Honda’s Fit EV gives battery cars a much-needed jolt

August 15, 2012, 1:04 PM UTC

It is no secret that sales of electric vehicles haven’t been burning up the track.

You can identify any number of reasons why: unsettled economic conditions, stable gasoline prices, lack of functionality, improved internal combustion engines, unrealistic expectations, growing interest in other alternative fuels.

The Nissan Leaf, which has been on sale for a year and a half, has failed to get traction. Only 395 found owners in July. Nissan is standing behind its goal of selling 20,000 Leafs (Leaves?) this year, but it has a long way to go. Through July, it has moved just 3,543 since January 1. Meanwhile, the new kid on the block, Ford’s Focus EV, has stalled coming out of the gate. Ford (F) sold 38 Focus electrics in July, less than half the 89 sold in June.

EV enthusiasts had hoped that Tesla’s new model S would generate some enthusiasm for the segment, but Elon Musk’s company has been more successful getting orders for its cars than actually building them. The company claims it has 11,500 “reservations” for the S but says it is only building ten cars a week. At that rate, Tesla will need 22 years to work off its backlog.

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One ray of light has been the Chevrolet Volt, which General Motors (GM) insists be referred to as a “range-extended electric vehicle” but really functions more like a plug-in hybrid. They’re doing better this summer after getting a boost in California. Solo Volt drivers are now allowed to use the carpool lanes there — a highly-valued option in the traffic-clogged Golden State.

What EVs need are new models with greater capability that generate some enthusiasm for the segment. Despite some drawbacks, the Honda Fit EV could be one of the buzz-builders.

With only a smidgen of cars available, Honda loaned me a Fit EV for three days of driving, and it reawakened my belief in the potential of new technology. The Fit takes most of the mystery out of EVs, gives drivers a clear understanding of the car’s potential as well as its limitations, and is more fun to drive than anything I’ve been in recently — gasoline or electric.

The key is transparency. Honda has cleared away extraneous data from the instrument panel and prominently displayed the single piece of data most essential to EV drivers: range.

Moreover, the range decreases in a measured, methodical way that — at least in my experience — isn’t subject to any stomach-churning drops. There’s nothing like being ten miles from home after being abruptly informed that your EV range has sunk to nine miles.

All the factors that can affect driving range are clearly posted. The Fit EV has three levels of energy usage: Econ, Normal, and Sport. Select any of the three, and the change in range registers immediately. Turn on an energy-sucking accessory like air conditioning or heater, and another gauge passes on the bad news.

The Fit EV even has enough oomph to make it an eminently practical daily driver. Running in Econ mode, my fully recharged car registered a range of 116 miles. Shifting to normal driving and it dropped to 100 miles — still ample for most uses. Sport mode exacted an additional mileage penalty of 10%, but it did increase the fun factor. Honda says the acceleration in sport mode is equivalent to a gasoline car like the Volkswagen Jetta with an engine displacement of 2.0 liters or more.

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Quick and responsive, the gasoline-powered Fit has always been fun to drive, and the instant torque generated by the battery-powered motor makes it even more so. By, in effect, downshifting from Eco to Normal to Sport, you get an immediate and gratifying jump forward. Although the lithium-ion batteries add more than 600 pounds of weight, you hardly know they are there. This is the rare EV that feels light to the touch.

Price is a bit of a stumbling block. The Fit EV is only available for lease, and the tab for three years is $389 per month. Honda says that is equivalent to the monthly lease for a gas-powered Fit in similar upscale trim under similar terms with no money down. Both the Leaf and the Volt are a bit less expensive. Nissan recently cut the price for a Leaf lease to as low as $289 a month for 39 months. A three-year lease for the Volt goes for $369 a month.

Worse news is availability. Honda plans to make only 1,100 Fit EVs available. Initially you’ll only find them in California and Oregon — states with the most built-out EV infrastructure. In early 2013 Honda will expand availability to six East Coast cities. That’s a lot of ground to cover with only 1,100 cars. You won’t have any trouble recognizing one if it turns up in your neighborhood, though. Customers can get a Fit EV in any color they want as long as it is electric blue.

Being a Honda, the Fit EV probably won’t be getting as much visibility as other more publicized EV efforts. Moreover, the bloom may be coming off the entire EV movement. New technologies like hydrofracking are expanding the availability of oil, while supplies of natural gas keep growing, making compressed natural gas more attractive to fleet users. Still, the Fit EV brings some welcome energy to a segment that really needs it.