering. The massive amounts of body roll is most likely attributed to the additional weight from the batteries and the seeming lack of additional bracing or anti-roll measures. In the end though, the Plug-In was designed to be a hyper fuel efficient people mover, and not a white knuckle, throw you in your seat, handling machine.

As a fuel saving cruiser, the Accord Plug-In is fantastic. Just do not try and take any long road trips in it. Due to the Plug-In's larger battery capacity, the trunk is actually very small for such a large sedan. How small is the trunk? At 8.6 cu.ft., it is only 1.6 cu.ft. larger than the trunk in my S2000. Yes, this is a sedan that can barely hold more cargo than a two seat roadster. In the end, that is the sacrifice that must be made when you build a car that needs to hold a lot of batteries to offer any semblance of reasonable electric-only range.

Of course, there are a lot of advantages to owning the Accord Plug-In. The insane 124 mpg EPA estimated city mileage means that you will not be seeing a gas station very often. Being a plug-in hybrid means that there are government incentives for purchasing the vehicle, as well as being able to use HOV lanes solo in California. Also, the price of the car supposedly includes the cost of the in-home charging station, which, according to the Honda dealer I went to, will be installed by a technician in your home upon purchase or lease of the vehicle. All these advantages do make for a compelling reason to get the Accord Plug-In. But if you are looking for a hybrid that offers all the advantages of owning a hybrid, and offers a fun to drive nature, you may need to look elsewhere. The sloppy handling and overworked brakes overshadow the decent acceleration offered by this car's hybrid drivetrain. However, if handling, braking, and acceleration are not that important in your hybrid, and you want something that stands out, is loaded to the brim with gadgets, and can live with a small trunk, the Accord Plug-In is worth a look. Best of all, it's not a Prius.

*Special thanks to Scott Robinson Honda