The 2020 Honda e and the original Acura NSX have a few things in common. They are both rear-wheel drive. They both roll on a staggered tire setup, the rears wider than the fronts. And they are both among the most desirable cars Japan’s most individualistic automaker has ever built.
The Honda e is not Honda’s first all-electric-powered vehicle—the company has been working on EV technology since the late 1980s and has released several production battery electric vehicles, including the EV Plus, a handful of which were made available on a lease-only basis in the U.S. in the late 1990s. But Honda has never truly embraced the EV, preferring instead to spend precious R&D time and money on fuel-cell powertrains that combine the zero tailpipe emissions of an electric motor with the refueling speed of a gasoline engine.
The 2020 Honda e changes all that. Honda’s dogged pursuit of fuel-cell technology is not going away. But growing pressure on overall vehicle fleet emissions, particularly in Europe, combined with rapid growth in EV charging infrastructure (hydrogen fuel-cell refueling stations are still vanishingly rare), has helped make the business case for the Honda e. Typically, though, Honda’s approach to building an electric vehicle isn’t quite like that of any other automaker.
The Honda e Doesn’t Add Up—On Paper
Look at the raw numbers, and the Honda e doesn’t seem to add up when compared with the best compact electric vehicles currently on sale in the U.S. Its 35.5-kWh battery means a 137- or 124-mile range, depending on whether you order the base car with the 134-hp motor or the Advance model, which packs 152 horsepower. That puts it below even the base Nissan Leaf, which has a 40.0-kWh battery, a 147-hp motor, and a range of 168 miles (on the same WLTP Combined cycle) for—in the U.K. at least—the same money. What’s more, at 9.0 seconds, the 134-hp Honda is 1.5 seconds slower to 60 mph than the Nissan. The base Honda e is 11.5 percent cheaper in the U.K. than the base Hyundai Kona Electric SE (which has a 39.0-kWh battery and 134-hp motor, compared with U.S.-spec Kona Electrics, which are all equipped with a 64-kWh battery and 201-hp motor). But the Hyundai boasts a 180-mile WLTP range.
Small Hondas aren’t what they used to be. Nearly 7 to 10 inches bigger in every exterior dimension, with a 13.3-inch longer wheelbase, the Honda e looms large over a first-generation Civic, and it weighs more than twice as much. But in the context of Honda’s current U.S. lineup, it qualifies as a small car, as it’s 8.1 inches shorter overall than the Fit (which is being discontinued here largely because small car sales are in steep decline), with a roofline that’s half an inch lower. The proportions are dramatically different from those of Honda’s entry-level hatchback, however. The Honda e is 2.0 inches wider than the Fit, and despite being dramatically shorter, it rolls on a 0.3-inch longer wheelbase.
The Honda e is built on an all-new, bespoke EV platform. The motor is mounted at the rear axle, driving the rear wheels. Up front, under the hood, is the power inverter and associated hardware. In between is the temperature-controlled 35.5-kWh lithium-ion battery pack, which Honda says can be topped up to 80 percent of its charge in just 30 minutes using a CCS2 DC rapid charger. A Type 2 AC connection will deliver a full charge is 4.1 hours via a 7.4-kilowatt supply.
Suspension is by way of struts front and rear, with forged aluminum components for high strength and low weight. The brakes are 11-inch discs all round, the fronts ventilated for cooling. Perfect 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution and a low center of gravity—just 19.7 inches above the road, Honda says—means low roll rates, allowing engineers to fit softer spring rates to improve ride comfort.
The Honda e’s variable-ratio, electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering setup features two pinions, allowing the steering and power assistance functions to be separated. At cruising speeds, steering inputs are mainly confined to the center of the rack, where the ratio effectively increases resistance. The outer extremities of the rack have a quicker ratio to improve response on city streets. The system gives the Honda e a turning circle diameter of just 28.2 feet, Honda says.
Holy Whoa, This Thing Is Adorable
In the metal, Honda’s little electric car looks appealingly squat and chunky, the bodywork teased out over a wheel at each corner. The clean and simple yet characterful exterior design is also a welcome departure from the bizarre Japanese gothic style—sharp edges, random slashes, discordant detailing—that’s crept into Hondas in recent years. Flush door handles, rearview cameras rather than mirrors, and a strong graphic front and rear—round lights in a full-width concave black panel—make the Honda e stand out from the small-car crowd.
Although not quite as achingly cute as the Urban EV concept, which was one of the stars of the 2017 Frankfurt motor show, the production Honda e successfully channels that car’s wide-eyed charm.
The welcome break with current Japanese design trends continues inside the Honda e. With gray woven cloth seats, satin-finish mid-tone wood on the dash and standalone center console, brown contrast stitching, and brown seat belts, this Honda cabin has a distinctly Scandinavian vibe. It’s a Scandinavian vibe with a high-tech edge, however: No fewer than five high-def screens are arrayed across the full width of the dash. The outer two display images from the rearview cameras on the doors, the 8.8-inch one in front of the driver gives all relevant vehicle information, and the other two—a pair of 12.3-inch LCD touchscreens—handle all the infotainment chores.
Standard equipment levels on the Honda e are high, with even the base model getting a leather steering wheel, heated front seats, a glass sunroof, and Honda’s suite of active safety features, including brake assist, lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control, and traffic-sign recognition. Honda’s voice-command system, which uses artificial intelligence to hold contextually relevant conversations with the occupants, and Wi-Fi hotspot capability are also standard.
Our test car was the pricier Advance model, which costs less than 10 percent more than the base Honda e and comes standard with 17-inch wheels and grippy Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires, the latter size 205/45 up front and 225/45 at the rear. (Sixteen-inch wheels and low-rolling-resistance Yokohama BlueEarth A tires are standard on the base car.) Other standard goodies include a heated steering wheel, a center rearview mirror camera, and Honda’s automatic parking system, which can work five parking patterns in parallel spaces, bays, or diagonally if the space is marked with a white line.
Walk up to the Honda e with the key in your pocket, and the driver’s door handle automatically pops out to greet you. It feels like a premium car from the moment you slide in behind the wheel, even though the seats require old-school manual fore-aft and backrest adjustment and the steering wheel adjusts only for rake.
Like your smartphone, the Honda e’s dash can be set up to give you exactly the information and functionality you want. The two 12.3-inch infotainment screens are bookended by a stack of configurable virtual buttons that activate functions such as the navigation, phone, and audio systems, as well as apps. Both the front passenger and driver can swipe through recently used applications in the app history, and favorite apps or functions can also be exchanged between the two screens, either by flicking them across from edge menu presets or by touch a button on the display.
Oh, Yes, the Honda e Drives Very Nicely
It’s a terrific city car, this Honda. The trademark instant electric-motor response from the rear-mounted unit—which can be sharpened further by selecting Sport mode—combined with the little Honda’s compact dimensions and excellent all-around visibility make it the ideal tool for the nip-and-tuck of city traffic. The steering feels a little low geared, but it’s accurate and delivers decent feedback. Brake feel is smooth and consistent, with none of the weird nonlinear feedback you get from some EVs as they recoup energy.
The powertrain offers four levels of energy regeneration. The default mode is very mild and allows the Honda e to flow down the road like a regular internal-combustion-engined car with an automatic transmission when you lift off the accelerator. Regen can be increased by clicking the paddle on the left of the steering column, and then eased by clicking its counterpart on the right. If you like one-pedal driving, a button on the center console near the pushbutton drive selector instantly switches the regen to the most aggressive setting.
Rolling ride quality of the Honda e is very good thanks to those softer spring rates, although as is typical with many Hondas, it could do with just a tad more suspension travel. There’s far less transmitted road noise than in many similarly priced EVs and nary a hint of a whine from the drive system.
Brilliant in the city, the Honda e feels equally accomplished on urban freeways. A 74-mile run around outer London that eerily replicated a Los Angeles–style commute—a long highway stint that included frequent slow and stop-start driving as well as 70-mph cruising, bookended by low-speed driving on suburban streets—saw the Honda e’s trip computer display an energy consumption rate of 3.9 miles/kWh (131.4 mpg-e) with a claimed 45 miles range remaining.
Ah yes, those numbers…make no mistake, there are electric vehicles that deliver better raw bang for your buck, more range, and more performance than the Honda e. But what they won’t give you is the charm and character that oozes out of this refined and beautifully built little Honda. Of all the cars we’ve driven around London over the past few years, only the Aston Martin DBX has come close to generating as many smiles and thumbs up and positive comments from random passersby as the Honda e.
For many consumers, an electric vehicle is judged solely in terms of its range, but the worth of the Honda e shouldn’t just be measured in miles. It is not designed for road-tripping. It has been designed for people who drive in cities and urban areas, for people who have to spend time behind the wheel but don’t travel far, for people who want city transport that’s more than just a functional appliance. Cutting-edge cool yet friendly and affordable, the 2020 Honda e electric car is, like the original Mini and the first Mustang, a car with an uniquely egalitarian appeal.
|2020 Honda e Electric Car Specifications|
|LAYOUT||Rear-motor, RWD, 4-pass, 2-door hatchback|
|MOTOR||134–152-hp/232-lb-ft DC permanent-magnet electric|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,350–3,400 lb (mfr)|
|L x W x H||153.3 x 69.0 x 59.5 in|
|0-62 MPH||8.3–9.0 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA FUEL ECON||Not rated|
|RANGE (WLTP COMB)||124–137 mi|
|*Converting British Pounds, before EV credits.|
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