PASADENA, CA – Honda, once a vocal naysayer of electric vehicles, throws its hat in the ring with a fully electrified version of its popular Fit subcompact.

But its hesitation about EVs still is clear.

Electric vehicles have seen varying levels of success in their almost two years in the market.

Nissan Leaf sales were down 26% through July, WardsAuto data shows. But the range-extended Chevrolet Volt jumped 272% from the sales pace set in the first seven months of last year.

Rather than jump in full bore and offer the Fit for sale throughout the U.S., as Nissan and Chevy are doing with their models, Honda is instructing dealers to only lease the Fit and allotting just 1,100 units of the car over the ’13 and ’14 model years, mostly to coastal regions.

Why the restraint? Partially it is because Honda needs to retail only a small amount to meet California’s stringent emissions requirements.

But also, “All we know is what we don’t know,” Steve Center, vice president-American Honda's Office of Environmental Business Development, summarizes at a media test drive here.

While many questions are yet to be answered about EVs’ long-term potential, Honda shouldn’t be so reluctant.

Based on a short test drive, it is one of the better electric vehicles to arrive, possessing an athletic character and, quite important given the unrelenting heat of summer 2012, using the air conditioner doesn't appear to be hugely detrimental to range.

The Fit EV is enjoyable to drive because it retains the two attributes of the much-loved, gasoline-powered model: fast and agile.

Thanks to its 189 lb.-ft. (256-Nm) of immediate torque and its diminutive size, the Fit EV screams away from a standstill with more urgency than the portlier, although surprisingly responsive Leaf, which is on hand for comparison on a closed course at the nearby Rose Bowl.

While the Fit EV corners with authority, the Leaf wallows in fast turns, with more body roll than the Honda, and the Nissan’s steering is not as firm and direct.

Like many alternative-powertrain vehicles available today, the Fit EV has various modes, each with unique accelerator calibrations and varying motor output.

Sport mode, in which the AC synchronous electric motor’s full 92 kW (123 hp) is available, lets us squeal the front wheels.

Normal mode, with a maximum output of 75 kW (101 hp), has an aggressive tip-in, too.

The Fit EV’s Econ mode, with just 47 kW (63 hp), makes the car positively pokey and is best suited for hyper-milers or a driver confronted with a dying battery and no charging station in sight.

The Honda EV is perfectly suited for everyday, moderate-distance driving.

With two occupants, full sun and an outside temperature of 82º F (28º C), our test car’s range indicator generally aligns with actual miles traveled.

All modes are tested on repeated trips of the same 6.6-mile (10.6-km), largely stop-and-go loop through Pasadena.

Our best result is the first loop, with just 4 miles (6.4 km) of range lost in Normal mode. The AC is set at 72º F (22º C) and fan speed is low. For tests in Econ and Sport mode, the temperature is knocked down to 64º F (18º C) and the fan cranked to high.

In the Econ mode test, 8 miles (12.9 km) of range is lost, compared with 6 miles (9.7 km) in Sport mode.

Honda credits the unique titanate oxide chemistry of the Fit EV’s 20-kWh Toshiba lithium-ion battery for this robustness. The battery is less prone to lithium deposition, which causes short circuiting and degrades conventional Li-ion units, the auto maker says.

However, a longer drive in the Fit EV is needed to fully gauge whether the battery really is that good at retaining a charge in the face of range-depleting climate control.

Some EVs, such as the Mitsubishi i, veer more toward safe than sorry, knocking off tens of miles of range as soon as the AC or heat is switched on, even with a fully charged battery.

Perhaps the Fit EV will register AC-related loss of range more severely with the battery half-full or less.

Also helping stem battery losses by better harnessing the power of regenerative braking is the Fit EV’s electro-servo brake system. Honda says it recovers 8% more energy than a conventional regenerative braking system during the Environmental Protection Agency’s city test cycle and makes for a “more linear, natural” braking feel.

The auto maker accomplishes this by cooperatively controlling the brake pedal, drive motor in generator mode and hydraulic brake lines, and by using individually operated brake cylinders.

Honda improves the base Fit’s coefficient of drag some 14% due to a fully flat underbody, a drag-reducing smaller air intake and the addition of a rear spoiler.

Honda touts the competition-besting 118 MPGe and 82-mile (132-km) range. But the auto maker should market heavily the 3-hour charge time, from near-empty to full, on a 240V outlet, while other EVs take up to eight hours to fully charge. Time is money for a lot of buyers.

Plus, the meager charging time means the Honda EV fits comfortably in the “super off-peak” midnight-to-6 a.m window for reduced electric rates in California and other states.

Inside, the car is comfortable and well-appointed. Its bio-based seat fabric, partially derived from sugarcane residues, is an appropriate replacement for leather, but a livelier color than bland pale grey would be nice.

The new corresponding HondaLink smartphone app is a winner: It’s easy to use and allows drivers to schedule charging remotely to take advantage of low electric rates.

The navigation system maps the nearest EV stations but visually lags severely behind the competitors, with Nintendo-64-like graphics in an Xbox world.

The Fit EV now is available for lease in California and Oregon, with an East Coast market rollout beginning next spring in Boston, New York and Washington.

The lease price, $389 a month for 36 months, is a bit higher than the Volt’s and Leaf’s $350 monthly charge, but there is no down payment with the Fit EV, giving it parity.

Because of the limited range of all-electric cars, the Fit EV isn’t for everyone.

But, for those who don’t need to travel far from home or have a second, gasoline-powered car, the Fit EV is fine transportation and deserves consideration.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com

 

’13 Honda Fit EV
Vehicle type Battery-powered, front-wheel-drive 5-door subcompact
Electric motor AC synchronous
Power (SAE net) 123 hp/92 kW
Torque 189 lb.-ft. (256 Nm)
Transmission Single-speed automatic
Wheelbase 98.4 ins. (250 cm)
Overall length 162 ins. (411 cm)
Overall width 67.7 ins. (172 cm)
Overall height 62.2 ins. (158 cm)
Curb weight 3,252 lbs. (1,475 kg)
Base price $389 per month for 36 mos. ($36,625 MSRP)
Fuel economy 118 MPGe (29 kWh/100 mile)
Competition Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus EV, Mitsubishi i, Chevy Volt
Pros Cons
3 hours to full charge Lack of infrastructure
Fun-to-drive Smaller than Leaf
User-friendly app Unappealing HMI graphics