Bright Spark

Bright Spark

One of the concerns I’ve always had about electrification, even as an enthusiast for plug-in motoring, is that it might make cars feel bland and samey. In the world of the internal combustion engine, you don’t have to be an expert to tell the difference between a three-cylinder diesel and a petrol V8, but all electric motors seem alike.

But I needn’t have worried. Just lately I’ve had a chance to get to know two small electric cars a little better, that I had only previously driven briefly, and I discovered that they really are automotive chalk and cheese – albeit the best of chalk and the best of cheese.

First, the MINI Electric. My second run out in the Oxford-built small car confirmed what had already been apparent the first time I drove it over the hill handling circuit at the Millbrook proving ground: the combination of the MINI’s darty chassis and instant electric shove makes this one of the most enjoyable cars to drive on sale today.

The Honda e, though, left a slightly different impression on longer acquaintance. At first encounter, the Honda can feel slightly gimmicky, thanks to the cutesy looks, the playful fake wood dashboard, and of course, its huge dashboard-wide array of LCD screens with features such as a restful “aquarium” option. But the longer you live with the Honda e, the more you come to appreciate that its qualities run more than skin deep. Unlike the front-wheel drive MINI, which is an adaptation of an existing car – FWD is in the MINI tradition after all – the Honda is a clean-sheet design optimised for electric power. Its bespoke platform is natively rear-motor and rear-wheel-drive, a characteristic it shares with other top-pedigree electric vehicles like the Teslas and Volkswagen’s ID.3.

Take another example. The replacement of the exterior door mirrors with cameras that relay images to small screens at the extremities of the dashboard initially looks like a slightly pointless use of technology, but is in fact a triumph. The image quality is superb, crisp and clear, without any of the distortions required to give optical glass in conventional mirrors a decent field of view. Also, because the small screens are inside the car, inboard of the normal position for physical door mirrors, it is easier to glance at them quickly without needing to refocus. I expect this system will now be widely copied. Honda uses a similar camera-based set-up to emulate the central rear-view mirror, but this isn’t quite as successful. The rear-mounted camera seems to get wet or misted up in poor weather, and even in good conditions, the image seems to be a bit milky.

The Honda delivers about 110 to 120 miles of range, which doesn’t sound like much, but is probably going to be enough for the sorts of people who are going to buy it for mainly urban use. Those who do use the Honda e for occasional long journeys will find that its ride comfort and space make for a peaceful, low-fatigue experience. It’s not as sporty as the MINI, but in its slightly more grown up way, it is equally satisfying to drive. It’s almost a sort of mini-limo, perhaps the best illustration yet of how the refinement and acceleration of an electric powertrain can help a small runabout deliver the sort of comfort and effortlessness previously associated with larger cars.

Car manufacturers have tried for years to provide luxury and a big car experience in a small package, but could never get around the fact that, say, a Metro Vanden Plas had the same low gearing and noisy A-Series engines as the lesser versions of the Metro. A bit of extra soundproofing was never going to plug the refinement gap to a BMW straight six or a Rolls-Royce V8 paired with an automatic transmission. Electric power puts everyone on, more or less, the same level.

It would be nice to have more range to play with in both cars – in the MINI to attack Alpine passes, and in the Honda to tackle longer motorway cruises – but the increased cost and weight of additional battery capacity would probably ruin the two cars’ nicely balanced mix of qualities and add to their already fairly high price tags. Rather than lots of extra battery capacity that might only be used occasionally, what these cars really need is just a bit more range and a better charging infrastructure – and, of course, that charging infrastructure is going to get better every day.

David Wilkins

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