Regular readers of GearBrain's car technology reviews will have spotted a theme that says traditional, tactile controls are easier and safer to use than touch screens.
While this is certainly true when comparing a Tesla Model 3 to a BMW 4 Series, this doesn't mean a car packed full of digital displays is automatically a bad thing. A balance can be struck between tech and tactility, and something close to perfection can be found in the most unusual of places – the Honda E.
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I should make clear from the start that Honda says the little E will not be coming to the US. This is a shame, but given the all-new design of its interior, we fully expect the company to offer vehicles with similar technology stateside in the future.
Despite the E not making it to the US, I felt it is still worth highlighting. Firstly as one of the stand-out cars of 2020, but also as a yardstick by which other interiors, and their technology, can be judged.
The electric Honda E has a range of a little over 100 milesHonda
The Honda E began life as the Urban EV, a concept car that stole the hearts of everyone who laid their eyes on it at the 2017 Frankfurt motor show.
The cute city runabout blended a modern, all-electric drivetrain with retro looks that reminded us of the original Civic hatchback. And then there was the interior – a wooden dashboard and vintage fabric seats, but with more digital displays than anyone had seen in a car before. It even had cameras instead of wing mirrors.
Honda E dashboard and touch screensHonda
Fast-forward to 2020, and the production version arrived. Large and more rounded than the concept (you can thank crash regulation for that), the E retains its charm, and much of the concept's interior.
To the unfamiliar, stepping into the E is unlike anything else. A bank of displays stretches the entire width of the cabin, with video feeds from external cameras at the outer edges, an instrument panel ahead of the driver, and a pair of touch screens for driver and front passenger to interact with. The driver's instrument display measures 8.8 inches, while the pair of touchscreens are 12.3 inches each, and the screens acting as mirrors are six inches.
Even the central mirror can be set to show a video feed from a rear camera instead of a regular reflection.
There's a lot going on here, and my first journey in the E felt like a voyage into the unknown. I kept glancing outside to see the wing mirror, instead of focusing on the camera feed, and it took a while to work out how the dual touch screens and their bespoke operating system work.
Touch screens are joined by physical controls that are easy and safe to useHonda
Thankfully, there is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto so the nearest screen to the driver can be made instantly familiar with Apple and Google's own apps. Also welcome are the physical climate controls, along with large buttons for gear selection, handbrake, and other key controls, and a volume knob.
It's a curious blend of new and old, with the climate controls looking like those of any car from the last 10 years, and the wood-look dashboard from a bygone age; meanwhile the cameras-for-wing mirrors are a concept car delight made real. They took a bit of getting used to, but after that they work just like regular mirrors, only without reducing range by causing unnecessary aerodynamic drag. To my surprise, the cameras can be adjusted just like a mirror to get the perfect angle for your driving position.
Then there are the gimmicks. Tesla still wins this race with its plethora of apps to amuse while you charge, but the Honda E takes a distinctly Japanese approach. By default, the central displays have a wallpaper of beautiful Japanese cherry blossom trees, and for entertaining children while parked a virtual aquarium can be loaded onto both main displays.
There is a menu for picking the aquarium design and quantity of fish, and a tap of the screen drops food for them to swim towards and eat. It's pointless, of course, and cannot be shown while driving. But it's harmless fun in a way that makes Tesla's 'fart mode' seem puerile.
A power socket and HDMI port means games consoles can be connected to the EGearBrain
Also fun (and useful) is how the Honda E has an HDMI port and a domestic power socket. This means you can hook up a games console (or a laptop, or whatever you like) and play games on the screen while you charge the E's battery pack. I plugged in an Xbox One and it works perfectly.
The power socket could also be used to run a vacuum cleaner or jet washer to clean the car with, or even a lawn mower if that's more convenient than running a cable from your house and across the garden.
Below the HDMI and power socket is a handy pouch for storing your smartphone (and keeping it conveniently out of sight while driving). Open space between there and the center console helps to make the compact cabin feel light and roomy.
Further technology can be found when parking. The E has parking sensors and cameras of course, but it can also complete the maneuver into a space for you, Tesla-style. Just press a button, drive slowly until the car spots a space, then take your hands off the wheel and let it park itself.
The Honda has a pair of 12.3inch touchscreensHonda
The Honda's technology isn't quite perfect, and the so-so resolution and performance of the operating system reminds the driver that this is a compact car lacking the luxury clout of something more expensive and refined. During my week with the E the software occasionally stuttered and generally lacked the snappiness of a Tesla system. But when a car swims against the flow with as much vigour as the Honda, it's hard to hold a grudge against it for long.
All that said, at the equivalent of $40,000 Honda is pitching the E above many of its compact rivals – and is doing so bravely, given the 120-mile range means it really is a car suited exclusively to city life. The cheaper Renault Zoe and its 230-mile range makes far more economic sense, but lacks the charm of the Honda.
I hope Honda retains the bravery with which it launched the E, and we get to see its retro looks and tech-filled interior on future models, especially those destined for the US.
- Retro charm
- Thoughtful blend of touchscreens and tactile controls
- HDMI port and power socket are useful additions
- System not always as responsive as hoped
- Mirror cameras take some getting used to
- Interface has a learning curve
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