Hybrids & Electrics

The Honda E Reveals Why Small Electric Cars Struggle in the US

Compared to just a few years ago, the number of electric vehicles out right now, or in development, has risen shockingly quickly. And few, outside perhaps Tesla’s lineup, have captured attention like the Honda E. Sadly, despite some early rumors, the Japanese automaker’s stylish new small electric car isn’t making it to the US. But even if it did, it would likely fail—for reasons that are just maybe fixable.

2021 Honda E specs

A white 2020 Mini Cooper SE parked on a city street
2020 Mini Cooper SE | Mini

In Europe, the 2021 Honda E competes in Europe with the like of the Mini Cooper SE. Size-wise, though, it’s closer to the Fiat 500, Top Gear reports.

A white 2021 Honda E next to a concrete structure and grass
2021 Honda E | Honda

The rear-wheel-drive Honda E is available in 2 trims, Road & Track reports—base and Advanced. The former’s single electric motor develops 136 hp, while the latter makes 154 hp. With that, the Advanced can go 0-62 in 8 seconds. Both versions, though, produce 232 lb-ft.

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In contrast, the SE makes 181 hp and can hit 60 in about 7 seconds. However, with its 32.6-kWh battery, Mini Cooper’s electric car has a claimed 110-mile range. Meanwhile, the Honda E’s 35.5-kWh pack is good for 125 miles in European testing.

Plus, the E can recharge faster than the Mini SE. The latter can recharge from 0-80% in 40 minutes, Car and Driver reports. But on the same charger, the Honda can do the same in 30 minutes, Car reports.

Design and features

But, while range, charging time, and performance are important for electric cars, where the Honda E truly stands out is in design. It one-ups the Mini Cooper SE by offering Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, not just the latter. It also comes standard with traction control, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, and lane-keeping assist, AutoExpress reports. The Advanced trim adds adaptive cruise control, navigation, as well as a heated steering wheel and seats.

The real party trick, though, is the Honda E’s wide array of cameras and screens. Instead of side-view mirrors, the car has 2 camera pods. Inside, it has dual 12” main infotainment screens, which are fully-customizable, and allow for free info-swapping. They can also turn into a big virtual aquarium. Or, with the 12V and 230AC power outlets, and HDMI port, a screen for your Xbox or PlayStation.

A close-up shot of the 2021 Honda E's dashboard, showing the configurable screens with a bamboo forest
2021 Honda E dashboard | honda

Additionally, there’s an 8.8” display in front of the driver, and individual 6” screens for the side-camera feeds. The Advanced model adds a further screen option, one that replaces the rear-view mirror. The sunroof, though, is standard on both Honda E models.

What’s it like to drive?

As novel as all the cameras are, they do have some flaws. The side-cameras are mounted a bit too low, Top Gear reports. And moving your head in an attempt to get a better view, naturally, doesn’t change things, R&T explains. However, the feed itself is sharp. The rear-view display, though, isn’t. It’s far better to stick to the normal glass version.

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In terms of actual driving, though, the Honda E is a “pleasingly balanced small car,” Autocar reports. Its fully-independent suspension comfortably deals with rough roads. And, while the E does weigh about 3300 pounds, most of that weight is mounted low. With that, plus the suspension, it has very little body roll.

The steering doesn’t transmit a lot of feedback, Car reports. However, the Honda E does have an impressively-small 14.1’ turning radius. It’s not exactly a hot hatch, but it’s perfectly-suited to fast-paced urban driving, especially in Sport Mode. Plus, with its adjustable regenerative braking, you can genuinely drive it with just one pedal.

The Honda E’s interior also receives high marks. While it can only seat 4, the cloth seats themselves are very comfortable. And while the wood trim isn’t real, it certainly doesn’t feel cheap.

The problem with a small electric car

That being said, the E’s small size does work against it in some ways. Firstly, while it had underfloor storage, that’s not sufficient to store its 2 charging cables. Which means they take up the already-limited trunk space.

2019 Hyundai Kona Electric
2019 Hyundai Kona Electric | Hyundai

Secondly, though it has more range than the Mini SE, the more-spacious Tesla Model 3 has even more range. And the E isn’t much cheaper than the Model 3; the base model starts at roughly $34k, R&T reports. For a bit more, a US buyer can have a Hyundai Kona Electric.

An orange 2014 Fiat 500e in front of a lit-up suspension bridge at night
2014 Fiat 500e | Fiat

Which leads to the bigger problem. As the likes of Fiat and Smart have already discovered, small cars face an uphill battle in the States. A small electric car like the Honda E faces even tougher ones. That’s because Europe and America are simply laid out differently.

Why the Honda E wouldn’t quite work in the US

For one, although many Americans live in cities, more live in suburbs or rural areas. And the cities themselves are larger and more spread-out than European ones. As a result, US customers need—or believe they need—long-range vehicles. Or at least ones with a short refuel/recharge time.

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It’s likely, for urban environments, the Honda E’s 125-mile range would be more than adequate. However, until DC fast-chargers become as commonplace as gas stations, it would still be a tough sell to potential electric car buyers. But it’s not only charging infrastructure that’s the issue.

Public transportation isn’t exactly strong in the US. A small electric car is fine in Europe, where distances are short and trains and buses run almost constantly. I live close to Chicago, which has a fairly robust public transportation system. But many other US cities, such as Detroit, are practically designed around car ownership. Or, for rural communities, the distances make 24/7 trains infeasible. So, if you can only afford one car, it has to be one that can pull commuter and hauler duty. Such as a truck, or an SUV/crossover.

In addition, the Honda E faces a cultural divide. Americans prioritize and value space. It’s why pickup trucks are popular, and why they’ve gotten more luxurious. The logic being, if you pay more, you should get a larger vehicle. Not to mention the perception of larger vehicles as inherently safer, which isn’t necessarily the case.

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Though to be fair, American trucks’ larger size also lets them haul and tow more than European ones. And, if you spend a long time driving, you should be comfortable. Plus, if you can only afford to have one vehicle, a truck or SUV/crossover makes a lot of sense.

Could it work in the future?

The Honda E was actually supposed to come to the US, Roadshow reports. And the positive response it received from the press may mean Honda changes its mind in the future. However, that will require a few changes.

Porsche Taycan charging at Electrify America station
Porsche Taycan charging at Electrify America station | Electrify America via Instagram

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The first, which would support all electric cars, small and otherwise, is more chargers. Not just public ones, but ones in homes, businesses, office buildings, and apartment complexes. Until they reach the level of ubiquity and speed of gas stations, EVs won’t spread far past cities. It won’t totally solve the distance hurdle, but it will make all EVs easier to live with.

The second, though, will be significantly harder. It would require moving away from the perception of vehicle size as a status symbol. And also, moving away from treating car ownership as an unspoken societal requirement. That way, people won’t feel forced to buy one vehicle that tries to ‘do it all.’

Obviously, there will always be cases where a large truck, electric or not, will be useful. But if we want small electric cars like the Honda E to come to the US, we need to be ready for them.

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