At the Twin Ring Motegi raceway in Japan, the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer sets the standard for corporate citizenship. Rather than selfishly pave another road circuit through the gentle hills, Honda has dedicated 104 acres of racetrack property to Hello Woods', a nature preserve and children's camp that is as wacky as the inexplicable apostrophe in its name suggests. Here, Japanese youth spend a month mastering three character-building outdoor skills: starting a fire, using a knife, and...uh...riding a motorcycle.
A summer camp inspired by Evel Knievel's favorite things sounds awesome, but it's not all sunshine and butterfly knives at Hello Woods'. If you can't start your own fire in Japan's friendliest forest, you can't cook your rice, and the camp's director is quite proud to relate the story of one camper who went four days without fire.
Which brings us to the not-quite-fully-cooked world of alternative-fuel vehicles, where, despite automakers' best efforts and billions of dollars, sales of electric vehicles and hybrids just will not ignite. That hasn't deterred new entries, though. The pioneering Nissan Leaf is being followed by the Mitsubishi i, the Ford Focus EV, and -- coming in March -- Honda's own Fit EV.
The familiar subcompact trades its 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine for a 123-hp electric motor and its gas tank for a large, lithium-ion battery. The EPA rates the combined city/highway range at 76 miles, and thanks to an onboard charger with twice the capacity of the Nissan Leaf, recharging takes about three hours from a 240-volt supply. Honda's conservative rollout plan calls for just 1100 cars to be leased over the next three years in California and Oregon with a down payment of about $2000 and a monthly payment of $399 for 36 months.
The Fit's contribution to electrified driving is far more significant than a short charging time, though. It sets a high-water mark for driving dynamics for any EV not wearing a Tesla badge. Rather than rest on the merits of an electric drivetrain, Honda backed this green machine with exceptional road manners that make it surprisingly fun to drive.
Characteristic of EVs, the Fit squirts off the line with the graceful pull of low-end, electric-motor torque. But where the Leaf's oomph quickly falls off as velocity builds, the Fit maintains its punch above city speeds. Rolling on the accelerator pedal from 30 mph brings a strong surge that effortlessly propels the Fit to highway speeds.
The pinky-finger-effort steering of the Leaf is put to shame by the Fit's beautifully weighted wheel. The driver doesn't receive much feel for the Michelin Energy Saver A/S tires, but there's enough effort required from the driver to feel like the steering wheel is actually attached to something. The Michelins also find more grip than the Leaf's Bridgestone Ecopia tires, making the Fit less susceptible to squealing the front tires on hard starts with the wheels turned.
The weight and packaging of the lithium-ion battery led Honda engineers to replace the Fit's torsion-beam rear suspension with a more sophisticated multilink setup. That change pays off in comfort more than performance, with a ride that is far more supple than that of the gasoline-powered Fit. Handling is quite good, too. Compared to the Leaf, the Fit EV feels like a Mazda Miata, with quicker turn-in and crisper body control.
Honda employees are enthusiastic about turning waste into something useful, as evidenced by Hello Woods''s director, who explains with a matter-of-fact smile how the bacteria in their one-of-a-kind outhouses create water from feces. Similarly, the Fit EV creates electricity just by slowing down. Actually, I'm not really sure how that's even the slightest bit similar, but Honda claims to have made the regenerative-braking process more efficient by fitting fully electrically controlled brakes to a production car for the first time. Sounds like a disaster, right? Wrong. Giving the computers more control allows for more precision in blending friction and regenerative braking and makes pedal responses more linear. Honda hasn't eliminated the hydraulics, either. Brake fluid still pushes the pads into the discs and serves as a failsafe if the electronics flake out.
To accommodate the 20-kWh battery pack that stretches between the wheels and raises the floor pan, the gas-powered Fit's versatile "magic" folding rear seat has done a disappearing trick. The rear seatbacks still fold and create an almost-level floor with the trunk (which is also raised) that is far more useful than what you get in the Leaf. The Fit also preserves its remarkably spacious and airy feel whether you're sitting in the front or the rear seats.
The rest of the interior is typical Fit, save for automatic climate control and the instrument cluster. The tachometer has been replaced with an analog gauge to indicate whether the battery is charging or discharging at any given moment. The analog fuel gauge now relays the battery's charge while a small digital range readout is more useful. Smaller gauges reveal how much energy is being consumed by the climate system and other accessories.
With the Fit EV, Honda has introduced driving attributes to the practical electric vehicle segment that elevate expectations. The Fit introduces a level of driving fun that is missing from the Leaf, improving even on the impressive gas-powered Fit. It's so good that we're disappointed Honda won't share it with the entire United States. Honda has started the fire. Now they just need to fan the flames.