This Is Why Honda E Takes An Intelligent Approach To Electric Car Design

This Is Why Honda E Takes An Intelligent Approach To Electric Car Design

My uncle is an architect. He is aware of good design, comes from a generation when brand loyalty mattered and environmental issues were less of an apocalyptic concern. He’s always had a soft spot for fast motor cars, yet over Sunday lunch at my parents he told me how much he’s enjoying driving his wife’s Smart Forfour electric car. Parked at the red lights beside a hot-red Ferrari, he couldn’t help but smirk at the driver sitting impatiently behind the wheel, revving his V8. To paraphrase, he said he looked silly wasting his money on petrol while polluting the atmosphere. I tried to hide my astonishment (and amusement) at this turn of events. But I couldn’t help thinking: is the age of combustion cars truly behind us?

Driving the latest Honda e, I am inclined to think why not. And about time too. Celebrating the motor car is one thing, hanging onto its sell-by-date is an altogether more tragic affair. We can still worship the beauties of automobile history — the Citroën DS, the Bertone Countach and coachbuilt Rolls-Royces and Bentleys — but it’s time to move on. For every Phantom V or Aston Martin DB5, there are countless nameless and faceless small, big and ugly SUVs polluting — literally and aesthetically — our roads. Moving to clean transport need not be second best, but rather an exciting new chapter in the ever-evolving story of the car.

Which brings me back to the Honda e I have on a brief test. The location is London and as customary with electric cars, I use the occasion to take it for a spin wherever I’m not allowed in my conventional car. We head to the city center and onto the West End, enter roads reserved for bikes and electric vehicles, purely for the sake of it, while navigating slim roads made all the more so with cafes and restaurants spilling onto payments and streets — and all with great ease.

The Honda e was announced at the start of the year. Designed with a focus on functionality and usability, the result is a simple, clean exterior, which feels a bit like a smartphone on wheels. The surfaces are as clean as can be, the windows are frameless and door handles flush, which pop open as I approach with my digital key. Meanwhile, the radio, GPS and mobile data antennae are integrated into the top edge of the rear window to add to this clean, uncluttered look. 

There is a large glasshouse to invite natural light in what is otherwise a small space and the roof is finished in glossy noir to add to the tech gadget aesthetic. The circular lamps are a nod to the 1972 Honda Civic, as is the gently scalloped detail line that runs across the flank and up the rear end. I’m particularly impressed with the logic of placing the charging port centrally on the bonnet, which also makes a feature, perhaps even a celebration, of the electric drive.

The cabin has a technical austerity to it — in a good way. Too many modern cars add extra curves and contours, flourishes and garish ambient lighting that feels more 1980s disco than the ambiance of intent. Or to quote the Austrian modernist architect Adolf Loos who famously declared, “freedom from ornamentation is a sign of spiritual strength.”

Loos would have been happy to see Honda’s approach, where everything has been stripped out and replaced with such basic logic. The wing mirrors are small digital cameras outside which offer a superior clear view of the surround. It takes a few minutes to get used to them, but I cannot help wonder why other carmakers don’t adopt the technology. The lack of bulky exterior mirrors also helps with the car’s overall aero efficiency.

The instrument panel is finished in a simple wood veneer, while the seats, including the back bench, are upholstered in a modern textile which feels fitting for an urban electric car. In traffic we have fun playing around with the full-width color touchscreen — changing the gallery from serene scenes of the rainforest to Tokyo blossoms. The Bluetooth connectivity is easy to navigate and there’s multiple plugs beneath the center console for charging and connecting to electrical devices including laptops.

My only criticism would be the modest battery power, but then the Honda e is a purely urban commuter. The 35.5kWh battery provides a range of 137 miles, with 80% of charge added in 30 minutes of rapid charging. Meanwhile, a thermal management system optimizes battery range in high and low temperatures, allowing the car to maintain optimal range capability.

The Honda e is a pivotal car for the company who has pledged to have all its mainstream European models electrified by 2022, three years ahead of the previously announced goal. The marque’s vision incorporates urban charging solutions to include a bespoke Honda domestic power chargers and commercial energy services.

The Honda e is so Japanese and this can only be a positive thing. In architecture, products, graphics, even food, Japan has such confidence in promoting its philosophies and it design sensibility. Yet when it comes to cars — even with the delightful tiny Kei cars that roam Asian cities — Japanese carmakers have collectively shied-away from expressing a unique personality.

Years ago, I was tasked to edit the Honda brand magazine. “Dream” was a lovely little quirky publication, but my work was bound by the lack of exciting products in the family. I couldn’t comprehend why a carmaker with such an exciting brand story anchored on one man’s vision, a dream to explore the limits of transport, lacked all courage in design. The drab portfolio left little to the imagination. How I could have had fun and games with a gadget like this Honda e. To my mind, this little urban commuter could mark the start of a new beginning for Japanese car design. And we need more cars like the Honda e to make the new automotive age an optimistic one.

See BMW Group’s sustainability vision; and read what the illustrious car designer Marcello Gandini feels about the current wave of electric cars. Also in conversation about future design, read my interviews with the former BMW Group creative director Chris Bangle, Hyundai/Genesis chief creative officer Luc Donckerwolke and David Lorenz of the electric up-cycling brand Lunaz.