Never mind the Tesla Model 3, will the Honda Urban EV be the first truly mainstream electric car?

Image of Alisdair Suttie
Author: | Updated: 24 Jan 2019 15:57

Electric cars have been threatening to break into the mainstream for some time now. Sales are at an all-time high in the UK and plug-in cars accounted for 3.8% of the total number of cars registered in 2018. Yet battery electric vehicles have still to make that step away from the fringes. We suspect the soon-to-arrive Honda Urban EV may be the car to spur this change.

Honda has just confirmed a production prototype of the Urban EV concept will be on display at the Geneva Motor Show in March. It’s part of Honda’s commitment for two-thirds of its cars in Europe to be electrified by 2025. A full production model is slated to go on sale later in 2019, so we’re not far off seeing how Honda intends to turns us on to EVs.

Honda electric vehicle 2019

Some will say we’ve been here before with other EV models, such as the BMW i3, the Nissan Leaf and most recently the Hyundai Kona Electric. They are successful, but have not managed to knock petrol- and diesel-powered rivals from the top of the overall sales chart. The Tesla Model 3 hasn’t arrived in the UK yet and has been beset by production delays. Why should Honda be any different?

Well, for starters, the original Urban EV caused a massive sensation when it was first shown at the 2017 Frankfurt Motorshow. In fact, it was the star of the event and had journalists and show visitors demanding Honda put the car into production as soon as possible and as close as feasible to the show car.

Take a look at pictures of the Urban EV from the Frankfurt show and you can see why so many want this car. It’s got nothing to do with it being an EV and everything to do with it being so damned desirable. It looks fantastic, with nods to the early Civic from the 1970s yet plenty of fresh design thinking in there too. It also helps there’s splash of the fun in the Urban EV’s looks from the radio-controlled Tamiya Honda City Turbo for all those middle-aged folk now in a position to indulge in a full-sized battery-powered toy.

Honda has been very shrewd in this. It’s all well and good making an EV that has the slipperiest shape to maximise efficiency, but when it looks like a creature from the deep lagoon nobody wants to buy it.

Japanese car companies have form when it comes to creating crazes around small cars, with the tiny homegrown ‘kei’ cars governed by strict laws about size and engine capacity enforcing lots of ingenious thinking to make the car interesting and appealing to buyers. Look at the likes of the Honda Beat, S660 and N-Box to see what we mean. All share the same minimal footprint but are very different.


The Honda S660: one of the cars we wish were available in the UK

The production version of the Urban EV will not be kei car in size, but it embraces the same methodology to come up with something perfect for city drivers. With the first glimpses of the production model, we can see it retains the concept’s wheel-at-each-corner that design that has been the trademark of every great small car since the original Mini broke cover 60 years ago.

Spy pictures that have been captured of prototype Urban EVs testing show the car also retains the round headlights of the show car. We can also snatch a glimpse of the cabin that looks to keep the elongated dash and infotainment display, though this is likely to be a toned down version of that Frankfurt concept. No matter, it will still be much more exciting to look at than almost any other rival and, being a Honda, it will be easy to use.

All of this combines to mean the new Honda looks set to carry off just what BMW’s new Mini did back in 2001. There hasn’t been a car since that has made such an impact on buyers who wanted it regardless of how it drove. We strongly suspect this will be the case with the Honda.

Of course, the Urban EV is clearly aimed at city dwellers who need a compact car for reasons of space, parking and nipping through traffic. This is where EVs are at their best and there’s also the most readily available charging options in towns and cities. Again, this is Honda playing to a strength and building a car with specific purpose in mind rather than offering a supermini that attempts to be all things to all drivers. They have the Jazz for that.

Interestingly, the Urban EV production version doesn’t look that much smaller than a Jazz so it looks like the two will sit alongside each other. That’s not an issue as they have clearly defined roles and it’s unlikely one will tread on the other’s toes.

One area where the new EV may have to defer to the Jazz will be on list price. Honda admits it’s still a challenge to offer an EV at the same price as a car with an internal combustion engine, but also comments that it’s working hard to achieve parity. Part of that will be due to the sales success, assuming it happens, with this new model.

The signs are very good for the small Honda EV as would-be buyers are already asking dealers to take deposits, and it’s not just the early adopters and hipsters forming the queue. Plenty of first-time EV drivers are joining in.

This is good news for the leasing world as strong demand will shore up longer term values which have traditionally been a sore point for EVs and made leasing one pricier than you might hope for. If the Honda can achieve strong sales and solid residual values, it really will be the car that takes electric vehicles from the edges of the motoring landscape right into its heartlands. We sincerely hope this is the case as we’re just as excited by the Urban EV concept and its production offspring as everyone else who saw the car two years back in Frankfurt.

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