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Honda has waited while the electric car segment has grown. Has it delayed too long?

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It seems a slightly strange notion, given how different the design philosophies of these two great companies have appeared to be over the years but, in launching its first really serious battery-electric vehicle, Honda has supposedly followed the example set by the world’s best-known smartphone manufacturer.

According to Honda, the similarities between thHonda E new E city car and Apple’s iPhone should be readily apparent. You can be the judge of the veracity of that statement but, says Honda, both products put eye-catching design and seamless functionality in pride of place, and both do so in return for a healthy price premium.

Cutesy round headlights incorporate ring-style daytime-running lights (which light up when you approach) and are the E’s clearest visual reference to the original 1972 Honda Civic

With a ground-up new design and an all-new platform, the E will spearhead Honda’s electrification strategy. And yet it’s leading that particular charge from what looks to be, in one key respect at least, a questionable position. Where many affordable mainstream EVs are now appearing with more than 200 miles of WLTP-certified range, the dinky E arrives with a comparatively meagre 136 miles of range at most.

However, Honda is confident it has taken the right approach with this car, even if it has to justify its strategy by strictly defining both who the E is aimed at and how it should be used. According to the messaging, then, the E will be bought by individuals who appreciate its design and compactness to such an extent that they’re happy to pay a little more for a car they won’t be able to travel quite as far in.

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Has such a specialised brief ultimately made Honda’s maiden electric effort a better next-generation city car, or a worse one? Stand by to find out, and to find out if it's one of the best small electric cars on sale.

The Honda E range at a glance

Honda’s two-derivative E line-up keeps it simple. Those after the most rangy and manoeuvrable E should stick with the cheaper, slightly less powerful base model (with its skinnier, economy-biased tyres).

But those wanting to maximise the car’s design and tech appeal can simply opt for an Advance-spec car with a choice of 16in or 17in wheels, and with a digital rear-view mirror, premium audio, heated windscreen and automatic parking all standard.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Honda e 2020 road test review - hero rear

It’s likely that a great many E owners won’t need another reason to buy than the car’s striking exterior design. Much as we might quietly regret that the slightly bolder forms and more perfect proportions of Honda’s 2017 Urban EV concept didn’t make it on to the final production version of this car, this is still a really impactful, characterful and visually appealing piece of work.

The E isn’t quite Honda’s very first all-electric passenger car (there was also the experimental, lease-only EV Plus supermini of 1997) but, even so, it was bold of its maker to fund an all-new dedicated electric car platform for it, rather than adapting an existing one. The E has an all-steel chassis that, like most EVs of the type, carries its lithium ion drive battery under the cabin floor.

Cameras come in place of door mirrors on all versions of the car. Honda claims they create much less wind noise and drag, and reduce the overall vehicle width, though the appearance takes some getting used to

Unlike most rivals, however, the car’s electric motor (which develops either 134bhp or 152bhp at peak, depending on which version you buy) sits at the rear and drives the rear wheels, while the power electronics and on-board charger are packaged at the front, where you’ll find the car’s charging port.

That layout has enabled Honda to deliver a near-perfect 50:50 weight distribution for the car, as our test scales confirmed, but that’s not the only benefit. As many a post-war compact passenger car has proven, a rear-engined mechanical layout can be particularly space efficient, making for more interior room than you would expect in a car that’s less than 3.9 metres long.

It also makes more space available to the car’s front wheel houses, which in the E’s case deliver abundant steering angle and a turning circle between walls that, depending on wheel specification, can be less than nine metres.

Staggered-width wheels also contribute to that effect, those on the car’s front axle being half an inch skinnier than those at the rear. Suspension is all independent (via MacPherson struts and coil springs at each corner), which ought to encourage keener drivers.

Slightly less encouraging is the car’s overall kerb weight: our range-topping 152bhp Advance-spec test car came in a bit lighter than the manufacturer claim but was still 1535kg. That made it 120kg heavier than the BMW i3 we tested in 2013 (which had a piston engine as well as an electric motor) and only 31kg shy of the MG ZS EV compact crossover we tested last year. In this case, small clearly doesn’t mean light, then – not even by compact EV standards.

INTERIOR

Honda e 2020 road test review - cabin

Just as with the exterior, slick design appeal is a defining feature of the E’s cabin. Slide yourself down through the generously proportioned front door aperture and you’re greeted by an environment that looks and feels not just impressively airy and visually alluring but solidly built and technologically sophisticated, too.

You sit relatively perched atop seats that are wide and noticeably soft but lack a little in lateral support. They are upholstered in a smart-looking grey cloth that appears to have been lifted directly from the frame of some chic high-end sofa and extends to cover large swathes of the E’s door panels. Its presence, along with the wooden trim on the dashboard and contrasting brown seatbelts, gives the Honda a real sense of sophistication and desirability when judged against its peers – even if it’s a mite tricky to shake the feeling that we’ve seen a similar approach adopted by another rear-engined, designer EV in the past: the BMW i3.

Six-inch screens for the door mirror cameras are clear and don’t take long to adapt to. They aren’t too affected by direct sunlight, either.

The E’s crowning interior feature has to be the array of screens along the top of its dash. There are five in all: two for the digital door mirrors, one for the instrument binnacle and two for the infotainment system. For sheer tech appeal, you’d argue they even give Tesla a run for its money. Ergonomically, the E works well.

There’s decent adjustability in the seat base and steering column, and Honda’s decision to retain physical controls for the ventilation is to be commended, particularly when they probably could have easily been integrated into the infotainment system. There’s loads of cabin storage, too. Even rear passengers get their own cupholders.

The E is a strict four-seater and, with a taller driver in place, the second row is tight enough to induce a bit of compulsory seatback knee straddling. Our tape measure recorded a typical rear leg room figure of 660mm; that’s more than you’ll find in some full-sized superminis, so it’s no bad result for the E, but it’s also not quite enough for one average-height adult to sit comfortably behind another without a slight squeeze being necessary.

The boot is a little restrictive, with only 171 litres of seats-up storage space available below the window line. Fold the rear bench down and this opens up to 861 litres, which isn’t far off the carrying space of a normal supermini, but it isn’t likely to be enough for you to contemplate regular family service for the car other than as a short-hop runabout.

Honda E infotainment and sat-nav

You have got to credit Honda for committing to such intense interior digitisation with the E, particularly given just how clunky and difficult its infotainment systems have been in the past.

Generally speaking, the displays are impressively crisp and responsive, although there is perhaps a touch of fuzz around their borders. The 8.8in TFT instrument binnacle is clear and easy to read and it can be configured to display charge level, trip information and other driving-related fields of data.

Meanwhile, the two 12.3in infotainment screens offer a whole new level of configurability and personalisation. The dual-screen nature means passengers can interact with the radio or sat-nav and then ‘pass’ the display across to the driver at the touch of a button. It’s quite cool, although with features like Apple CarPlay included as standard, you wonder just how necessary such a set-up really is. Nevertheless, the system as a whole works far better than anything we’ve seen from Honda before.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Honda e 2020 road test review - charging port

The E’s performance levels are well matched to the cut-and-thrust environments in which it will inevitably operate. By and large, this doesn’t seem like the kind of electric car that will sell on the powerful, darting response of its driving experience – and yet it still has a very sprightly, instant turn of speed when you need it.

Getting from 30mph to 50mph, as you might when leaving a built-up area or zipping past a slow-moving tractor or lorry, takes just 3.0sec. Although that’s not quite as swift as the i3 REx we tested in 2013 (2.7sec) or the bigger Kia e-Niro and Hyundai Kona Electric, that’s enough to make the E seem very energetic in and around town and well able to seize any opportunity or plug any gap in city traffic you’re likely to spot for it.

It’s well suited to its urban brief, with easy manoeuvrability, compact width, great visibility, agile responses and the crisp punch needed to make good progress in traffic.

There are two drive modes – Normal and Sport – which, among other things, dictate just how responsive the E is to throttle inputs. In Normal, there’s a need to use a fair amount of pedal travel to rouse the Honda into urgent life.

When you do, though, the way this rear-engined EV squats down on its haunches and springs forward is much more in keeping with the level of response you’d expect from a car with 232lb ft of instantly available torque. Alternatively, bump the rocker switch to select Sport mode and that initially soft throttle response is sharpened considerably.

Although the E defaults to a relatively minimal level of regenerative braking, you can select a ‘one-pedal’ mode of driving by pressing the button directly behind the drive selector. The car’s ‘energy regen’ settings can then be further altered by toggling the paddle shifters on either side of the steering wheel until you find your preferred level of regeneration.

Even in its most aggressive setting (which, like much else about the car’s dynamic execution, isn’t very aggressive at all), the motor regeneration works with the friction brakes to commendably slick effect, with reasonable pedal feel and progression to make for smooth stops. In full emergency brake conditions, the Honda will come to a rest from 70mph in 44.5 metres, its Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres (it’s still rare to find sports tyres on an EV) no doubt playing a key role here.

RIDE & HANDLING

Honda e 2020 road test review - on the road front

The relatively slow steering and the particular suspension tuning that tends to be applied to compact, high-sided, rear-engined cars can sometimes make them seem curiously unwieldy at low speeds. Not so the E.

This is a car that, within a hundred yards, is beginning to tell you that it’s relatively softly sprung at the rear axle and that it also puts less rubber on the road at the front wheels than it does at the rear – both of which make it gently understeer at an adhesive limit that isn’t too hard to find on a brisk country-road drive.

The Honda E is capable of charging at a rate of up to 50kW – slower than some rivals. 50kW public rapid chargers can get the battery from 10-80% in about 35 minutes

But around town, where the car is primarily intended to be used, it steers in an agile and accurate fashion and keeps close control of body roll, although, as we’ll come to explain, it doesn’t punish you with a firm or bothersome low-speed ride. The E is a pleasure to thread around roundabouts and junctions, then, offering great visibility, being obligingly narrow and having every bit as much grip and dynamic composure as it needs to deploy all of the nippiness of that electric powertrain.

That pleasing urban-setting composure isn’t always replicated at B-road speeds. Here, the softness of the suspension makes the body a little prone to agitation on uneven surfaces. It fusses laterally with ‘head toss’ over near-the-verge bumps, and it pitches and heaves a little through bigger compressions, and although you might not notice all that happening if you were sitting closer to the car’s centre of gravity, you certainly do from the slightly elevated perch in which you sit in the car. In that respect, and albeit at a much smaller scale, the E’s driving position feels a little like driving a two-storey townhouse from the front bedroom.

As we’ve hinted, the car is stable enough at speed, although it has a slightly meek outright limit of grip, understeering gently but persistently once you reach it and being managed subtly but effectively by an electronic stability control system that can be dialled back but not fully switched off. It rolls quite smartly during quicker cornering – not to big angles, thankfully, but big enough to take the bite away from those front tyres in non-negotiable fashion.

Comfort and isolation

Honda claims the E was benchmarked against larger, D-segment cars for ride comfort and isolation, and it shows. It feels like a more softly sprung flavour of EV, one that offers handsome amounts of compliance through dips and compressions.

Suspension noise caused by secondary intrusions is convincingly muffled before it can make its way into the cabin, and the impacts themselves are smartly rounded off in a rubber-footed manner that’s not entirely unlike a Volkswagen Polo in its effectiveness. At lower speeds and on particularly rough stretches of road, the E does succumb to a moderately excited kind of body control that seems to concentrate itself around the rear axle in particular.

Even so, such complaints hardly detract from the fact that, generally speaking, the E rides with a genteel smoothness that’s uncommon in EVs of a similar footprint. Provided it had the range or, more accurately, owners had the patience to frequently charge the battery, you could easily envisage using the E on journeys that fall outside of Honda’s rather restrictive prescribed usage patterns.

With cameras taking the place of traditional door mirrors, wind noise is at a minimum, and road noise doesn’t seem particularly overbearing, either.

Assisted driving notes

Honda has plainly made an effort to improve its semi-autonomous driving technology offering with the E. Although it’s missing some functionality compared with systems from other manufacturers, what it does it does quite effectively and well.

The speed limit detection system will consistently recognise posted limits, for example, and will alert you when you’re breaking them, but it won’t automatically govern the car’s set cruise control speed to keep you legal. The lane keeping system will warn you if you’re about to pull out with a vehicle in your blindspot, but it won’t guide the car out automatically if it’s safe, like others do.

On winding roads, the lane keeping system will intervene gently on the steering as you approach the margin of your lane but won’t wrestle with you to ensure you’re always precisely centred within it.

Mostly, then, the car clearly wants to keep you engaged in the process of driving – just as it should.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Honda e 2020 road test review - hero front

With a WLTP-certified range of just 125 miles and a post-OLEV grant price of £29,160, the E Advance looks like a pricey car however you define it.

Against the latest range-topping Renault Zoe (239 miles, £30,995) and Peugeot e-208 GT (211 miles, £30,275), it lacks both range and some practicality. Even the flagship Mini Electric (140-141 miles, £30,900) – a car that raised similar range and price-related concerns to the E – marginally outperforms it on paper. When you factor in an average test economy figure of 3.1mpkWh, the Honda’s real-world range looks closer to 110 miles, although versions on smaller wheels and less sporting tyres ought to add about 10% to this.

The E shows just how effective good design can be. I can see why someone might be prepared to overlook its shortcomings on range and price purely because they like its appearance.

You’ll have to be committed to the idea of using the E as a short-range commuter – just as Honda intends – to seriously consider it, then. Those who do take the plunge will find a car that’s generously equipped, stylish, comfortable, dynamically interesting and well built, which allows it to claw back half a star or so in this section.

But even for those city-hopping few, you’d imagine there will be times when the car’s limited battery range will become a frustration.

VERDICT

Honda e 2020 road test review - static

In some ways, not least how much visual charm it offers, the E feels like something totally fresh and really interesting in the expanding electric car market. In the way it drives, however, it’s very much like a car designed and engineered ‘after’ the BMW i3, by a firm convinced it could go one better.

So if the idea of a stylish, all-electric premium city car always enticed you but BMW’s feisty, springy, up-and-at-’em chassis tuning and alternative looks didn’t, here’s a Honda with comparable compactness, desirability and its own sense of style – but a much more relaxed and rounded urban ride to accompany its manoeuvrability. It’s like an i3 but a lot less quirky and more grown up.

More than just a pretty face in the EV crowd; limited range an issue

This car is sufficiently enjoyable to drive in town, and to travel in, that it could please a raft of quite different buyers, and for different reasons. Its limited range is likely to stop it becoming a default choice, and keeps the E at arm’s length from the class lead. It might also stop first-time EV buyers apprehensive about electric motoring from choosing the E.

For anyone already resolved that a short-range electric car would suit just fine, it could be first in the queue – but, we fear, that won’t be a great many.

 

Honda E First drives