It's a miracle the Honda E is even here, considering how much Honda seemed to hate electric cars. And yet, here I am in Valencia, Spain, ready to drive this adorable EV, which is slated to go on sale in summer 2020 in Europe and Japan only.
Until recently, Honda (along with Toyota) has focused on hybrid and hydrogen cars, while ceding the EV market to Tesla and others. However, a maverick gang of Honda engineers convinced management to build the Honda E. They even kept the design pretty close to the Urban E concept it's based on, right down to the wild futuristic interior.
And it paid off. The compact EV's retro-cute je ne sais quoi has grabbed the attention of car buyers and EV fans of all stripes. Now, all that remains is to see if it's as fun to be in and drive as it looks.
The E is a key car for Honda because it's one of the first vehicles of its new "electric vision," along with the next-generation hybrid-only Jazz (aka the Fit in the US). Honda wasn't talking much about electric cars a few years ago, but now it plans to electrify two-thirds of its vehicles around the world by 2030. And it wants to have electric or hybrid versions of all its core European models by 2022.
Rather than competing directly with the longer-range EVs of its biggest rivals in Europe (including Renault, Nissan and Tesla), Honda decided to target the E at urban markets. While it's competing in the same price segment as the Renault Zoe and 40 kWh Leaf, it has a smaller 35.5 kWh battery. In exchange, the E is higher-tech than all its rivals, especially when it comes to the infotainment options.
It's also much more stylish. Production cars are often a far cry from the avant garde concepts they're based on, so I was pleased to see that Honda stayed true to its original vision. With a shape inspired by Honda's original Civic, the E isn't quite as radical as the Urban concept that inspired it, but Honda has mostly kept the design that everyone fell for.
According to Takahiro Shinya, head of dynamic performance for the Honda E, the design is like that for a reason. "We needed to provide buyers with a vehicle that, at a glance, is something different," he said. "We don't want you to feel like you just have a different motor, but that you have bought something which is completely new, completely 'next-generation'."
Honda has smoothed out the body design compared to the concept and replaced the square head- and tail lights with more practical round ones. The car also sits a bit higher than the low-riding concept. Two things Honda kept were the pop-out door handles and cameras in place of rearview mirrors. Both of those things smooth out the aerodynamics and contribute to the unique look of the E.
Unlike on many EVs, the charging port is on top of the hood -- for convenience and to make a statement about the E's electric nature. You can pop the cover using the remote or your phone, and I found it to be easy to access. It does have a trunk in the rear, but it can only accommodate a few small bags -- enough for grocery getting or a short weekend trip.
In the UK, the Honda E will come in two options: the E and the E Advance. Both are rear-wheel-drive, but the base model will get a 134-horsepower electric motor, while the Advance model will pack 152 horsepower. Both models will come with 232-foot-pounds of torque and weigh 3,086 pounds. That means the E has considerably more torque than Renault's rival Zoe (180-foot-pounds) while weighing a bit less.
The most controversial part of the E is the 35.5 kilowatt-hour battery, which is smallish compared to rivals. The company figures it's plenty big enough for urban driving and pointed out that it makes the car lighter, sportier and more efficient.
Honda will stand a great chance of selling this car if it can get the buyers inside one. With furniture fabrics and faux wood accents, the interior is bold and comfortable, making me feel more like I was in an entertainment lounge than a car. The E even has an HDMI input jack, so you can plug in a Chromecast dongle to play games or watch Netflix.
"Our interior designer wanted to create a space that's like a living room, with a sofa and TV," Shinya noted. "That's to ensure that this car is not only comfortable for when you're driving, but also when you're charging. We wanted it to let people use it almost as a private room."
The dashboard is completely covered by screens. Looking across, you have two 6-inch side screens for the mirrors, along with an 8.8-inch driver info display. Then there are the two 12.3-inch touchscreens in the middle, one for the driver and one for the front-seat passenger.
Again, Honda did all of this to differentiate itself from the competition. "Like, we didn't just go with an ordinary navigation system, we tried to make sure that everything visible was new, like it came from the future," said Shinya.
I took the Honda E on a 60-mile trip with mixed city, countryside and highway driving. Valencia was rocked by strong storms the day before, so I was able to test the EV on both dry and wet roads.
The first thing to master in a high-tech car is the infotainment systems. While I'm all about having screens in a car, I worried that I'd be overwhelmed by the wall of tech, especially since I'd only have the car for a couple of hours.
I needn't have worried. Honda deserves a lot of credit for making the infotainment system easy. While you can operate it using the touch displays, you can control most everything with physical buttons on the steering wheel and dash. There's even an old-school volume knob in the middle of the console.
I found it quite easy to search, create and store multi-leg trips on the E's navigation app. On the entertainment side, it supports both Android Auto and Apple's CarPlay, or you can use a variety of apps like Honda's Aha radio. (Many of the apps were still not working for our test drive, however.)
As luck would have it, I was using an Android phone while my trip partner used an iPhone, so we were able to get both Android Auto and CarPlay working. Once you cue up your songs, artists or lists, it's easy to control your tunes directly from the steering wheel without touching the displays. Overall, the Honda has better infotainment ergonomics than the Tesla's screen-centric Model 3 or any other EV I've driven.
The ability to swap screens with the passenger is another thoughtful touch. At one point, for example, we decided to take a detour. I switched my screen over to my passenger, he programmed the GPS, then digitally handed the screen back to me -- very convenient. We saw a similar feature in Sony's Vision-S concept car at CES 2020.
Now, let's talk about driving. While the Honda E looks harmless and cute, it can go like heck. It accelerates well off the line, which is good for city scooting. At the same time, it accelerates very well on the highway at passing speeds.
It has an independent suspension with MacPherson struts at each wheel and perfect 50:50 weight distribution. All that helped it to corner on rails with very little body lean. I wouldn't call it a race car by any means, but I was able to turn, brake and accelerate as quickly as I needed to for both city and highway driving. The Honda also felt quicker and more nimble than the Renault Zoe I drove a couple of years ago.
Another fun thing about this car is the very tight turning circle. With a radius of just 14.1 feet, the E can out-turn the Fiat 500 and nearly every other small car except the Smart FourTwo.
The E gives you a lot of control over how you use the braking energy recovery system, too. With the flick of a button in the center console, you can enable it for single pedal control. That means when you lift off the gas, it brings the car to a complete stop rather than letting it creep forward. I then used side paddles to control the level of energy recovery, from a bit (minimal braking) to a lot (aggressive braking). The tl;dr is that once you get the hang of it, you should be able to maximize battery life, especially in urban areas.
How about those side cameras? They did give me a better and clearer view than mirrors and also reduced my blind spots. Unlike a regular mirror, though, there's a camera, electronics and a screen that can malfunction, leaving you with a blank screen. By contrast, if the electric mirrors in your car break or fail, you can normally still use them.
The regular rearview mirror also uses a rear-mounted camera but is backed up by a physical mirror -- which was fortunate because during my drive, the camera got plugged with rain and all I could see was a blur. Without the option to switch to a physical mirror, I would have been blind to any cars directly behind me.
As you'd expect in a high-tech car, there are a number of intelligent driving systems. Those are powered by Honda's sensing tech, which uses radar and high resolution, wide-angle cameras. If I ventured too close to the lane edge, the road departure mitigation system gave the steering wheel a nudge to push me back.
As with the Civic and other recent models, it's also got automatic braking to avoid collisions with pedestrians and cars, along with adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, road sign detection, automatic high beams and more. I didn't have enough time to test all these features (and some didn't work yet), but all are available on the Civic and other current Honda cars.
The Honda Parking Pilot can help you with that chore, too. After the system locates some spots, you can touch to select the one you want on the central touchscreens. It can then park automatically into parallel, diagonal or parking garage spaces, with or without lines. If something goes awry, Honda showed me how to stomp on the brake to stop the process, then easily resume it.
Now let's talk about the most controversial part of this car. The WLTP electric range is just 137 miles on a single charge, with an EPA rating that would be even lower if it ever came to the US -- which it won't, Honda told me again.
After our 60-mile-or-so trip, with some spirited driving on highways, freeways and in the city, we were down to about a 20 percent charge. So this clearly isn't a good EV for cross-country travel.
To demonstrate the charging speeds, Honda had arranged for fast chargers along our trip route. The E supports up to 100 kW chargers, and those can juice it from zero to 80 percent in 30 minutes. Using a more common 50 kW fast charger takes just two minutes longer than that. In any case, after an hour-long paella lunch break, the car had a full charge again.
In terms of range and battery size, Honda is well behind the competition in this price range in Europe. The Renault Zoe now has a 50 kWh battery (with a 242-mile WLPT range) and costs a bit less than the E at £25,670 or around $33,600 (including a £3,500 rebate). The 40 kWh Leaf, meanwhile, costs £26,345 ($34,400). Honda is confident that range won't matter to urban buyers. "I don't think it will be an issue for people using it for everyday use, for a commute," said Shinya.
After testing this car for a short time and seeing how people react to it, I'm inclined to agree with him. Yes, Honda took a calculated gamble with the battery. It essentially decided to trade off some range in order to make it one of the highest-tech cars you can buy, at any price. In this case, Honda firmly believes that the hip urban buyers it's chasing don't care much for long trips and would rather be entertained.
In my opinion, it wildly succeeds, as this car is just ludicrously enjoyable. It's fun to drive, fun to be in and fun to look at. That makes it even more surprising that it won't come to the US, as I honestly think it would sell well there. Personally, this car would work for me both in Paris and in the French village where I live. Typically, I'm making short 20- to 50-mile trips, which the E could handle easily. The only tricky part would be getting it between the city and the countryside, a distance of about 95 miles -- outside the EV's range on the highway.
The Honda E will start at £26,160 ($34,200) while the E Advance will cost from £28,660 ($37,500), including the £3,500 government rebate.
But the big question is will this car or something like that ever come to the US? Honda told me emphatically that the E will never be sold stateside. However, clearly Honda would be crazy to ignore its biggest market when it comes to its big plans for electrification.
There's no doubt the company will be closely watching how the European market accepts the E. That way, it can plan its future strategy around EVs and hybrid cars -- and whether that includes the US. We'll find out when it goes on sale in the summer of 2020.