Are we never satisfied?
On the face of things, Honda’s Geneva e prototype – a thinly veiled (95% production-ready, we are told) version of the forthcoming production Urban EV, marks not only a refreshing change from the over-decorated norm but also a satisfyingly close approximation of the car Honda showed at Frankfurt 2017 to audible gasps of pleasure from the massed cohort of auto-commentators, this non-attending scribe included.
Because if indeed this broadly represents the form the production version will take (and informed speculation suggests it does), it presents a wildly divergent face to the one Honda currently presents to the world.
We have spoken here at length regarding the stylistic depths the German carmakers have plumbed and wrung our collective hands over what it all could possibly mean, but in truth, no OEM automotive manufacturer has lost the creative run of itself as overwhelmingly as the residents of Hamamatsu. Certainly, whatever reasons there might be to sign on the dotted line at your friendly Honda dealer, a concern for matters aesthetic can confidently be discounted as being one of them.
Now is probably not the time or place to explore exactly what (apart from corporate loss of confidence on an epic scale) has brought such a state of affairs to come to pass, but one of the more pertinent questions the advent of the e prototype begs is what (if any), likely influence its calm, product design-influenced appearance is likely to have on future Hondas? On this basis, one would have to hope, rather a lot.
But leaving pure aesthetics aside for a moment, the e prototype is something of a departure for Honda. Because one or two Japanese Kei cars apart, Honda have never previously been an enthusiastic purveyor of retro. And while the nods to Honda’s past are relatively subtle, the car’s overall silhouette, its low beltline, upright A-pillar and calm surfacing seems more redolent of a 1980s tribute than the cutting edge of 2019.
Now it is equally possible (and something that has already been posited upon these pages), that Honda are simply in step with a burgeoning trend away from the mono-volume forms which dominated small car design for decades, back towards a more lineal silhouette. And if indeed this is so, one does wonder if this (despite our early enthusiasm for the concept) is how we would ideally wish the future to look?
Assuming that Honda’s customer data is similar to that of PSA’s, it would appear that buyers of electric cars no longer wish their vehicles to shout about their technical otherness. Nevertheless, this doesn’t necessarily explain Honda’s decision to follow this decidedly Gattica-esque aesthetic.
But not only is the e prototype a creative departure for Honda, it also appears to be a departure in marketing and positioning terms. “A low price is not always a guarantee of success, “the programme’s project manager, Kohei Hitomi told Autocar this week, citing Apple’s electronic devices, which command high prices by dint of their slick design aesthetic. “We believe it is the same for the electric vehicle,” he asserted.
Perhaps, but is the car-buying public ready to pay a premium for a Honda badged EV, no matter however finely wrought? The plan is allegedly to build the production version in Japan (where Honda is increasingly retrenching towards, it seems), before going on sale both in the home market and ‘selected European markets’ later this year, with others ‘following later’.
However, despite the suggestion that the production model will give rise to a family of visually and technically related electric-drive models, the volumes Honda are suggesting makes it rather difficult to imagine what sort of return they are likely to expect.
Perhaps we expect too much. With so much invested in combustion engined formats and in Honda’s case, fuel cells, changing direction when customer preference remains so unquantifiable must be an extremely difficult (and from a boardroom perspective), potentially terrifying prospect.
Memories and reputations die hard, so despite the fact that Honda’s technical and creative heyday lies a good thirty years behind them, we perhaps still expect a lot from Hamamatsu. Which may go some way to explaining why the e prototype (as is) strikes this commentator as being on one hand, pleasingly unsullied yet on the other, slightly underwhelming.