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One for the Road: Honda N-one road test

November 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Japanese drivers have been making due with less for quite a while now: the kei microcar segment, along with compact hatches and micro-minivans, has pushed sedans, wagons, sports cars and just about everything else out of the market. Particularly with the most diminutive of the breed, styling, comfort, utility and driving fun took a back seat to lightness, efficiency and cost. But no longer – as market moves smaller, drivers are demanding more, and Honda has just taken a massive leap with their new N-one.

The N-One

Putting its best face forward

The styling is pure retro-chic, riffing on the N-360 of yesteryear, but doing so in a way that plays to contemporary, design sensitive younger audiences. The huge range of color options – eleven to be specific, with five two-tone options a la Mini – is trendy and spot on for the market. While hardly original – I spy the Fiat 500’s rear quarters and beltline crease, the Mini’s upright windshield and black A- and B-pillars – it is cohesive and looks the part. It also conveys an impression that few in its class do: it looks like it should be fun to drive.

Drive One and See

Around town, the N-one feels more confident and capable than a kei car has rights to be – a sign that the expectations for the smallest of Japanese compacts continue to rise at pace with their sales. A push of the standard start button and the DOHC 3-cylinder engine springs to life effortlessly with the touch of a button. The idle is smooth and vibration minimal, and it’s clear that great strides have been made in improving NVH .The expected bounce and throb of three cylinder engines is largely absent in this model, and the engine note in both models is much improved over the previous two valve motor, less tinny and burbly, and much more like a typical Honda four cylinder.

The N-One engine

The standard engine of the base G- and premium trim. The Touring option ads a turbocharger and paddle shifters.

The CVT goes about its business quickly and efficiently, and never gives the impression of being connected to the wheels by rubber band.  It still exhibits some of the drone under hard acceleration common to all CVT’s, but particularly in the case of the turbocharged Tourer model, there’s sufficient low-end torque to keep tach needle from wandering far from comfortable territory. As long as one isn’t asking too much of the long pedal, it’s easy to modulate in traffic and at low speeds, the natural environment of this breed. In my city circuit, I never had the opportunity to get the speedo above 50 km/h, and that will be typical of many drivers’ experience with this vehicle.

The McPherson struts up front and torsion-beam in the back go about their business more smoothly and with less squirminess than one would expect from a car which tips the scales at only 840 kg (1851 lbs). Road noise is present but unobtrusive, and the brakes are linear, with good engagement and appropriate boost. The electric power steering is an improvement in feel over the previous generation’s, but still lacks the on-center feel and communication of Honda’s dearly departed hydraulic racks of old. Much is made of the stabilizer bar included with the turbocharged “tourer” trim, but most owners will never notice the difference. Indeed, in this class, driving dynamics are not high on the priority list – and it’s admirable that Honda took the time to make it work.

This One Comes Fully Loaded

Clever features are what really set a car apart in this class, and in this regard the N-one brings some innovation to the table, as standard: First up is the slick audio unit, which integrates into the curve of the dash perfectly, with all controls located further down on the dash. when powered up ,the 6.1 inch LCD is easily legible, and the physical buttons are vastly superior to the touch controls on most such systems. The system has a plethora of connectivity options – audio can be delivered by Bluetooth from a smartphone or mobile device, and there’s an HDMI jack – no primitive RCA connectors – to input high resolution video and audio. There’s also a USB port with control for iOS devices built in, and most importantly, a Honda-provided iOS application which can use your Apple phone to supply turn-by-turn directions via the audio system’s display. This system importantly doesn’t make use of Apple’s own map data, but the same database Honda uses for factory navigation, giving you a better chance of getting to your destination properly. Dealers were mum on the prospects of Android connectivity, but I would assume an application is around the corner.

Other goodies standard across the line are projector headlights with ring-shape LED position lights, upgradable to HID, full auto climate control, smart entry, HID tail lamps which flash the hazard lights automatically in a panic stop, side curtain airbags, vehicle stability assist, hill start assist, UV rejecting glass, Honda’s storied magic seat and loads of other content that is rare in the class.

The N-One Rear Seat

Honda’s magic seat places folds either flat or up to accommodate tall items.

It’s in the interior where most battles in this segment are won or lost, and this one is a winner – the seats are gently sculpted but very accommodating, the dash design is simple and uncluttered, buttons and control stalks feel upscale and materials, while selected with lightness and cost in mind, are considerably more substantial than previous Hondas. Opting for the premium package – typically a ¥200,000 option – brings a vast swath of black woodgrain trim – thankfully tastefully understated – and a black and burgundy color-palate with handsome black cloth which feels contemporary, almost swanky. The premium cloth is some of the softest and most comfortable I’ve felt at any price point, and the leather wrapped steering wheel and soft-blue backlit gauges could almost trick you into forgetting you into forgetting you were driving anything eligible to wear a yellow plate. Almost, that is, as hard plastics and low-rent materials inevitably make themselves known.

The One You Want

In a very crowded market, the N-One succeeds in standing out – it looks and feels like much more car than it really is, and it leapfrogs its most direct competition – Suzuki’s smaller, simpler Lapin, and Daihatsu’s cute but cheap Cocoa – in almost every way. In fact, it’s likely that the N-One will not only draw sales away from those, but also more mainstream, taller and boxier cars as well. It’s simply hard to argue against the N-One’s combination of great design, build quality, standard equipment, and yes, drive. Don’t believe me? Go look at one yourself.

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