Home » A Professional Car Designer Explains What Makes The Honda e So Wonderful

A Professional Car Designer Explains What Makes The Honda e So Wonderful

Hondae Designer Weighin

Over my three-week sojourn across (or rather up and down) the UK’s traitorous colonial cousin, I covered about 5,000 miles of red, white, and blue. Some long days on the road meant I needed a cheap heart-clogging breakfast before setting off, and inside a Denny’s one morning, fork was momentarily paused between plate and mouth. At a table opposite, a robot was delivering a man his breakfast. Why wasn’t my breakfast delivered by an early model of our future overlords? Channeling my inner Woodward and Bernstein I asked the staff about their unpaid plastic slave. Were they having trouble hiring flesh and blood servers? “No, came the reply, they did it for the buzz, knowing customers would do exactly what I had done and film it in action. What a fascinating modern world we live in indeed.

The robot server’s design had prioritized not spilling scalding coffee over customers above an anthropomorphic appearance, but as consumers we now usually expect our advanced technology to blend seamlessly into our lives. Fussy ’80s-style electronic fetishism is out. Glossy surfaced, buttonless mobile phones and soft touch smart speakers are in. Approachability and friendliness are the new watchwords, and it’s a look the Honda e leans on heavily.

The Concept Versus The Production Car

Hondae

The e, a city-friendly electric car sadly (for you) not sold in North America, originally appeared as the EV Urban Concept in 2017, and the production version was shown in 2019. Everyone moaned the one you could buy didn’t look exactly like the concept (they never do, for good reasons), but given there were only two years between them, the production version would have already been signed off in 2017. I was never totally convinced by the Urban EV concept – I thought it a bit heavy and slab-sided, too flat in the roof line, and sit down for this revelation – over-wheeled.

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Before we get into the details, let’s have a quick look at what makes the production version so much better than the concept. Mainly for me, it’s about that reduction in wheel size. The overall proportions are less stretched and forced, so the front and rear graphics don’t have to work as hard. There’s more room for the individual elements to breathe on the real car, rather than everything looking like it’s being squashed into the form. The slabbiness that I think the concept suffers from is reduced here. Finally, the black paint that tops and bottoms the production car just makes it look so much lighter on its feet.

Let’s Dig Into Why This Exterior Design Works So Well

I’m always banging on about how car design is not just about looks, but content and context as well. What is a car meant to be, how does it sit in the marketplace, and how well does it fulfill its intended function? Honda has pitched the e as a premium urban commuter car for those who might have a Noguchi coffee table or an Eames lounge chair. In other words, it’s aimed at wankers like me. (I have neither a Noguchi table nor an Eames lounger, but I have a friend who has both. Bastard).

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Interestingly, the exterior and interior are thematically a bit of a mismatch — not bad, just different ideas. But we’ll get to that. Looking at the exterior, what strikes me first and foremost is that it’s a much calmer, more mature effort than some other recent Hondas. The previous generation Civic looked like it was mid-transformation into a 20-foot tall robot, something that has been wound back on the current gen. The feature lines to nowhere have been banished.

Every line on the e serves a purpose, and the shut line management is exceptional. The panel gap around the hood always needs to be bigger to allow what is called an “overslam” condition – the amount it travels past its resting position when being closed. Honda have pulled a Land Rover and used a clamshell-style hood that allows the gap to become a  line on the body side that takes a turn vertical on the C pillar before blending out near the roof. It’s the only decoration on the body side apart from a subtle light catcher on the rocker panel.

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The e has frameless doors, which means you have fewer runners and seals around the glazing area. Look how clean that area is. Remember our chat about the new Prius and its less than optimal door mirror area? Even though the e has camera pods instead of mirrors, it still needs a small trim piece in the corner of the DLO to provide a runner for the glass to drop. On the rear glass, there’s a similar arrangement that provides a hiding place for — fuck my life — hidden door handles. I’ve ranted about these before but I will say here they don’t provide as nice an interaction as the pop-out fronts. The way the triangular shape becomes the seal between the metal and glass is very neat though.

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Talking about glass, the chart port cover is that black glass panel in the middle of the hood. When plugged in and charging a blue light slowly pulses like a heartbeat, a humanistic touch ripped straight from the Cupertino design manual. Although the car has cheerfully round headlights, Honda have wisely resisted the temptation to go full kawaii, but there’s a hint of Tomotaka Takahashi’s humanoid robots in the front and rear graphics. It could really use some punchier colors though – there was a bright neon green that’s been dropped. A nice bronze or metallic brown would really make this thing sing, and tie in better with the warm interior.

The Cabin

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Honda has made a big deal about the interior being a “living room” inspired with widescreen displays and an earth tones colorway – both the seat belts and the contrast stitching on the doors are brown, but the wood is slightly disappointingly, plastic. Would it have killed them to use real trees? It is a sustainable resource after all. Did I feel like I was in my living room? Well, I have a 4K Samsung and the UI on the two widescreens on the Honda’s IP is just as bad, and there is a 240v household outlet lurking amongst the plethora of ports in the central area under the dash, so maybe.Img 7419

You don’t have to pick too hard to reveal the Android Auto bones underneath the cherry blossom tree wallpaper though. The screen in front of the driver is typically Japanese in that it’s clear but busy – like the menu of a Hideo Kojima game – with all the information, all the time. For such a design-led car, it’s a shame they didn’t put more effort into giving the interface a bit more love.

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Although the only way of interacting with the screens is via touch, there are hard controls for the important stuff like audio and HVAC, and the drive mode on the center console is excellent. You can go from park to reverse or drive or one pedal mode by feeling alone.

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The bit I’m sure you’re all waiting to hear about is the camera mirror system. This uses two cameras in each door to provide a view of what’s behind you on the two outmost screens. It works really well with one small caveat – although the cameras are adjustable like a normal mirror you lose the ability to change your view by changing your head position. As someone with a motorcycle license, my head is constantly on a swivel when I drive, so with the dicey short on-ramps of the Coventry ring road, I quite often lean forward when looking in my mirrors to get a clear view of all the lanes behind me, lest I turn the Range Rover into a big metal ball on the nose of a heavy goods truck with a late delivery of lettuce.

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At night time with headlights behind you, the images have more lens flare than JJ Abrams’ showreel, but that’s probably a consequence of having one camera that can work equally well in both daytime and nighttime. Why do it? With an ICE car aero only makes up something like 30% of its overall efficiency. With an EV, it’s something like 80%, so those small gains are really important, so although these things feel like a solution in search of a problem there is a good reason for them. It’s just that reason is not repairability for the third owner.

The thing I like most about the Honda e is the fact it doesn’t scream “space car of the future.” There are no green or blue highlight colors, no corny leaf graphics or any eco-weenie nonsense about its appearance. It’s a confident, modern design that happens to be an EV.

The fact is it could work equally well as a template for the next Honda Fit or Civic as it could for a new Insight or Clarity is a testament to how, as always, good design is universal.

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48 Responses

  1. I feel like a lot of the e (interior more than the exterior, perhaps) does a fabulous job of recalling the OG Civic. The original dash had a gauge pod sitting on a full-with shelf, and this has screens on a full-width shelf. The center console reminds me of some of the originals that came with consoles.

    The exterior maybe less so, but I think if you parked the e next to a ’74 Civic the inspiration would be more obvious.

  2. If you ask me — and you didn’t, but tough beans anyway — I see a whole lot of Renault 5 in the exterior design. The shapes are simple, and attractive because of it. All the basics are there (lights, doors, windows, wheels) but are not surrounded by a bunch of useless sculptural frippery. No added scoops or — best of all! — black plastic add-on trim. The E, like the R5, isn’t trying to be something it’s not.

    I haven’t gotten used to a dashboard full of screens, and likely never will. They seem out-of-place for a simple Transportation Unit. I would find a dial or two, the essential buttons and levers and a simple audio system more congenial.

    But I like the little Honda visually, for many of the same reasons I liked the R5. It shows how handsome a simple, useful shape can be.

  3. I agree, it’s a very nice design. It should wear well over time. Easy to keep clean, and won’t look dated next year. I have a minor quibble, which is a personal preference. The flat, horizontal expanse of plastic wood is kind of useless waste of space. If you remember the built in tray of the BMW 1600-2002 dash, that would be far more handy. Overall, I like it.

  4. “You can go from park to reverse or drive or one pedal mode by feeling alone.”

    That’s amazing engineering on Honda’s part! To be able to shift the car based on your emotional state?! I feel alone all the time, but my stupid Pilot doesn’t do crap. Thanks for nothing, Pilot. (Kidding, obviously…I know what you meant)

    On a more serious note, I do love that car. I love when cars are just simple. Like you said, the car isn’t trying to be more than it is. Just nice, clean design, with no useless bits and baubles, and a laser-focus on the vehicle’s purpose in life. But I do hate our camera-mirror future. Unless those things start incorporating head and eye tracking, moving the camera based on where you’re moving your head, these things are just a bad idea.

    1. The camera mirrors are not a bad idea, but like I say there are drawbacks. For the most part, they work really well. Not worse or better than normal mirrors, they are mostly unobtrusive, but I missed not being able to lean forward and taking a real good look at what’s behind me.

      1. ” there are drawbacks.”
        Replacement cost of any of the components for one. For a system that is marginally better for aerodynamics it seems a complete waste of resources to me.

    1. Exactly. My first car was a ’76 CVCC 5-speed and I immediately recognized the exterior homage to the Civic 2-door in the C-pillar shape, DLO design, unadorned side panels, and large round headlights.

      The interior looks like it would be a serene place to be (love the upholstery), which supports the EV ethos of smooth and quiet. The horizontal dash element is again a subtle homage to the Civic, which had a utility sunglasses/pen/change shelf at that location.

      I wish we could get this in the US.

  5. “although the cameras are adjustable like a normal mirror you lose the ability to change your view by changing your head position”

    This is one of the biggest losses in using any sort of digital mirror. I get the aero concern, but it’s a significant tradeoff. And I hate digital rearview (except in specific applications in which a mirror is impractical, such as some RVs) because it doesn’t even solve an aero concern.

    1. Also, at least digital side mirrors don’t add the problem of distance lenses viewing a near screen like a lot of digital rearview mirrors do, since they are low enough for people with transitional lenses.

    2. Not sure why a digital side mirror can’t provide a full 90 degrees of view (straight back to full alongside). The cams/lenses can certainly do it, dashcams often cover 120-170 degrees. Is this an issue with the display, so that your brain can deal with it? Seems like it could be like a panoramic mirror fisheye, with a marked portion that isn’t distorted. Should be easy enough with electronics editing the pic.

      1. I have small rectangular spot mirrors installed on all of our vehicles. I find that I use that mirror about 90% of the time instead of the flat mirror. I am accustomed to the distortion of the curved mirror and can determine the location of other vehicles with quite good accuracy. I would expect that a lens that provides wider coverage for cameras would result in the same good results.

    3. I never tried those kind of “mirrors”, but losing the ability to change view by moving my head would worry me. On the other side, you don’t have to adjust the mirrors each time you change driver.

  6. The exterior design of the Honda e is great, certainly. But the real story should be, framed as a question, is how great is that upholstery?

    1. I kept this as a design breakdown rather than a review, but to answer your question, very nice indeed. It felt hard wearing but premium, if that makes sense. I’m not a big fan of leather (in car interiors at least….) so anything different to that has me intrigued.

      1. Same. I remember the old wool/tweed interior upholstery from 80s and 90s Toyotas. As pictured, this reminds me of that, but with a tighter weave.

  7. Drop the rear view cameras, this is a city car, it does not need aero quite that much, it only gets 100 miles to a charge in the best of times. So nobody is going road tripping in this thing. Removing complexity and additional Chips to control those is also a cost savings benefit. Lack of battery drain might make up for aero anyway.

  8. I wonder about the design of charge port. That looks like it could be turned into a small bird bath during or after the rainstorm. Must be electrifying experience when plugging or unplugging…

  9. I have loved the look of these since they rolled the concept one out – it would be perfect for my commute.

    But I absolutely hate the whole “dashboard-as-a-screen” thing with a passion – if they stripped that shit out and gave me a few basic HVAC knobs/buttons, an AUX input and a volume knob I’d be happy as hell.

  10. My MX5 track car had tiny race mirrors. I also daily drove that thing for years. The little convex mirrors were maybe a third of the area of the standard ones, but had a wider field of view and had less mass and aero drag. Also they didn’t fall off like the standard ones did, and were much cheaper. No downsides at all, unlike cameras.

    The regulations on minimum mirror size need to change.

  11. It’s really too bad they fitted it with that tiny “city” battery: Even urban trendy people in black clothes, like me, would sometimes like to go visiting their parents or to a nice resort on a beautiful coastline.
    Not that I can afford it or anything. I just think the whole city EV genre is bullshit. A REAL city car is something the ChangLi og those three wheeled things old people drive in the bicycle lane around here. Maybe if the Renault Twizzy (or how you spell that thing) was cheaper it would qualify.
    I live right in the middle of a big city, and it’s full of Tesla Model 3s. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Honda!
    So if it had any useful range, I think it would have been a big hit.

      1. Props for recognizing that smaller wheels make it look better – I guess this means you and the kommentariat don’t actually disagree on the fundamentals; we just draw the line for right-sized wheels in different places.

  12. On the subject of gigantic wheels, I think I may be coming around. I have for years railed against this trend, however, there is one intriguing possibility. Get rid of tires all together.

    After eliminating ICE, the next biggest vehicle pollution issue is tire particles. Both in the air and ground/water. If we continue this trend of essentially eliminating the tire, our kids will be able to breath rubber free air. I’m not sure if magnesium particles will be better, though. Or what the traction will be like…

  13. Before the referenced Land Rover, SAAB 99 & 900 had a similar clamshell hood, but it tilted forward. The shut line matched a ridge that ran down the doors and disappeared on the rear fenders.

  14. I’ve never seen anyone mention the price on these. It’s 4,950,000 yen. Close to 45,000 dollars after exchange rate (weak yen sucks… but that’s for another time). That’s more than the F-150 Lightning PRO. I, too, was excited when I saw one. I live out here in the countryside and it would be so much fun on the twisty roads out here. But when I saw the price… there was no way I would spend that much on that car.

  15. I like it because it has realistic tire sidewall proportions 😛

    It reminds me of a more sophisticated dodge neon, in that the vibe is friendly/approachable, not trying to look ALL AGGRESSIVE AND ANGRY LOOK AT MY VENTS AND SCALLOPS AND CREASES RAHHHHH so played out. I like it a lot.

    Also, I have something to add about the side view mirrors. Like 10 years ago I had a long commute, and started modifying a 91 Civic for hypermiling/aero mods. Removed wipers, applied rainx = +1mpg at 80mph. Lowered it, smooth wheels, removed mudflaps, another 1-2mpg. BIGGEST win tho?

    Removing those side mirrors. From an aero standpoint, they are so dirty! It gained a whopping 3MPG removing the side mirrors at 80mph, with a surprise benefit of reducing a massive amount of cabin noise at that speed; the turbulence of traditional mirrors right next to your head is actually quite loud!

    And for the safety nannies, I blocked off the mirrors mounts with black ABS, and installed two convex mirrors inside the car instead, worked fine for freeway driving.

    1. I understand that there is a not an insignificant advantage to removing side view mirrors. What is the cost of production and replacement between the two?

    1. 140 miles? More like 100 in the chilly UK at the moment. Luckily I had it before this weeks cold snap (it’s been below 30 degrees f here for the last few days.

  16. I generally like the E, but from some angles (the side view, in particular), the styling bothers me in a way that isn’t immediately obvious. I think it is the proportions of the engine (motor?) compartment relative to the passenger compartment. The engine compartment looks about 10% too small. When I look at the E (at least in pictures, I’ve never seen one in person), my mind sees a vehicle with proportions reminiscent of a Mini Cooper, but with the engine compartment shrunk just enough that it is just noticeable at some angles. It creates a bit of an uncanny valley effect for me, if that could be applied to cars.

    Overall, though, it is a very nice design. It is simple, but distinct.

    1. If you think that’s a short engine compartment, check out the Honda Today. The original design used half a Goldwing engine so as to be extra extra compact.

  17. Aside from the digital mirrors, that interior is pretty much perfect. Sure, I would prefer analog (ish) IP and HVAC, but I get it in this car and the minimal vibe works.

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