The Rad 2021 Honda E Thrives In A City Like Tokyo But Lacks The Value That Would Make It An Icon

Photo: Ken Saito
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When did Honda last make a cool car? Perhaps the latest Honda Civic Type R is a contender, but its fans have an age limit, and the current car is pretty old. The all-electric 2021 Honda E is a fresh new face, and it’s poised to shake up the Japanese auto industry with retro flair.

Is it the future, for real this time, or does it still fall short on value against its competition like other EVs?

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Photo: Ken Saito

What Is The Honda E?

This Honda E is another chance for Honda to show the world it can be as forward thinking and innovative as it was in the glory days of techno flagships like the Insight, Clarity — even the first-generation CR-V.

Honda innovation and its “cool factor” in mainstream cars has stagnated in recent years. The automaker was heavily invested in hybrids and hydrogen fuel cells as the future of automotive propulsion. When battery-electric vehicles, on the back of the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Bolt and expanding Tesla lineup, started becoming the mainstream direction for the future of automotive development, Honda took a while to pivot and adapt.

2017 Honda City EV Concept (Honda E preview).
2017 Honda City EV Concept (Honda E preview).
Image: Honda

The result was the E prototype shown at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show. The global fanfare that concept received resulted in a production model, this 2021 Honda E. It’s sold in Europe and Japan, but unfortunately not in the U.S. I live in Japan, so here’s what it’s like to drive.

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Photo: Ken Saito

Honda E Performance

True to Honda form, the E is a cute, small hatchback measuring in at 153.3 inches long, 69.0 inches wide and 59.2 inches tall. Those dimensions happen to be more or less the same as a Honda Fit. What’s not like the Fit is the weight, which comes in around 3,400 pounds. Batteries, amirite? Also not like the Fit is the E’s price, which is nearly $45,000 in Japan for what I found only shakes out to an estimated 124 miles of range on a great day.

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Photo: Ken Saito

The Honda E is not going to set any 0-to-60 mph records, either. (The official time is 8.3 seconds by the way.) Its current top spec, the Advance version I tested, with 152 horsepower and 232 lb-ft of torque, just can’t give pedigree hot hatches — like the higher-performance VW Golf, Ford Fiesta or a variety of European offerings in the segment — a run for their money after you get away from the line. The instant toque and light steering give it a peppy feel at city speeds, and sport mode sharpens the throttle response for even more electrifying power, but don’t expect more than that.

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Photo: Ken Saito

What It’s Like To Drive The Honda E Around Tokyo

The E’s relatively small size does wonders for its charm and personality, and the cute and friendly retro styling seems to make everyone around you smile. Lots of pointing and smiling — I don’t think I’ve ever been in another mainstream brand car that’s received as much positive, curious attention from the public. How could you dislike those charming looks?

As a new car from the ground up, the Honda E was designed from the get-go as a full-fledged EV platform for a metropolis like Tokyo. Honda didn’t take an existing combustion- or hydrogen-powered platform and shove some batteries in it, and it’s for the better.

The decades of institutional knowledge of engineering excellent compact vehicles is here on full display in a new package.

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Photo: Ken Saito

It’s every bit as perky and charming in its drive as the cheerful design would lead you to think. The ride has a sprightly personality, and the car just wants to get up and go. The steering is light and quick, making for nimble driving, but the system lacks a truly connected feel. Still, the drive proved to be heaps of fun through the city, as you zip around using the signature immediate EV torque.

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Photo: Ken Saito

Driving the E is as easy as any other Honda, perhaps even easier. As an EV, it has a familiar industry trick — the “one pedal” function — where the vehicle is programmed to noticeably slow down as you lift your foot off the accelerator. This is commonly referred to as braking regeneration, and is used to redirect energy to the car’s battery pack for increased system efficiency.

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Photo: Ken Saito

Honda’s regenerative braking system is good. It’s not grabby like others, and the brake pedal feels progressive so you can slow down smoothly. The Honda Clarity PHEV is very much the same. Some might find its adjustable setting useful, but I found it annoying and left that function completely turned off. There’s nothing wrong with the normal way of braking by using the left pedal, though it may have factored into my disappointing range results.

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Photo: Ken Saito

The Honda E’s electric motor is placed at the rear axle and drives the rear wheels only. This is like an electric Porsche 911, or maybe Cayman, and that drive layout makes for a ride that pushes you along the streets and through corners. Honda have realistically done this for packaging reasons.

The Honda E is most at home in the city. It was just so much happier in Tokyo than it was outside of it. As a city car with a light front end, the steering weight is easy in the tighter city streets for a small car. The turning circle is incredibly tight, one the best I’ve experienced in a long time. We’re talking London cab level of turning circle, making it perfectly suited for urban driving.

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Photo: Ken Saito

During my week with the E, I decided to see how it could stand up outside the city environment of Japan’s capital. The farthest I got was around 60 miles from the city center, but even this felt like a risk. The E’s weight meant it was planted and stable on the motorway, but it just didn’t feel like the car, nor I, really wanted to be there. The range suffers in doing a lot of motorway driving, too, which meant I got quite familiar with the quick chargers scattered along Japan’s motorway system.

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Photo: Ken Saito

Living With And Charging The Honda E

The smile you get when looking at the Honda E from the outside continues when you get inside. There’s a soothing and relaxing feeling that greets you. It’s fresh and modern, all the while feeling familiar and homey. I love the minimalist design that’s both retro and futuristic, but avoids going full PT Cruiser.

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Photo: Ken Saito

The use of materials is great too, and most of the interior is trimmed in a recycled fabric, paired with beautiful matte-finish wood trim. Leather is used only on the steering wheel, since that’s the main point of contact, and there’s not a trace of that alcantara stuff here. So far, the E is not trying to be sporty at all, yet it still attracts people and is, objectively, cool.

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Photo: Ken Saito

The screens in the new all-electric 2021 Honda E hatchback did give me a headache. I was bombarded with screens for the rear view mirror, the side mirrors, the gauges, and even the entire top of the dashboard is made up of more screens. I suspected the windshield to be a screen, but upon careful and close inspection, the windshield is very much made of clear glass. How old-fashioned.

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Photo: Ken Saito

The two main screens on the dashboard work separately from each other. You can also “swap” the displays between them. For example, you could have navigation on the left screen and your music information on the right screen. If you want to have your map closer to you, push a button and the maps comes to the right and pushes the music screen to the left. The screens shuffle a bit like cards.

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Photo: Ken Saito

Selecting my favorite trick in the E’s book, the “Aquarium” option located on the left screen turns your dual screens into a digital aquarium. Why? I don’t know, and I don’t care. That it’s located front and center as a “main infotainment” feature rather than something hidden in a submenu makes it even better. Honda invites you to enjoy an aquarium, and I did.

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Photo: Ken Saito

The digital instrument cluster displays all of the essential driver vehicle information like speed, range, average energy consumption and power level or state of charge. As a modern car aimed at people into leading-edge things, the mirrors have also been replaced with screens and cameras.

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Photo: Ken Saito

The external cameras and the screens inside are better integrated than the similar feature on the Lexus ES I previously tested for Jalopnik. Unlike the ES, where the digital mirrors were optional, every Honda E comes with digital mirrors as standard. The center mirror defaults to operating as a digital camera display but can revert to a traditional glass mirror should you wish.

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Photo: Ken Saito

The E, surprisingly, doesn’t have a full panoramic roof, which seems to be a trend these days. Instead, a single sunroof with a rather old-school manual cover is available. You do need the sunroof shade open to make it feel more airy inside.

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Photo: Ken Saito

It’s a strict four seater; there’s no middle seat in the rear. The seats themselves aren’t particularly noteworthy. I like the fabric, and they’re comfortable enough for trips around town, but I do wish they had a more interesting design — as bold as the rest of the car and looking less like parts bin bargains.

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Photo: Ken Saito

The car features standard USB ports, but there’s also a 100-volt wall socket and even a HDMI cable, because why not? For charging the car itself, the Honda E has two charge ports and plugs. One is for a DC high-voltage quick charger and the other is for an AC 200-volt slow-and-low charging household wall socket. There’s a connector for the latter cord under the trunk floor where you might normally find a spare wheel.

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Photo: Ken Saito

Room For Improvement

The limited range is the most obvious shortcoming of the Honda E. It’s meant to be a city car and so getting somewhere around 124 miles, as measured, could be argued as enough. It’s just not the best way to entice people to switch from their internal combustion vehicle as a single-car solution. Realistically, perhaps due to the colder late winter temperatures and my pedal settings, I was getting about 110 miles from a full charge.

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Photo: Ken Saito

Tire noise on the road is high. For some reason, Honda fit this E with Michelin Pilot Sport 4 rubber. That seems excessive to me, and the result is a nicely grippy ride but the roar is far too much for a car that is actively steering away from a sporting nature in every other element.

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Photo: Ken Saito

The turn signal sound also struck me as far too loud, even above the road noise, for a tiny car that also happens to be effectively silent. Honda probably just lifted the indicator chime from another car, but perhaps a change to the volume is needed.

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Photo: Ken Saito

There are some weird ergonomic anomalies inside. The trunk isn’t big, but perhaps could be enough to fit your weekly essentials as a daily driver if you’re organized. The seat heater buttons are placed where my knee, in my optimal driving position, could easily whack them on. You’re sitting there and suddenly the seat heater button is on max and you get a toasted bum. I don’t like that surprise sensation of heat in my new EV, Honda.

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Photo: Ken Saito

Honda E Value Verdict

I’m not convinced the E offers a strong enough value to, for example, bring Fit Hybrid buyers into a new model without heavy incentives. The roughly equivalent Fit Hybrid costs about half as much as the new Honda E in Japan, and the E doesn’t have nearly the same potential driving distance between refueling/charging stops. Those are probably the first two numbers a buyer will look at, and the ratio of low mileage to high price still isn’t so good for EVs like this.

Prices for the Honda E in Japan start from ¥4,510,000 ($42,200); it’s ¥4,950,000 ($45,000) for the E Advance as tested here. The Advance adds features like the digital center mirror, 360-degree camera, rear cross-traffic alert, the 100-volt power socket and the heated steering wheel.

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Photo: Ken Saito

The case for the E as a second commuter car is strong, but only for those customers who have $45,000 to spend on a second car with limited usability. Owning a single car in a city like Tokyo isn’t cheap, let alone a second. If you live in an apartment like most people do, you may also struggle to easily charge it overnight, mostly due to Japan’s poor EV infrastructure (which isn’t the E’s fault, of course).

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Photo: Ken Saito

The base Honda E has to make it with just 100kW, or 136 horsepower as opposed to the 113kW (152 HP) for the Advance trim I tested. The latter is punished with a slightly diminished claimed range of just 137 miles in the European WLTP testing cycle. Either way you look at it, the E isn’t cheap and isn’t going far, but early adopters always seem happy to spend more on what’s new and tell you about how effortless it’s been.

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Photo: Ken Saito

The Honda E is a refreshing reminder that EVs can be characterful and fun. It’s hopefully a template for how manufacturers can lure those who are on the fence about this EV revolution with the appeal of fresh design and cool features. In that regard, this is money very well spent for those who have it.

The cute retro styling, minimalist interior and forward-thinking approach of the Honda E promises a charming future full of fun. The limited range and high starting price will limit the appeal of this otherwise likable package, but maybe one day soon cars like this will stop having to awkwardly position themselves as unrealistically affordable and actually start offering something cool that everyone can buy. Until then, the Honda E is still just an expensive toy for the city rather than a way to shift the masses to EVs.

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Photo: Ken Saito

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DISCUSSION

I’m in love with this. If only it was $20k cheaper and available in the US. Let’s be real, a car that can only (easily) go 100mi isn’t worth almost $50k.