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2020 Honda E first drive review: Cute is just the beginning

The electric Honda E will charm you straight away, but there's plenty of substance to back up that adorable style.

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How can you look at this thing and not smile?

Honda

In some ways the Honda E is not a convincing EV. And yet, curiously, it could also be just the car to convince a lot of people that they need to buy their first EV. It's one of those cars where the design is so appealing, nay even lovable, that people just feel they need it in their life. It's akin to the way that the new Mini was so desirable when it first hit the roads 20 years ago. I'm sure a lot of people who didn't particularly want a super-small car nonetheless bought one, because of that contrasting roof and big central speedometer.

The Honda E tugs at the heartstrings pretty much from the first moment it opens its eyes (or, if you don't want to anthropomorphize it, the headlights turn on). It just has one of those faces. I think cute is probably the word.

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And if the exterior doesn't get you, the interior very well might, because there's nothing quite like it on the market. Unashamedly 1970s-inspired but with a swathe of very 2020 screens running across the top of the dash, it's a wild mash-up that somehow manages to successfully span half a century. Honda says it wanted to create a lounge-like atmosphere and, as potentially trite as that sounds, I think it's succeeded. Certainly if you plug a Super Nintendo into the HDMI port and use the screens to play Mario Kart while you're waiting to for the E to charge, then you'll feel at home.

But speaking of charging, this is where the Honda E is less convincing. You see, the European WLTP range is just 136 miles, or 127 miles if you spec the Advanced pack that comes with larger 17-inch wheels (as well as a 113-kilowatt motor as opposed to the standard car's 100-kw setup). In other words, you're potentially going to have to plug in frequently. Honda is pitching the car as an urban vehicle and I agree that this is still where EVs make the most sense. The similarly sized Mini Cooper SE, after all, does just 110 miles on the US EPA cycle. However, the fact that you'd be struggling to make a reasonable length return journey, say to Heathrow airport from Southhampton, Bedford, Brighton or Cambridge (or from New York to Trenton and back, or San Francisco to Santa Cruz and back), without having to stop to top-up the battery does seem to be somewhat limiting. Yes, a charge to 80% only takes 31 minutes if you can find a 50-kw fast-charger, but still.

It's a particular shame, given that the Honda E feels like it would be a great car to do a long journey in. As well as being intriguingly designed, the interior has plenty of space for a small car, thanks to a wheelbase that's as long as that of a Fit, despite the car being some 5.3 inches shorter overall. It's refined and quiet inside and the MacPherson struts at all four corners do an excellent job of keeping the ride relatively smooth.

You can appreciate these attributes on a city commute just as much as on the highway, and one other thing that lends itself specifically to the cut and thrust of urban driving is the turning circle. Thanks to the Honda E being rear-wheel drive, the front wheels have the freedom to turn up to 50 degrees, giving a turning circle of 30 feet, or just 5 feet more than a London Black Cab. Dimes and sixpences spring to mind.

The Honda E is also pleasingly nippy in a straight line at city speeds. A 0-to-62-mph time of eight or nine seconds sounds pretty sluggish, and the fact it weighs over 3,300 pounds doesn't sound promising either, but 232 pound-feet of instant torque does a good job of disguising that battery bulk and scooting you up to around 40 mph before the acceleration starts to ebb. It makes it quite fun on a twisty country road as well, particularly if you engage the Sport setting to pep up the throttle response a little more. The low center of gravity and 50:50 weight distribution undoubtedly help the handling, as do the Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires. It's no hot hatch, but you can push it harder than you might expect. You can certainly feel that it's rear-wheel drive, too.

Tiny car, enormous screen.

Honda

One other thing I like is the ability to adjust the level of regenerative braking when you're in one-pedal mode. Lift off the accelerator and you can increase the regeneration simply by pulling the left-hand paddle -- just like going down the gears in a conventional gas car. If you want to reduce the rate you're slowing down, then just pull the right-hand paddle. There are only three levels of regen to choose from, but I like it and it's something I think Porsche should have employed in the Taycan to increase the levels of driver control and engagement.

Wing mirrors are not something I would generally mention in a review but the Honda E hasn't got any, which seems worth a paragraph. As standard, the car comes with small cameras where you'd normally expect mirrors, and the screens showing the resulting images are placed on top of the dashboard's extremities. They're sufficiently close to a standard mirror's position that they don't take much getting used to. You also have the choice of a normal image or a wide angle version where the outer edge is distorted to practically eliminate any blind spot.

Sadly, the Honda E is not destined for the US.

Honda

The Advanced trim of the car also comes with a camera and screen combination for the rear-view mirror. However, just like the optional one in the new Land Rover Defender, I find this rather awkward. For some reason it takes your eyes a moment to focus on the image, making a quick glance a little tricky. I'm sure there might be situations where it could be useful, but most of the time I think it is easier to leave it as a standard mirror (which you can do by flicking the switch underneath).

If you stick to the standard, lower-powered version of the Honda E then you'll still be handing over £26,660 (a little over $34,000 based on current exchange rates) for the privilege. Upgrade to the Advanced model and that price rises to £29,160 ($37,000), which means this is a car that people will be purchasing as much with their hearts as their heads. And that's fine. In fact I think the EV movement needs unique and desirable cars like the Honda E (the Peugeot E-Legend concept would be another example, if it ever made it to production) just as much as it needs better battery density. Here's a car that potentially will attract a whole new audience in a way that something like an electric Peugeot 208 or Fiat 500 (i.e., a more expensive electric version of an gas-engined car) might not.