Honda's new-fangled electric city car meets its absurdly equipped ancestor
A sports car does not provide the quickest way through a city. Just ask the Porsche or Ferrari owner, helplessly stuck at a T-junction waiting for a courteous flash of lights and a gap to filter into, as the hands of their Tag Heuer tick excruciatingly towards their Very Important Meeting.
Nope, the quickest way through a city – on four wheels, at least – is smaller. And much more charming. Think of the all-time great town cars – Cinquecento, Mini, MkI Twingo – and they’ve all got two things in common: dinky dimensions and doe eyes.
Honda’s been wise to follow the recipe with its new electric car, the irksomely lower case e. That’s the only annoyance that gets within the same area code of one of these, however. It triumphed in our EV comparison test despite trailing its rivals on nearly every line of the spec sheet. A sense of humour is harder to quantify, but substantially more valuable in this corner of the car world.
Words: Stephen Dobie // Photography: Mark Riccioni
We find ourselves in achingly trendy east London to prove that Honda didn’t just stick a picture of a modern Fiat 500 on the wall and tell its designers to follow suit. The Japanese company has form, which has just pulled up on the outskirts of Olympic Park with a grinning Yorkshireman behind the wheel. Richard Reeve has driven his beloved 1985 Honda City Turbo II over 200 miles (322km) – on a 36°C day, with the aircon only functioning in tandem with the heater – and he’s still smiling. If that doesn’t scream ‘sense of humour’, I’m not sure what does.
His pumped up hatchback may look teensy enough to fall into kei car regulations, but it’s not, instead following a design idiom brilliantly known as ‘tallboy’, which ensures it seats four adults with surprising ease. Standard Citys used a 1.2-litre engine with around 70bhp, the Turbo upping that by 50 per cent (you can guess by which means), producing a smidge under 110bhp in the second-gen guise we have here. It boasts a slightly skunkworks feel, too, being a pet project of Hirotoshi Honda, one-time Mugen boss and the son of company founder Soichiro Honda.
He impressed his dad enough that it was fast-tracked to production as the very first turbocharged Honda. Rich bought his for £5,000 in 2018, the importation process from Japan taking that past 10 grand, yet its rarer-than-a-Huayra status in the UK has seen its value double again: we have insured it today for £20,000. Which is homing in rapidly on the cost of its 2020 relation. As is its performance: the Turbo II’s lissom 735kg kerbweight allows 0–100kph in 8.4secs, which is a mere 0.1secs behind the 152bhp, 1,543kg e. Remarkable.
Though there may be similarities on paper, the way they perform is – inevitably – rather different. The new car gives its best up to 30mph (48kph), and it slinks around sans mirrors slicing time from your commute like a moped, its tiny turning circle reminiscent of a terrier chasing its tail. While its RWD platform and overendowed Pilot Sport tyres ensure that it handles neatly on rural roads, I’ve driven few cars that feel so at home in an urban environment.
By contrast, the City feels as shocking as a post-lockdown HIIT session – its heavy, unassisted steering asking for much more effort from its driver. But it still exhibits the precision and sharpness we know and love of Honda – in its delightful little five-speed gearbox, especially – and the Japanese tradition of overengineering is more whimsically displayed via its refrigerated glovebox. An absolute boon in this heat.
Where the e is in its element zipping away from lights, the Turbo II is only filling its lungs when stringent city limits curtail the fun… 30mph (48kph) in second gear equates to around 3,000rpm, just as its turbo is boosting and its 118lb ft (160Nm) peak is arriving. This isn’t a skinny latte urbanite, it’s a shrunken hot hatch with so much more to give. I’d need to leave the confines of the M25 to explore it at its best.
However, a solution lies in an unexpected place. The boot. As well as the 1,232cc engine up front, there’s an additional 49cc (and 2.5bhp) in the back, enclosed in quite the most elaborate briefcase you’ve ever seen. If you want to wring the neck of something and chase every last rev, you park up and unfurl the Honda Motocompo bike that fits snugly in City’s dinky boot, looking a thousand times more enticing than the black rubber snake of unfurled charging cable in the e’s hindquarters.
While it looks like an Eighties interpretation of those ‘last mile’ solutions currently being dreamt up – drones that carry parcels from van to door when the traffic gets too tough etc – the Compo’s angry rasp and the smoke pumped out in its first 50 yards from cold won’t convince anyone it’s an environmentally friendly solution. Indeed, it’s something you can’t help but ride flat-out everywhere, its top speed dependent on the size of your breakfast and what you’re wearing. So a heady 25mph (40kph) in t-shirt and shorts.
My 5ft 9in frame doesn’t actually tower over it too much, though buzzing around the empty streets of a Stratford estate appeals infinitely more than ducking and weaving between buses and cabs, barely a dot in their mirrors. I’m constantly at maximum attack, and it’s hard not to feel like a Mario Kart side character, bombing around with nary a touch of the brakes. It’s a toy rather than a transport solution, and I’m smitten.
It didn’t come as standard with the City, rather the two items complemented each other, the Motocompo devised as a ‘trabai’ – a trunk bike – and the car’s boot calculated to snugly envelop its folded-up dimensions. And there’s a welcome plot twist: Honda has recently trademarked the name ‘Motocompacto’, having shown folding e-bikes at recent motor shows. A wee electric scooter to slot neatly into the e? Imagine…
Climbing back into the e’s lounge interior for some photographs could be a comedown after such frolics, yet watching the Turbo II bob about in its camera mirrors – yellow spot lights ablaze for ultimate ‘Daikoku meet’ vibes – ensures my smile is wider than Rich’s and makes a mockery of the twee aquarium scene Honda’s built into its new car’s widescreen as entertainment. I’d been unsure of the e’s cameras, finding every lane change and parallel park nervy, but suddenly their ultra-high-def, wide angle view of the world is bringing me unbridled joy.
The e is the city car at its zenith so far. It’s fair to say not all of the wild, Tomorrow’s World predictions about 2020 have come true (imagine if they’d forecast how it has actually panned out…), yet this is just the cheerily whooshing transport pod we all hoped we’d end up in. Before Rich turned up, everyone was cooing over the e, but it’s quickly relegated to a background act by his Eighties wedge and its comedy sidekick.
As he folds away his precious bike one last time, a teenager stops to record videos of the meticulous process, informing his SnapTok followers of how ‘sick’ it is. He wants to know everything and repeatedly asks ‘is it electric?’, while an actual EV sits forlorn against the graffitied wall of a Shoreditch underpass. Mind, as I navigate it out of London, a moped rider pauses his filtering to bang on the e’s window purely to give me the thumbs up. Redemption.
It’s undeniably the quickest (four-wheeled) way through London as Friday traffic thickens and the most hushed, too. But remember, in the city, charm wins. And as Rich and I part ways at an utterly discombobulating three-lane junction, I wish I was the one driving all the way back to Yorkshire in the Turbo II.