So a new decade dawns with Honda's first all-electric car. Makes you wonder what has taken so long, really. After all, Honda was there with an incredibly light, incredibly efficient, electrically-assisted three-cylinder coupe in the 20th century - and the Insight still ranks as one of the most innovative (and desirable) electrified cars ever made. Then there was the CR-Z, previewing what hybrid technology could do for small coupes a decade ago, and the current NSX, distilling million-dollar hybrid hypercar technology into a 911 Turbo rival. All those cars have their flaws, no doubt, but also display a willingness to embrace new technology while the rest of the industry has, by and large, hedged its bets.
Which does make the arrival time of the Honda e - once the stunning Urban EV Concept - look strange. Clearly the manufacturer has been willing to pioneer electrification, yet it's only 10 years after the introduction of the Leaf and seven after the i3 that we have a dedicated Honda EV. Perhaps it was a commitment to hybrid technology that entailed a delay to Honda's 'Electric Vision', but the e does seem to be knocking on the door long after the party has started.
Still, better late than never. And the manufacturer would point to BEV sales in the UK and suggest (not without good reason) that it has arrived at just the right time. Certainly it's hard to argue with the dinky Honda - shorter, lower and wider than a Jazz - as a prospect on paper. Not only is the world familiar with Honda as an electrified brand, the logic behind its spec makes sense. The e is pitched unapologetically as a city car, something for urbanites to commute in, charge at the office or at home, and not travel much more than the 40km per day which an average European work journey is said to take in. Therefore it has a small battery; that means the range is reduced compared to some rivals, yes - and it's a point to return to - though, of course, a smaller battery is a lighter one. That makes it easier to package and ventilate, as well as reducing the charging time. It's the virtuous circle of lightness, all its benefits in terms of efficiency and dynamism, applied to an electric car. If it's good enough for Lotus...
In fact, Honda maintains that its size was decided first, the technology then adapted to fit. The e really seems dinky, too; even on the 17-inch wheels of the more powerful Advance model, and with the dimensions of a modern city runaround, there's the impression of an old-fashioned kei car, thanks to the cute little face and tall, narrow silhouette. It lacks the swagger of the concept, yet the e's unmistakeable Japanese-ness has its own appeal. Perhaps not as "timeless" or "iconic" as Honda would have you believe, but nice. As for the dimensions' validity in the real world, never discount how useful a tiny 8.5m turning circle and a wheel at each corner could be in downtown Tokyo, or Turin, or Tower Hamlets - lost on the launch it proved invaluable.
Given we now live in a world where the test drive matters increasingly less - and first impressions considerably more - the e is going to shine in the showroom. It is meant entirely as a compliment that this little city car not only looks nothing like any other Honda (infotainment fonts aside), it also feels the most expensive inside - NSX included. The 'loft' approach to interior design, with vast expanses of light wood combined with big screens and ample natural light create the feel of driving an Ikea advert as much as a car. The displays are slick and responsive, a mile away from anything we're used to from Honda - but it should be noted that the maps want for a little extra clarity. That said, all information about the car, from energy use to podcast choice, can simply and swiftly be gestured from across the dash, the standard-fit rear-view cameras on the wing are flawless (as well as very cool) and the feel is of a desirable, chic, stylish, yet well thought out small car. It's a Honda you definitely want to spend time in, and when was that last a true statement?
Given three of the four engineering pillars for the e involved the look and the cabin experience - Design, Human Machine Interface and Connectivity - it could be seen as job done for the dev team and off to Motegi with the NSXs. However, credit where it is due, the fourth pillar is 'Dynamics', which brings us back to the battery argument: a more compact battery is a less heavy battery, resulting in a better car to drive. As is the way, all EV associated hardware is mounted as low and as centrally as possible, but there are extra touches: you've probably heard that the e is rear-wheel drive, and it also has 50:50 weight distribution, Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres and independent rear suspension, so it has been thought about. This isn't just a connected pod with Honda Personal Assistant, Honda Sensing active safety and that Aquarium screensaver - it's a little Honda to be driven.
But driven how far? Well, the fully-charged smaller battery presents you with a range of just 150km (WLTP rates it at 220km max). Even allowing for spirited launch driving and appalling weather, 93 miles doesn't seem like enough in this day and age. Arguably it could be (and does become) something to get used to, because you plan around it, but there are comparable EVs now that offer far greater ranges. And range anxiety, as we're constantly told, is the single biggest impediment to electric car ownership. So Honda is not doing itself any favours.
The idea that a smaller battery might also result in a smaller outlay is swiftly dispelled by the Honda e Advance's £32,160 asking price (which is the model Honda expects to account for 95 per cent of sales). Its argument is that this car is like an iPhone, where cars with a bigger battery are like iPads. The logic makes some sense; the problem, however, is that something like an i3 is the same sort of money and a similar size on the road; an equivalent smartphone with a longer battery life, it might well be argued...
At least the weight saving pays dividends on the road, where the Honda e proves a very pleasing little car to drive. While 1,500kg is downright chubby for a vehicle of these dimensions, a Leaf (admittedly larger) is nearly 200kg heavier, so Honda's claims of dynamic benefit do hold water - even if you still find yourself watching the estimated range tumble as you zip from one bend to the next. A definitive verdict on how the littlest Honda handles will have to wait until will we drive it on roads not submerged by Storm Gloria's wrath - but even allowing for the conditions there is much to be encouraged by.
The e darts and pivots eagerly, the centrally located mass giving it the agility of something far lighter. It feels rear-driven, too, leaning on its outside wheel as it powers away from bends. Moreover the steering is nice, notable simply for getting on with directing the car. Sport mode, as far as can be told, does little beyond sharpening the throttle. That Macpherson strut system does a broadly very good job too, the diminutive e shrugging off imperfections with maturity and composure. That said there's a rigidity at lower speeds that might put some off, likely a result of keeping a C-segment kerbweight neat and tidy in something so small. On this experience, it's a car with easily enough promise to warrant excitement about another drive.
As for the powertrain itself, it'll come as little surprise to discover the familiar electric vehicle traits: immediate response to the pedal, a sprightliness at low speed that no combustion-engined car can replicate and silence when running. The Single Pedal Control System, with regen adjusted by paddles on the wheel, works really nicely as well. All of which makes it a near-perfect urban car; city driving being a breeze thanks to its manoeuvrability, visibility, swift and silent powertrain and cool-coffee-shop-for-people-with-beards interior. Range caveats aside, it's a similar story at motorway speeds, where the e approaches its 90mph maximum with unerring stability.
Despite its townie billing, Honda is aware of the e's limitations, and has spent on architecture accordingly. A Power Charger is in development, and will be available at launch, though that's arguably of limited relevance: not many in urban areas will have the ability to install a charger on a driveway wall. Because they won't have one. Same with the Power Manager that can feed energy back into the grid, and charge your e at the optimum time given cost and grid demand. Cool when it happens, but still in development at the moment, or installed at Islington Town Hall and available for drivers of their EV fleet. Of more interest and applicability is Honda's investment in Ubitricity, where cars are charged at street lights via a cable unique to the owner, meaning it can be billed back to your regular electricity account. That will become even more useful when the world's first flexible electricity tariff, a collaboration between Honda and Vattenfall, comes into service. But that's a little way off, as yet. And best hope you're in London for Ubitricity, too, as the only place outside of the capital its service is currently available is Oxford.
Will these limitations matter? Let's see. For what it's worth the styling of Honda's brave new venture has evidently gone a long way to securing buyers' affections - if the response on social media is any guide. Certainly, there's been pent up excitement for cute cars much less adept than this in the recent past. And it should be noted that, as far as those range concerns go, Mini backs up Honda's beliefs; the Mini Electric only has WLTP range of 240km, or 20 more than the Honda, again because of typical usage and commuting distance proven in research.
Consequently, buyers that love the e's look, can charge easily and are willing to put down the 30 per cent deposit for the finance deals (£289 or £349 a month) should absolutely go for it. The car comfortably drives well enough and feels special enough to justify the interest in it. Non-believers might be a little harder to sway given the e's singular focus; we're too used to cars that can do it all these days, making the Honda's innate compromises seem all the more eye-opening against the current EV backdrop. It would be fair to say that the i3 offered - and still does, on this experience - a more complete overall small car package.
Desire and subjective appeal have never had anything to do with the best overall purchase, though. Want it? Get it. Honda should be commended for delivering a small car of joy, quality, fun and intrigue - prized qualities all. And if that doesn't quite qualify it as class leader, it is a hugely encouraging start for the manufacturer. One that it is likely to swiftly build on: don't be surprised if a few more miles are eked from that battery in time. Don't bet against Honda's ambitions, either - a production version of the incredible Sports EV concept would instantly provide the manufacturer with another game-changing model. Thanks to the e, that prospect suddenly feels like a genuine possibility.
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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