First Drive: Honda Fit EV Combines Power and Practicality

By · December 05, 2011

Honda Fit EV

Let’s not mince words: the Honda Fit EV kicks ass.

If Honda President Takanobu Ito is looking for a car to bring driving fun to the company’s brand—his main message from the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show—he need look no further than the Fit EV. Last week, I was among the world’s first journalists to drive the compact pure electric car—in two six-minute jaunts around the Twin Ring Montegi grounds north of Tokyo—and was floored by the level of performance delivered by the all-electric Fit. I was just as amused to witness my colleagues on the press tour—made up almost entirely of writers for the horsepower-obsessed auto buff rags—step away from their drives, shaking their heads and picking their jaws off the pavement.

“Wow, this thing scoots,” was the refrain.

The Fit EV has a 94-kilowatt electric motor compared to the Nissan LEAF’s 80-kW motor. But that 17.5 percent boost in power only begins to tell the story about how much quicker the Fit EV is than the LEAF. Honda would not divulge the Fit EV’s curb weight, but the Fit’s dimensions, inside and out, are demonstrably smaller than the LEAF’s. The Fit EV is not a ground-up purpose-built electric; it’s a straight adaptation from the gas-powered Fit, but Honda managed to save all but a slight percentage of passenger and cargo space, lifting the seats by about two inches to make room for the battery pack (while giving up the rear seat’s flip-up theater-style function, which allows easier storage of stuff when nobody’s in the back). If you were going to convert any gasoline car to a sporty electric commuter, the Fit—with its clever packaging of decent space in a small lightweight five-seat format—would be my first choice.

Honda Fit EV

Other electric cars have modes, but what makes the Fit EV unique is how much power is delivered while in Sport mode.

It’s not just the more powerful motor and lighter weight that gives the Fit so much zing. It’s the “Sport” mode. When in “Normal,” the Fit EV offered a drive similar to the LEAF’s standard (not "eco") drive, which is quite fun on city streets. The Sport mode illuminates a red glow in the dashboard and transforms the electric acceleration to exhilaration—obviously not Tesla-Roadster-level. But in terms of feel (if not raw power), it's in the neighborhood of the Mini-E—and with a lot more refinement in its road manners and much more commuter-friendly platform.

The Fit EV leaves all other small electric cars I’ve driven in the dust. The Fit EV is the small electric car that the Think City could have been, if it stretched out and grew up. Compared to the Mitsubishi i, the Fit EV feels much more like a real car—in terms of design, space, and fit and finish—and it makes the i’s performance feel anemic. The Fit EV should make Daimler’s engineers feel downright embarrassed about its slowpoke smart fortwo electric drive.

Honda Fit EV

Of course, putting the Fit EV into Sport mode will suck down the car’s 20 kilowatt-hours of juice—19 of which are usable—faster than the Normal mode. But on most days, I drive less than half of the car’s expected 75- to 80-mile real-world range—and on those days, I would keep the Fit EV in Sport mode (and pray that I don’t rack up too many speeding tickets). On days when I know I have more miles to travel, I would be quite satisfied with the LEAF-like performance of the Fit EV’s Normal mode. The Econ mode would only get used to disengage the regen braking and allow for coasting. I strongly encourage Honda to rename this mode “Coasting” when applied to the Fit EV.

I would challenge any of my petro-hooked colleagues to find a car for $399 a month that combines more head-snapping fun, commuter functionality, and low cost to fuel.

The Fit feels more upright than the LEAF—in part, due to those raised seats—so it’s a smidgen awkward for my 6’4” frame. It certainly is a tighter squeeze in the back for five decent-size human beings, which the LEAF can handle. But otherwise, the car is like the gas-powered Fit. Its ride was solid, the handling nimble, the road noise minimal and the quality on par with anything Honda is producing these days. My driving course had several decent upslopes, which the Fit EV stormed with confidence. The Honda Fit EV's regen braking is unnoticeable in Sport and Normal modes while in the D gear. Drop it into B gear, and the regen grabs hard enough to make the brake foot pedal irrelevant, except for unplanned safety stopping.

The Fit EV comes with a 6.6 kW charger—meaning a relatively speedy charge from empty to full in as little as three hours. The U.S. version will not be available with a DC quick charger.

Honda Fit EV

Unpretentious and direct, the Honda Fit EV's interface provides a clear indication of the battery's state of charge.

The state of charge meter is offered with about 100 hash marks, in essence giving both a graphical and numerical representation of energy in the batteries. That works for me, and is a lot better than the 12 hard-to-decipher illuminated bars found in the LEAF. (There’s also a guessed-at remaining range number, but despite fiddling with modes and AC, I was unable to see it move.)

Honda Fit EV

Restoring Honda's Green Leadership

I had a total of about 12 minutes with the car, but I’m confident that a similar test drive in the Honda Fit EV would close the deal for mainstream commuters with even a slight inclination to go electric. That’s based purely on how normal the car looks and works—for example, it starts with a key not a push-button—and how abnormally fast and silently it drives. Moreover, the Fit EV could also restore Honda’s image as a leader in the green car space—a position lost since the demise of the original Honda Insight hybrid; the quick rise and fall of the ill-conceived Accord Hybrid; the promotion of the going-nowhere fuel-cell FCX Clarity (which I also drive last week); and…(no need to list all the recent mis-steps).

Honda President Takanobu Ito with the EV-STER electric car sports concept

Honda President Takanobu Ito stood by the EV-STER electric car sports concept at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show, but the car is unlikely to go into production. Yet, the Honda Fit EV could provide nearly as much driving fun, with a lot more practicality.

I predict that, if the production version of the Fit EV coming out next year maintains the same level of acceleration as the one I drove, the car’s 1,100 lease holders (and the automotive press) are going to sing-shout its praises—not for its green-ness, but for the pure fun it delivers. There will be a cry for Honda to build a lot more than 1,100 units—and as soon as possible.

Mr. Ito: Don’t wait for that response, when the car goes on lease next year. Start right now to line up more production capacity, the necessary supplier relationships, and marketing campaigns. You have a winner on your hands.

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