Honda Electrifies the Versatile Fit, Already a Hybrid

Last Updated Nov 19, 2010 4:02 PM EST

"Why an electric version of the Honda Fit?" I asked Ben Knight, a vice president of research and development. "Why not?" he replied. Good answer, but not the one I would have gotten from Honda until quite recently. I'm much more accustomed to the company telling my why it won't build electric cars.

Here's what Honda's president of research and development Tomohiko Kawanabe, said as recently as last spring:

We lack confidence in the electric-vehicle business. It's questionable whether consumers will accept the annoyances of limited driving range and having to spend time charging them. We are definitely conducting research on electric cars, but I can't say I can wholeheartedly recommend them.
At the Los Angeles Auto Show Wednesday, Honda, having newly embraced the EV revolution, pulled the covers off the electric Fit for 2012 and the platform for a new plug-in hybrid. The Fit uses a set of lithium-ion batteries and the high-density electric motor from the FCX Clarity hydrogen car to attain 100 miles of real-world range. It's a car not without precedent in the Honda lineup.

Honda's last electric failure
In 1997, Honda began production on the EVPlus, a small electric car with nickel-metal-hydride batteries that competed in the marketplace with the ill-fated General Motor EV-1. In some ways it was superior to the EV-1 (more range, for one, and four seats), but it found no more leases than did the EV-1 -- a few hundred only.

"The world wasn't ready for electricity," Honda said of the EVPlus in introducing the plug-in Fit. "But the dream did not die, but was transformed for new uses. The world is now ready for an electric car." We'll see about that, won't we?

The five-seater Fit, which is already produced in a hybrid version (though not for the U.S.) is an excellent choice for Honda's first battery car, because it's small, lightweight, aerodynamic and very versatile. The seats fold in a variety of ways to accommodate passengers and cargo, functionality that Knight assured me will be retained on the electric Fit.

The plug-in car gets three drive modes, normal, sport and economy -- with the latter adding 17 percent battery range. That's fairly standard with modern EVs, as is the connectivity features that will allow the driver to remotely check on the state of battery charge, or pre-heat the interior from grid power.

The Google-Stanford testbed
Small fleets of the car will go into test programs at Stanford, Google and the City of Torrance, California. Honda's Dave Dewitt told me the company hopes to gather data about how people use and adapt to EVs. The Google cars will be part of the company's "GFleet," whose environmental performance is being tracked online.

The plug-in hybrid is little more than a concept at this point, but Honda has very detailed specs for it: a six kilowatt lithium-ion battery coupled to a 120-kilowatt electric motor and a two-liter four-cylinder Atkinson cycle gas engine with a continuously variable transmission. The car will have a 10 to 15-mile electric cruising range, and a 240-volt recharge time of just one to 1.5 hours.

"The Fit is a great package, small but with enough room for a band with all its equipment," Knight told me. "We learned from the EVPlus that people want to use their electric cars for all their errands, and the Fit is the perfect platform for that." Indeed it is, which is why I bought one.

Honda has been ambivalent about electric cars, preferring the hybrid route, but that was then. The Los Angeles show is a celebration of plugging in, and finally Honda is part of it.

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Photo: Jim Motavalli