Perhaps more than any other electric vehicle, range is an unavoidable topic when it comes to the Honda e. So much so, in fact, that its full charge maximum is mentioned on the joining email; if you go off piste driving the car and run out of charge, the bill for being recovered is on you, the journalist. Which is understandable, of course, if a bit unusual for a mail that is normally read to find out when lunch is. But it became an especially daunting prospect with navigation that did a good job on its own of diverting the car off the prescribed route. In any other car, you'd fill it up, or there'd be sufficient range that a detour would be less of a concern. But when the car is showing 100 miles to empty with a full charge, it's difficult to be so confident when inadvertently in the wrong direction...
Now, there are plenty more points of merit to discuss around the Honda e, which we'll get to, but the concerns around range and charging can't go unaddressed. Because, yes, the idea of it being an urban car for urban journeys, for fitting a smaller, lighter battery to make a smaller car and promoting new charging solutions are all valid. But the fact remains that very few urban dwellers have access to a driveway (for the Honda Power Charger that gives the four-hour charge capability) and the Ubitricity alternative - with charging points in lampposts that can be charged to your domestic tariff - still has its limitations. The rollout is progressing (and there are thousands in London), but at present not one exists between Luton and Liverpool. And anyone who has to charge an e through a three-pin plug must wait 18 hours for the 35.5kWh battery to fully charged.
So the e feels a bit compromised from the get go; those after a city EV could look at something like a SEAT Mii for two thirds of the price, and anyone coveting something small but with a bit of range should look at the e-208, which offers a WLTP range almost 100 miles better than the Honda at 217 miles.
You knew there was a 'but' coming, though, didn't you? What facts and stats don't take into account is one key attribute, probably the most decisive one that exists when it comes to new car buying: desirability. The want-one factor. Allure, appeal, intrigue; whatever you want to call it, the Honda e has it in spades, where perhaps it's more worthy rivals do not. Don't underestimate the appeal of subjective preference either; look at the success of the Mini and Fiat 500 for proof of that.
The e charm offensive begins inside, the 'loft'-style cabin as appealing in the sunshine of Staines as it was in the rain of Spain. Here's where EV architecture really feels to benefit, too, with great visibility, a properly spacious interior for the front passengers and a sense of airiness that doesn't seem to come with conventionally powered superminis. It's place you want to be, stylish and high quality and interesting, before considering the how well integrated the technology is and how swish almost every material is for a Honda. Even the most cynical will have a lot of their e concerns assuaged just by the interior.
The drive helps, too. For now, UK buyers (and there are 500 orders already) are being offered the 154hp Advance model; the 136hp standard car will arrive at some point in 2021, though it's expected to make up only around 20 per cent of sales. As always, electric performance flatters to deceive from rest, the dinky Honda feeling even brisker than the official 8.3-second 0-62mph dash would have you believe away from the lights. In something so small, in confined urban environments, the instantaneous performance is really exciting, more so than any combustion-engined equivalent could be: see the gap and you're in the gap, almost like the car has been teleported, aided by those clever rear-view cameras. Because we wouldn't think about darting anywhere before a mirror check and signal beforehand.
The rear-wheel drive powertrain feels very nicely calibrated, too, adding to impression of the e being meticulously and lovingly engineered. Driven in normal mode both throttle and brake have good weight and resistance, inspiring confidence from the off and in any situation, be that an urban crawl, motorway dice or pretending any minor road is a Japanese T?ge. There's also the Single Pedal Control System, where the e can be driven entirely on the accelerator, right down to zero and without any creep built in. Its level of regen can be adjusted on the steering wheel paddles (the left 'down' paddle introduces more, like changing to a lower ratio, the right 'up' lessens the effect) and again works cohesively. It's hard to imagine that getting proper subtlety and nuance into a pedal travel of a few centimetres is simple, and it's been done really well here. The SPCS introduces some new EV interactivity, in addition, because the paddles can be used to 'downchange' on the way into a bend, adding more regen to slow the car down without touching the brakes, and then clicked back up on the way out in preparation for the next corner. It's not much, but shows a concession to the idea that some people might want to actively involve themselves in the business of driving.
As does what's underneath. Because Honda presumably didn't have to fit independent suspension (albeit Macpherson struts) at each corner, make the weight balance 50:50 or fit Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres, but it did - and it pays dividends. The e handles smartly, more so than you would credit to a 1,500kg city car, and rides with a certain sophistication that's also a pleasant surprise, even on optional 17-inch wheels. Again, its aptitude is best experienced in town, shrugging off speed bumps and darting around roundabouts with aplomb. The turning circle gives the e the manoeuvrability of a dodgem and the variable ratio steering, if overly light, is accurate enough. Limited to the city and suburbs, the e is nothing less than a joy. There is no desire to return to a combustion engined city car after tackling any kind of urban drive in a Honda e - they can't compete.
You knew there was another 'but' coming here as well, right? And this one seems a particularly churlish issue, like slamming an S-Class for its poor track showing or the fuel economy of a Huracan, but it's a fact that the e is noticeably less adept out of town. Not in terms of performance, because it zaps up to speed really nicely. But asked to deal with successive changes of direction or surface imperfections at speed and the combination of the short wheelbase and chubby kerbweight begins to tell; the e just feels out of its comfort zone. Which it quite patently is. Not hopelessly, just a bit untidily, in a way that something like - you've guessed it - a Mini Electric is not.
Have we really made it this far without mentioning the Mini? Incredible. The two are irresistibly close, both doing funky and desirable EV city car with a limited range against less trendy alternatives, price tags around £30k and battery capacities within just a few kWh of each other. Away from town, it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Mini's more mature handling is preferable, the weight feeling even lower and the balance more neutral. On the other hand, the Honda is more fun in the city. The Mini interior is smart, sensible and sporty, actually better for a driver than the Honda, if nowhere near as engaging.
Which, handily, brings us back to discussion of the original compromise. Because, if anything, the Honda has gazumped the Mini at its own game. 20 years ago the Mini was the car that was more expensive than superminis but much less practical, seemingly offering little over established choices for its premium. Which it didn't, on paper, but car buying decisions aren't (or shouldn't) be made on paper. The Mini was cool, and people flocked to its cute styling and personalisation options - it was a small car like never before, and people paid the premium because they really, really wanted one. And nobody really wants a Yaris (or not one with less than 250hp, anyway).
That's what the Honda e feels like. Concerns about its limited remit persist - especially in market which favours the broad talent of the Golf R, the Audi TT and Porsche Cayman to the lithe brilliance of a Renault Sport Megane, Toyota GT86 and Lotus Elise. But such worries are offset by the car's apparently innate desirability. And that's not just because for the styling: the urban driving experience is unmatched and the motorway manners more than good enough. Maybe it should go further for £32k; maybe it should be supported by a devoted charging network; maybe it should be a bit lighter while we're at it, and as quick as the Mini. Don't forget, though, that they're on-paper concerns, arguments from the head rather than from the heart - and we typically default to the latter. Not for nothing either, but good design - i.e. making something seem intrinsically desirable - is the objective of virtually every consumer electronic device you've picked up in the last twenty years. Honda has astutely harnessed some of that charisma, to the extent where certain people are going to make it fit their lives whether it does so perfectly or not. That hardly makes it a superlative electric car. But it's a wonderful place to start.
SPECIFICATION | HONDA E
Engine: 35.5 kWh lithium ion battery, electric motor
Transmission: Automatic single speed Fixed Reduction Gear
Power: 136 hp (Advance 154)
Torque: 232lb ft
0-62mph: 9.0 seconds (Advance 8.3)
Top speed: 90mph
Kerbweight: 1,514kg (1,527kg for Advance on 16-inch wheels, 1,542kg for Advance on 17-inch wheels)
MPG: 137 miles/220km range (WLTP full charge range, for standard car and Advance on 16-inch wheels; 125 miles/201km for Advance on 17-inch wheels)
CO2: 0g/km driving
Price: £29,660 (Advance £32,160)
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