Honda e prototype review

We drive a prototype version of the Honda e ahead of its full launch in early 2020

BMW proved that premium doesn’t have to come in a big package when it launched the reborn MINI. And look at how well that’s done.

Now Honda has a point to prove, too, with this; the pure-electric Honda e. If we gloss over the apologetic, unimaginative ‘e’ name, the squat stance and owl-eyed expression look the absolute business. And it needs to be, because Honda is pitching its retro-chic electric city car upmarket.

Two models will be offered. You can find out all about the finance offers and specs here, but the entry-level car will get 134bhp and will cost from £26,660 after the government grant, while the Honda e Advance gets its electric motor tweaked up to 152bhp and will cost £28,600.

The official driving range from its 35.5kWh battery is 136 miles, although we'd expect the Advance that we're driving here to deliver more like the 124 miles that Honda initially claimed.

Sit inside the Honda e and it’s clear how the price might be justified. When you slide into the driver’s seat, which has dense, textile covering, you’re faced with a touchscreen horizon stretching the width of the car.

Screens for the side cameras (in place of door mirrors) bookend the three central screens, and even the rear-view mirror doubles as a rear-facing camera should you want it.

This cliff face of screens – the central two central screens being touchscreens – is standard in the little Honda, and chief among its selling points. It’s a bit overwhelming at first, but the menus seem logical and the screens responsive, and you can also dim the screens or turn them off altogether for night driving.

You can of course programme charging via the screens, although Honda is launching the e with a smartphone app that'll allow you to do this remotely. It’ll let you pre-set the interior temperature and send routes remotely to the navigation system, too.

That charging happens through the gloss-black panel on the bonnet of the car, which pops open to reveal a socket for CCS and Type 2 cables. These are the standard cable types in the UK and Europe, and give you access to most existing public charging points, and all new ones being installed.

Plug the Honda e into a 50kW charger – common in UK motorway service stations – and you’ll get 100 miles of range in around 40 minutes. It can also take advantage of latest 100kW chargers being rolled out across the UK, which will deliver the same charge in around 20 minutes. A 7kW home wallbox will deliver a full top-up in less than six hours, or a normal three-pin plug will do the job in around 15 hours.

Honda e drive and handling

The Honda e is going to be great to drive, judging by our time in a prototype car. Being short and wide, with stubby overhangs and a rear-wheel-drive setup (courtesy of the single rear-mounted motor), the e swings into corners with proper relish.

The steering is fairly slow, but it has a lovely smooth, natural progression to it that makes you feel immediately confident in where it’s pointed, and will make it a pleasure to drive on faster roads or around town.

One of the car's best tricks is a turning circle of under nine metres, which is right up there with the Smart EQ ForFour and makes the Honda feel like it’s turning on its own length. Perfect for awkward multi-storeys and cheeky u-turns.

The body feels neatly tied down, too – there’s not too much lean at all – although we’ll refrain from commenting on ride comfort until we’ve driven it somewhere other than the smooth-surfaced compound where the prototype cars were given free rein.

It’s not terribly fast, mind you. The Advance will do 0-62mph in eight seconds, while the standard e's time is closer to nine seconds, but even the Advance lacks the instant, almost shocking surge of acceleration that other electric cars – notably the BMW i3 – can offer. But it does fire off the line with enough urgency to satisfy, and there’s enough mid-range response to give you confidence for merging into faster traffic, too.

One niggle is that there are almost too many brake regeneration modes. In the default drive setting, you have four levels to toggle through using the steering-wheel mounted paddles, which gradually increase or reduce the brake regeneration effect.

This automatically kicks in as you lift off the accelerator, topping up the battery, but even in its maximum standard setting, the Honda e coasts quite fairly freely.

However, hit the ‘single-pedal’ button and much stronger brake regen’ kicks in. As with the Nissan Leaf’s ‘E-Pedal’, the idea here is that you can navigate slow traffic by using just the accelerator pedal. In the Honda e there are a further three levels of aggression to choose from in single-pedal mode.

That said, the Honda’s brake regeneration bleeds in smoothly even in the most aggressive mode, so you easily get a feel for the pedal response and how quickly the car will stop: it’s certainly more intuitive than the Leaf.

Even so, seven levels of brake recuperation seems like overkill, and that’s before you factor in the radar-control system that automatically adjusts the brakes to help you keep your distance from the car in front.

It won’t take long for you to find a setting you like, and having the one-pedal mode for around town and the less intrusive modes for faster roads does make sense.

Practicality is perfectly good in the Honda e. In fact, for a car that’s shorter than a Ford Fiesta, it has impressive rear headroom and legroom, so you can easily sit an adult comfortably behind a long-legged driver.

The boot’s a bit pokey, and has a high lip with no underfloor storage since the electric motor is hidden underneath it. But it will likely be all that most urban dwellers need.

All of which is great news for the admirably characterful e. After all, how could anybody not want this wide-eyed little city car to succeed? It’s a refreshing break from blander alternatives, which include everything from the much longer-range and cheaper Renault ZOE, to the MINI Electric familiar and brilliant i3.

But is that range of 136 miles going to be a deal-breaker? Well, possibly yes. While very few people living in a city need even close to that amount of range regularly, many of them who bother to buy cars at all do so because they want to escape at the weekend.

And that means some longer motorway runs, which could be where the appeal of the Honda comes undone. Mind you, the MINI Electric comes with a very similar price and driving range, so perhaps there is call for small, pure-electric cars that major on style and comfort rather than range.

We’ll have to wait for a proper drive on public roads before passing final judgement. But actually, the Honda e feels 'boutique' enough to justify its price. Stuffed with technology and the sort of design genius that makes you want to put a Warhol-style poster of it on your wall, it’s not short of appeal.

Here’s hoping that UK electric-car buyers will be open-minded enough, or perhaps realistic enough, about their mileage needs to see past that range number.