Earlier this fall, Honda introduced the second generation of its N-One kei car. The new N-One went on sale in Japan this past weekend, and while it looks a whole lot like its predecessor, and most of the changes have been reserved for the interior, the sportiest RS version does have one particular characteristic that is sure to earn it a great many fans: It comes only with a six-speed manual.
Every other version of the N-One features a CVT, which is mated to a 660cc naturally aspirated three-cylinder, keeping within the kei car rulebook. The RS, however, swaps the CVT for a stick and also tosses in a turbo, raising output to 63 horsepower, from 57. Those who choose the RS forgo the option for all-wheel drive, which is available on other N-One trims.
I can’t imagine the N-One, or indeed any kei car, would get along particularly well in America, where space doesn’t come at a premium and the ability to painlessly achieve highway speeds is sacred. But I want to find that out for myself, damn it.
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It helps, too, that the N-One sports a clean exterior defined by soft creases and subtle surfacing, keeping the overall shape elegant despite its narrow-and-tall, boxy proportions. Inside, the interior is as sparse as you’d expect, with some orange trim drawing your gaze to the gearshift, steering wheel and circular air vents on the RS model. This is an economy car, after all, but the N-One happens to be flush with advanced safety and driver-assist features like adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist.
The N-One joins a long line of bulldog-face Honda hatches. There were the N360 and Z360 models of the ’60s and ’70s; the plucky Honda Today carried the torch in the ’80s. The Honda City Turbo II, with its absurd fender flares and foldaway Motocompo scooter, is of course a common favorite. And the new all-electric Honda e has taken the classic look and repurposed it for a sustainable future. (Europeans aren’t flocking to it , for some depressing reason.)
All the while, most of these adorably wide-eyed compacts continue to elude us in the U.S. The way I see it, there are two Hondas: The creator of practical-to-a-fault motoring appliances, and the other side that’s fun, quirky, doesn’t take itself too seriously and uses engineering for good.
The N-One is a product of the latter Honda, and it’s a Honda I wish we’d see more of on our own roads. Instead, we get postcards and sporadic reassurances that Fun Honda is out there living its best life.