Honda’s great electric gamble

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The cute face of Honda’s great electric gamble. Ambitiously priced, cramped and with a less than impressive range, Honda’s banking on you falling in love with its electric city car.


At the 2017 Frankfurt motor show Honda revealed the Urban EV concept, a retro-modern electric city car so painfully cool the world immediately opened its chequebook and begged the company to build a production version.


The cute face of Honda’s great electric gamble
The cute face of Honda’s great electric gamble

What the world didn’t know was that Honda had already been working on that production car for some time. Here’s our first look at it. The world might be slightly disappointed to note that the design has evolved from the original concept – there are more doors, far smaller wheels, and less elegant proportions – but it’s still a new electric car brimming with visual appeal.

Now renamed the Honda e Prototype, it’s technically a preview vehicle rather than the final production model, but it’s described as 98 per cent representative of the car that’ll be on sale in selected European markets (including the UK) and Japan by the year’s end. The final name is yet to be decided but expect it to include an ‘e’ in there somewhere.

See it on a British city street for the first time and it won’t be short of impact

Project leader Kohei Hitomi tells CAR: ‘The concept car was developed to exaggerate certain elements of the production car and check we were on the right path. The positive reception made us feel more confident of the direction.’

‘The concept gave us confidence,’ confirms designer Ken Sahara. ‘We didn’t intend a retro feel from the beginning, just a very pure design, but we soon realised that our ideal had a lot in common with retro themes. Cars in the ’60s and ’70s, with their circular headlights and so on, were simpler, and there is a connection between those cars and ours.’

Billed as a funky, desirable urban commuter, it’ll have a WLTP-rated range in excess of 125 miles (some way short of the R110 Renault Zoe’s 186 miles, or the new Peugeot e-208’s 230). It’s built on a bespoke platform, with a single electric motor driving the rear wheels. The underfloor batteries are supplied by Panasonic, and are already used in the US-market Accord hybrid. Honda won’t be drawn on performance figures but says power will be ‘comparable with other B-segment EVs’ – the Renault Zoe, for example, offers 87bhp to 105bhp depending on spec. Estimated kerbweight is 1.5 tonnes, also similar to the Zoe.


The cute face of Honda’s great electric gamble
The cute face of Honda’s great electric gamble

That doesn’t mean Honda’s EV will offer affordable electric transport for the masses, however. Pricing won’t be confirmed until closer to sale, but Kohei Hitomi admits it won’t be cheap – reckon on little change from £35k. Clearly, as with Range Rover and the Evoque, Honda’s betting on being able to charge a premium for the car’s sheer desirability.

‘It’s a new dedicated EV platform, and we’ve tried to reduce cost wherever possible,’ explains Hitomi. ‘But it’s important not to degrade content because of cost. If you look at the Apple iPhone and iPad, they are not cheap but still people want them. Their high cost can be justified because they are practical and perform well. It is the same for this car. We believe we can still target a range of customers despite the quite high price.’

The interior is a real departure for Honda, with two giant 12.3-inch touchscreens sitting side by side on top of the flat, spectacularly ’70s wood-effect dashboard. Its party piece is a distraction-busting co-pilot mode, enabling the front passenger to search for information (a map location, for example, or a funny picture of a cat) and then swipe it across to the driver’s screen. The screen interface is set to be rolled out to other Honda production cars in the near future – hopefully it’ll be a little more intuitive than the touchscreens in current Hondas. As per the Audi e-Tron and McLaren Speedtail, door mirrors are replaced by cameras feeding images to six-inch screens at either end of the dashboard.

Interior space is relatively cramped for tall occupants, not helped by the standard-fit glass roof pinching a bit of headroom. The BMW i3, for instance, is roomier despite its high floor. The boot is also high and small to accommodate the motor beneath. Project insiders say they were pleasantly surprised by just how positively the Urban EV concept was received. Do they worry buyers may be put off by this near-production version’s diluted appearance?

‘I can’t imagine driving through an urban area with the concept car,’ says Kohei Hitomi. ‘In real life, I would prefer the production car.’

He has a point. While it might lack the original concept’s outlandish impact, when passers-by see the production version of the e Prototype on a British city street for the first time, it won’t go unnoticed. How it’ll drive, and whether it will match its visual appeal with a similarly compelling ownership package to give Honda a foothold in the fast-emerging EV market, is another matter entirely.


WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT SWINDON

The new Honda EV’s Geneva unveiling came just days after the news broke that Honda was almost certain to close the Swindon factory. These events are not unconnected.

Several factors are involved (including Brexit uncertainty and a new trade agreement between Japan and the EU), but Honda says the big one is its embrace of electrification with the e Prototype and everything that will follow in its wake. Honda looked at what it needed to do in order to pursue electrification – with a hybrid or EV in every new product line, and diesels getting the boot – and decided the most efficient approach would be to focus its investment on the places where it already makes most of its cars.

Honda makes 2.3 million cars a year in Asia, 1.9 million in North America and 160,000 in Swindon, which has a capacity of 250,000. The factory employs 3500 people. Will Swindon – which has been building cars since 1992 – definitely close? Almost certainly, but the decision that’s actually been taken is to not build the replacement for the current Civic at Swindon when that ends in 2021. In theory another role for Swindon could be found during talks with workers and unions, but don’t expect it.

The wood is fake but the touchscreens are mighty real – both measure 12.3-inch.


…ELECTRIC GAMBLE

Honda isn’t yet confirming price or power, but expect a 100bhp EV with a range of 125 miles or more for your £35k. A fat premium on a small Honda? That’s a gamble.

CUTE FACE…

‘Modern cars appear very aggressive,’ says project leader Kohei Hitomi. ‘We believe customers may be a little fed up with that. A friendlier, cuter car may be welcomed.’


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