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Honda EV Plus: the 1990s precursor to the Honda e
How a tiny electric car tried (and failed) to change the automotive world...
In recent years we have all been blown away by the reveal of the Honda e city car. From its retro-cute first-gen Civic style looks to its array of onboard futuristic tech. It is a car that is eagerly awaited by EV enthusiasts and petrolheads alike. But this is not the first time Honda has dabbled in the realm of small EVs, as way back in 1997 the experimental EV Plus was thrust into the world at a time when electric cars were in their infancy.
Taking a decade from conception to rolling off the production line, this early EV was ahead of its time in many ways. While its numbers were not much to shout home about by modern standards, with a total (careful) driving range of 100 miles, a 0-30mph time of 4.9 seconds (no 0-60 time was recorded), and an 80mph top speed – on paper it didn’t look like much.
Read between these numbers though, it was the first EV from a major carmaker to use Ni-MH batteries, rather than an ancient lead-acid setup. Power came from a single brushless electric motor giving it 66hp which was fairly decent for the time. All of the onboard electronics were powered by a separate conventional battery as well. Charging was done via an Avcon port taking eight hours at home. And it even had futuristic features found on modern EVs such as a digital dial cluster and regenerative braking.
The origins of the EV Plus begin in the late 1980’s era of hair metal and the Nintendo Game Boy. Honda had set themselves a lofty target to build a pure-electric passenger car for mass production hoping to trigger an era of ‘clean energy’ for the forthcoming 20th century.
Electric vehicles were not really a thing at the time. Those that did exist were crude and likely to be found ferrying sweater-wearing golfists to the 18th hole. In 1988, and with ever-stricter emissions regulations in North America, the firm set itself a ten-year target to build a working EV they could actually sell.
Despite no previous experience of building electric cars at all, the first prototype took only three years to cobble together using a Civic hatchback with an off the shelf electric motor and lead-acid batteries. But what Honda’s R&D team saw as a milestone, was met with angst by the firm’s senior management who insisted the car must be a bespoke model and that they should “bury” the prototype. Regardless, the mule ran and drove signalling the beginning of electric car development for the firm.
Within the next five years, it was decided the as-yet unnamed EV was mostly headed to North America, and that it would get the bespoke body design the senior management desired. The ancient lead-acid battery tech was ditched, being replaced by a hugely advanced (for the time) Ni-MH battery setup. In total, ten prototypes were built, silently whirring their way through 80,000 miles in two years to finalise the tech and underpinnings of the car.
By early 1996, the first Honda EV pre-production prototype was ready with the firms President Nobuhiko Kawamoto getting the maiden drive saying “let’s do it.’ The EV era as we know it at Honda had started…
In 1997, the EV Plus arrived, but you couldn’t buy one. Instead, you could only lease one for $455 a month over three years. At the time Its two-tone bodywork and small city car dimensions made it look futuristic, and the fact that you had to plug it in was near science fiction.
Alas, what should have been the dawn of a new era was over a few short years later. Instead of making the EV Plus a mass-production car, Honda built around 340 examples, before promptly taking them back from owners by the turn of the century for decommissioning and destruction.
Just like that, the EV Plus was dead, and with it went Honda’s pure-electric car program for nearly two decades. Some cars were reused as hydrogen fuel cell prototypes, before meeting a similar destructive fate.
Taking only a decade from idea to working car, the EV Plus should have been a groundbreaking achievement for Honda. Instead, its rapid demise led to a raft of far less interesting hybrid models, a Jazz (Honda Fit) based EV that was rubbish, and over a two-decade wait for another attempt with the forthcoming pure-electric Honda e.
All of which makes you think how different things might have been had they stuck it out in the late 1990s – don’t you think?
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