Hatchbacks

2018 Honda N-One RS first drive review: Relentlessly cute winner

This adorable city car is fun to drive, affordable and can pack a shocking amount of junk in its trunk.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

While the world waits for the upcoming Urban EV electric hatchback, if you're a fan of retrocuteism and Honda's automobiles and need a new ride post-haste, you've got exactly one option. Unfortunately, you're going to have to travel to Japan to find it: the Honda N-One. 

No, the N-One isn't new, having first arrived in its home country way back in the 2012 model year. Some small things date this car's driving experience, but otherwise, this diminutive hatchback remains a refreshingly simple and joyful way to motor. As I experienced with a day's drive in the heart of Tokyo, the 2018 N-One is also not only hugely space-efficient, it's still tremendous fun to drive.

Developed in the mold of the 1967 N360, Honda's very first minicar, the N-One is just 133.7 inches long and a super-skinny 58.1 inches wide. For perspective, that's nearly a foot shorter (144.4 inches) and a half-foot narrower than a Fiat 500. Remarkably, Honda has managed to cram four full-size, wide-swinging doors into this footprint -- largely because this car has no overhangs to speak of. The N-One's ultra-long 99.2-inch wheelbase helps, too. That's just 0.4 inches shorter than the nearly 28-inch-longer Fit five-door you can find at your local Honda dealer.

Surprising space

Despite its tiny size -- and I can't stress this enough -- the N-One is shockingly roomy inside, with plenty of space for four adults, even those of Western proportions. Like other kei-class cars, this Honda is a masterclass in packaging efficiency. 

How best to maximize interior space? Zero overhangs and tall cabin height.

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In fact, the only area in which you truly notice a lack of space is when it comes to width: The N-One is far narrower than any car you can buy in the US or Canada today. Honda's designers have made the most of what space is available. The stubby gearshift is mounted on the dashboard, meaning you won't risk bumping it. In fact, you can easily reach across to open the passenger-side door without strain. I'm relatively broad shouldered and found no issues riding alongside a fellow American passenger. Just don't expect a center console with room for all of those crazy Japanese 7-Eleven drinks you just scored -- you'll have to stash those in the dashboard cup holders.

If you haven't experienced one of Japan's tiny kei cars, you can't possibly fathom how a car that casts such a small shadow can yield so much space. Thanks in part to its high roofline, shallow dashboard and upright, chair-like seats, the N-One's ability to swallow people and things is positively Tardis-like. Here's an informal Twitter video walkaround to illustrate my point:

Your style

It's likewise worth mentioning that Honda has done a tremendous job allowing for the personalization of the N-One both inside and out. There are no fewer than four distinct style packages: Standard, Select, Premium and RS, each with their own fashion sense inside and out. 

On the outside, my sport-minded RS features Sunset Orange paint with contrasting black accents covering the grille, roof, 15-inch split-spoke alloys and mirror caps. Inside, a perforated leather-wrapped wheel is fitted along with steel-look dash panels. Silver and red stitching is found on the seats and matching red bezels ring the instrument cluster, infotainment screen and outboard HVAC vents. 

The N-One comes in four distinct flavors, ranging from warm retro to sporty to kawaii.

Honda

If you prefer a cheeky quasiluxury look, Honda will happily fit your Select model with brown upholstery and faux maple trim. If Japan's kawaii style is more your scene, you can order an N-One in pastel shades like Peach Blossom or Surf Blue with a white grille, wheels, roof and mirror caps, and spec a matching ivory interior with herringbone cloth, white-face gauges and glossy trim. 

That's just for starters -- there are hundreds of dealer-installed accessories on offer, enough to make a Mini dealer weep with envy. Gingham door-handle covers? Check. Dandelion-in-the-breeze grille appliqué? Can do. Paw-print "meatball" gearshift lever? Yup. Swarovski-crystal-encrusted side mirror caps? Uh huh. Japan's youth may not be able to swing buying a house, but Honda is here to ensure they can afford to customize the hell out of their minicars.

Honda N-One grille appliqué

A blown-away dandelion motif is just one of around a dozen different grille appliqués.

Honda

Bijou power

It's important to note that the N-One delivers far less power than America's Fiat 500, which recently moved to an all-turbocharged lineup. Even my up-level N-One's RS trim's turbocharged, 660-cc three-cylinder provides just 63 horsepower and 77 pound-feet of torque. 

That sounds like a recipe for painfully slow progress, but this little front-driver is fun in the cut-and-thrust world of megacity driving. The tiny 0.6-liter engine spools up quickly, and the continuously variable transmission makes the most of what power is available, especially with the RS' shift paddles that summon seven preselected ratios. 

The Honda is also much lighter than the Fiat, weighing in at under 2,000 pounds -- a base 500 Pop is over 25 percent heavier. In other words, the stoplight-to-stoplight Tokyo tango isn't just doable in the N-One, it's entertaining. 

You're looking at 0.6 liter and three cylinders of turbocharged fury.

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Of course, that amusement admittedly fades if higher speeds are called for. While the N-One's 0-30 mph is perfectly suited to city traffic, 0-60 mph takes decidedly longer. I didn't have any testing gear handy, but I'd guesstimate its time to be around 15 seconds -- an eternity by modern standards. I took my Sunset Orange and Black tester out on the Shuto Expressway, and the N-One's turbo triple indeed got a bit buzzy as it started to run out of puff. 

Fortunately (?), Tokyo's toll roads have low speed limits and draconian enforcement, so the N-One's lack of highway poke isn't a huge issue. Many expressways are capped at just 60 kph (37 mph), though some sections top out nearer to 50 mph. You'd definitely want more oomph if you had to routinely travel Japan's highways venturing from city to city, but very few people drive such distances -- locals are proficient users of Japan's excellent and vast Shinkansen bullet train network. Either way, if you're a city dweller in Japan, the N-One has enough power, and all-wheel drive is optional for those who live in snowier climes.

Keep a light pedal, and you'll see the equivalent of 61 miles per gallon on Japan's more lenient JC08 test cycle with the turbo engine, or 67 mpg with the pokier naturally aspirated unit.

The N-One is part of Japan's kei class of cars, which are limited in terms of size and displacement in exchange for tax and insurance breaks.

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Feels zippier than it is

I consider myself to be a charter member of the "slow car fast" club: a belief among some driving enthusiasts that it's more rewarding to flog a low-powered car hard than it is to drive a high-powered automobile without pushing it. Here in the US, cars like the Mazda MX-5 Miata and Ford Fiesta ST prove that tidy dimensions, light weight and smart tuning can regularly peg the fun meter in ways that sports cars with three or four times the power cannot. The Honda N-One's basic design may be aging, but it still takes this driving concept to its zenith -- at least in urban environs. 

(Heck, that may also be true even on racetracks: There's a dedicated racing series for these things called the N-One Owner's Cup. How fun does this look?)

The N-One's driving position is smart, outward visibility is fantastic thanks to slim A-pillars, the pedals are well placed and appropriately weighted, and the small-diameter steering wheel feels good. The electrically assisted rack and pinion steering is a bit light for my tastes, but that weighting helps lower stress levels when it comes to negotiating Tokyo's notoriously tight parking spaces. 

The N-One's infotainment feels dated and poorly integrated, but you can watch live TV on it. 

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Aging cabin

If there's one area where this Honda feels its age, it's the dashboard. Not only are the plastics not up to today's standards, the N-One's gauges and infotainment come across as dated. 

The double-DIN-sized navigation unit feels decidedly aftermarket in an age where most such systems have become far better integrated. It's the sort of setup that relies on tiny, chiclet-style buttons and last-generation graphics. One amusing only-in-Japan detail? The Gathers navi screen also lets you watch live TV.

Honda's multiconfigurable Magic Seat is as brilliant here as it is in the Fit and HR-V.

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Magic seats

The N-One's most triumphant feature is its rear bench seat, which offers midsize-sedan-like legroom and plenty of headroom. Like its stateside Honda Fit and HR-V relatives, the N-One's rear seat bottoms can also be folded up against their backrests, creating a huge vertical space unencumbered by a transmission tunnel. The resulting chasm can fit bikes with their front wheels removed or other awkwardly tall objects. The rear seats can also be folded dead flat to create a cargo area the size of hatchbacks one or two sizes the N-One's senior.

No chance, America

If you're wondering why Honda won't let you buy such unmitigated cuteness in North America (and the N-One's diminutive stature and power haven't already dissuaded you), know that this car's home-market pricing remains quite attractive. The 2018 N-One starts at 1,200,960 yen, including consumption tax. That's around $10,850 at today's exchange rates. RS models like my tester command the equivalent of $15,700 before options, which is less than the base price of the aforementioned Fiat.

The N-One may be too small for American roads and sensibilities, but that's not stopping me from wanting one.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Sadly, even if US and Canadian shoppers were interested at similar pricing, I fear this Honda would likely struggle to meet US crash-test regulations. Plus, being a model with graying temples, the N-One lacks most modern advanced driver assists. There's no adaptive cruise control, no lane-keep assist. Heck, there's not even a blind-spot monitor.

In the end, even if such equipment deficiencies were remedied, I suspect that a North American N-One would amount to little more than a cult hero, and that's a real shame.

When it comes to overseas-only automobiles, it's always interesting to experience forbidden fruit -- but rarely is it so rewarding.