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2013 Honda Fit EV first drive impressions

In case you’ve been living under a rock or experiencing pathological levels of denial, that liquidy black substance used to power the majority of vehicles on the road today is going to run out. It’ll be quite some time before gasoline disappears from our vehicles altogether, but that hasn’t stopped automakers from toying with various alternatives. Right now, as far as alt-fuels go, electricity is the cool kid on the block, which brings us the latest electric car to strut its stuff on the street: the 2013 Honda Fit EV.

Based on the gasoline-sipping Fit and Fit Sport five-door, five-passenger hatchback, the Fit EV is the Japanese automaker’s latest foray into the growing electric car segment. But where likes of Nissan and Mitsubishi have opted to develop an entirely new car from the ground up, Honda has approached the game with a different strategy. Similar to what Ford has done with its electrified Focus, Honda will utilize an existing platform as the framework for its all-electric Fit. That might make sense for a number of reasons, like scaling back development costs, but we can’t but feel a degree of cynicism towards such a strategy.

Of course, rather than write off the electron-powered Fit as nothing more than a derivative of its conventional cousin, we happily accepted Honda on its offer to take the car for a spin ourselves. With the hilly streets of Pasadena, California, serving as the backdrop, and our skepticism firmly in check, here is what we walked away with.

Aerodynamics and design

At first glance the Fit and Fit EV appear to be cut from the same cloth — and for the most part they are. Did that cause us some disappointment? Sure it did. We happen to prefer head-turners over incognito electrics. Some don’t, but we do. Truth be told though, our affinity toward the existing Fit design had us forgetting our initial disappointment and warming up to the Fit EV’s subtle design tweaks fairly quickly.

As it turns out, these tweaks are more than just superficial talking points. According to Honda, a number of modifications to the car’s design have been made in an effort to reduce the car’s drag coefficient, increase aerodynamics, and maximize overall range.

Perhaps the most noticeable visual difference between the Fit and Fit EV can be seen in the electric Fit’s revised front end. The Fit EV features a new front bumper with horizontal chrome bar that sweeps underneath the Honda emblem and lends the car a smarter, more distinct look. In addition, Honda has added a newly designed strake located beneath the fascia that diverts air outwards, while added inlets help stream air to a radiator that aids in keeping the electric motor cool.

Alternatively, if you’re in a pinch and having trouble distinguishing the two, the Fit EV only comes in one color: Reflective Blue Pearl. So if the absence of a tailpipe or the copious amount of EV badging in and around the vehicle fail to give it away, just scout out the exclusive blue paint job.

Fit for a king?

Given that most of our time is spent inside a car driving, it’s important to ensure that, in regards to design, that experience is a cut above, or at least in line, with the rest of the vehicle. While there is a lot to like about the car’s interior, the Fit EV does falter ever so slightly.

First, the good: As far as electric vehicles go (and even a few gas guzzlers) the Fit EV has one of the most comfortable cabins we’ve sat in. It’s no Lincoln Town Car, but we never experienced that uncomfortable feeling of claustrophobia some of the smaller compacts tend to impose on us.

Up front head, leg and shoulder room was adequate, although we feel the Leaf bests the Fit EV in this department. The back seat is a different ballgame, however. In order to accommodate its battery, the rear seats have been slightly raised, giving passengers in the back an almost stadium-like seating experience and providing more legroom than any of its competitors. Eco warriors may also be pleased to know that the Fit EV’s interior is comprised of a new bio-fabric known as Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) made from a sugar-cane sourced ethanol.

Now for the bad: Given the nature of electric vehicles and how various functions within the car can affect range and battery efficiency, it’s important to display all this information to the driver. While instrumentation is bright and vivid, with various gauges displaying a range of data, the bombardment can become daunting rather quickly. If given more time with the car, this probably wouldn’t be an issue, but it’s worth mentioning. Of course living on either side of the extreme doesn’t do any good, which is why we didn’t like how oversimplified the Mitsubishi i gauge cluster was either.

Drive modes and more

Unlike the Fit and Fit Sport, the Fit EV is powered by a 20 kWh lithium-ion battery and 92 kilowatt electric motor producing 123 horsepower, 189 lb-ft of torque and a top speed of 90 mph.

It might not seem like much, but the Fit EV manages to best the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus EV, and Mitsubishi i by boasting a total range 82 miles and a combined EPA miles per gallon equivalent of 118 MPGe. To offer a little perspective the electric Fit’s closest competitor, the Ford Focus Electric, nets a total of 73 miles on a single charge of its 23 kWh battery, while the Mitsubishi i brings up the rear with a total range of 62 miles using a 16 kWh box.

Of course, like any all-electric car, mileage will vary depending on where and how you drive it. To help augment this, Honda has outfitted the Fit EV with a 3-Mode Drive System adapted from the CR-Z Sport Hybrid. Drivers can select between Sport, Normal, and Econ. Easily our favorite, Sport mode allows for quicker acceleration times and provides a greater degree of performance when activated. Getting up to speed on the freeway is a breeze and activating sport mode highlights even further just how fun and responsive electric cars can be. Econ Mode does the opposite of Sport mode and optimizes the drive system to provide the greatest level of battery and energy efficiency, while Normal mode provides standard settings for various aspects like electric motor power, steering, and air conditioning. There is even a corresponding color indicator above the center instrument panel with red indicating Sport mode and green for energy saving Econ mode.

Like the Mitsubishi i, the Honda Fit EV utilizes a regenerative breaking system to help capture kinetic energy and convert it to electric energy. By putting the shifter into “B” mode, drivers can get access to this energy producing mode every time they let off the accelerator pad or apply the brakes. For those willing to learn the ropes, B mode can add another dynamic to the electric drive experience. Trying to improve your driving in order to increase range and battery level can be strangely addictive and thoroughly rewarding.

Still, no matter how efficiently you drive the Fit, you’re going to have to charge it at some point. According to Honda, fully recharging the car’s battery will take less than 15 hours using a 120-volt AC power supply. However, the charging process can take as little as 3 hours on a 240-volt level 2 charger.

Fit and fun

The Fit, Fit Sport, and Fit EV share the same MacPherson strut front suspension, while the Fit EV is outfitted with a multi-link rear suspension in order to account for the car’s increase in weight due to its onboard battery.

Whereas an EV like the Nissan Leaf feels rather hefty and sluggish, the battery-powered Fit feels solid and nothing short of clever. As it turns out, sharper turns and “normal” driving conditions, like crossing an intersection or merging onto the freeway, became routine. We never felt that the Fit couldn’t keep up or hold its own.

Our test loops including public roads, highway driving, as well as two private test tracks. In each scenario we found the Fit EV’s handling characteristic to be both responsive and sturdy. We did experience occasional bouts of understeer during our time on the test track, but it should be noted that we were pushing the car harder than the average driver will. Still, it’s something to consider.

Limited release

One of the most frustrating parts about electric cars (beside the charging, price, and range) is how difficult they can be to purchase. If you don’t live in a large urban center or specific part of the country you’re generally out of luck. Unfortunately Honda isn’t doing anything to buck that trend. Beginning July 20, customers in California and Oregon will be able to lease the Fit EV on a three-year lease for $389 a month, which includes maintenance, collision coverage, annual Navi update, and roadside assistance. Do the math though and that gives the Fit EV a healthy MSRP of $36,625.

There is some hope for those outside of the initial launch markets. Honda says it plans on expanding the Fit EV to six East Coast markets in early 2013.

An almost Perfect Fit

There has been a lot of talk of the Fit EV being nothing more than a sleepy attempt from Honda to comply with rising emissions standards (particularly in California). Unfortunately, our crystal ball remains cloudy, so whether that is truly the case remains to be seen. But the fact that Honda is only offering the Fit EV on a three-year lease and in limited numbers and areas does little to instill confidence to the contrary. Still, of the electric vehicles we have driven, the Fit EV is by far the most fun. But like any good car — electric or otherwise — there is always room for improvement