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Honda Fit EV: Charging into the future

by: AMERICAN HONDA MOTOR COMPANY INC. - The 2013 Honda Fit EV is a gas - not a blast of electricity - to drive.The all-electric Honda Fit EV is a real car that never left us stranded during a full week of test driving. We never drove beyond its maximum range between charges, but never even came close while sticking to our normal driving habits.

The Fit EV, first introduced as a 2013 model, is one of several conventional gas-powered cars that are also being offered in all-electric versions. Others include the Chevy Spark EV, the Fiat 500e, Ford Focus Electric, and the SmartFortwo Electric Drive. All were first put on sale with small, fuel-efficient gas engines before being also converted into all-electric vehicles.

That's different than the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi iMEV, which are only offered as all-electric vehicles.

In the case of the Fit EV, the conversion approach resulted in one of the best all-electric vehicles. That is largely because the conventional Fit is one of the best economy cars for sale today. It is stylish on the outside, roomy on the inside, and fun to drive. The conversion increases the fun factor because the electric motor is more powerful than the original gas engine. The new battery pack mounted under the low gives it a lower center of gravity, making it handle better.

The results were immediately apparent in our test Fit EV. All of the torque in an electric motor comes on instantly. The one in the Fit EV produces 189 foot-pounds of torque, which makes it very quick off the line — at least when set in the normal and especially in the power mode. Like hybrid cars, the Eco mode reduces throttle response.

The Fit EV also has more rear seat leg room than the conventional Fit. That's because engineers moved the rear seats back to make room for the battery. Headroom wasn't affected, however, because the Fit is very tall for a compact. The rear seats no longer fold completely flat, but the big hatchback still makes loading and unloading with them down easy.

And, of course, the Fit EV gets even better mileage than a conventional Fit — an EPA estimated equivalent of 118 miles per gallon.

But there are trade-offs. One, of course, is range. A conventional Fit will go hundreds of miles between fill ups, and gas stations are easy to find. The EPA conservatively estimates the Fit EV will only go around 80 miles between full recharges, and the public recharging system is still problematic. That means the majority of drivers will do most of their recharging overnight at home.

We didn't find that to be a problem in a week of driving. Most of our driving was to and from work, a 32-mile round trip that left us with plenty of reserve battery power. We used some of that almost every night for dinner, shopping and sightseeing trips. We even drove a little more than usual over the weekend. But we were always sure to recharge it overnight.

Even though we only have a 110-watt outlet in the garage, that was almost always enough to boost the range over the EPA estimate. We usually left home with around 90 miles of range showing.

If the battery is all the way down, Honda says it will take around 15 hours to fully recharge it from a 110-watt outlet. If that were to happen very often, we'd definately want a 240-watt charging station at home. That cuts the time to around three hours. As it was, however, the 100-watt outlet worked just fine.

The funny things was, we almost always gained another 10 miles of range during the first phase of our commute. That's because much of it is downhill, where the regenerative brakes (like on a hybrid) charged the battery even more. Despite the EPA estimate, we usually saw 90 and even 100 miles of range showing on the dashboard during the early stages of our morning commute.

In fact, trying to figure out the actual range of the Fit EV was a little complicated. It fluctuated throughout most trips, rarely matching the actual miles ticking off on the odometer. Sometimes we gained range during a short trip. Other times, we didn't lose nearly as much as we actually drove. Once we picked up three miles of range while coasting down a freeway off ramp. Every so often the range fell more than the miles driven, but not very often.

Because we tested the Fit EV during a nice stretch of summer weather, we did not use the air conditioning much, which helped boost the range. We expect the range would fall faster in very cold and very hot weather, when the battery must also be used to heat or cool the interior of the car. Even the heated front seats that came in our test model would have drawn at least a little power from the battery.

As with any all-electric car, taking a trip beyond the driving range requires planning. We were disappointed to discover that several public charging stations didn't work — or at least wouldn't work with the Fit EV — during our week of testing. Online maps of charging station locations are available, but we can't guarantee them.

Cost is usually a big trade-off with electric cars. Because they are use such new technology and are produced in such limited numbers, they cost a lot more than equivalent conventional cars.

Honda has found a way around that problem, however. The Fit EV is currently only available for lease. And the $259 monthly payment (with zero down) is very reasonable, considering you never have to pay anything for gas. The lease also includes collision insurance and a coupon for a free Leviton in-home charging station. Oregon is one of the states where it is available.

The Fit EV only comes in one version, and it is fully loaded. A big plus is the standard navigation system and rear-view camera, two valuable options that sometimes have to be ordered as options on luxury cars. The cloth-only seats were comfortable and even included folding arm rests. The shiny alloy wheels and rear spoiler make it look sporty, too — especially when compared with the electric-only Leaf and iMEV, both of which are trying too hard to look different.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: Fit EV.

• Manufacturer: Honda.

• Class: Compact hatchback.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door car.

• Motor: AC Synchronous Permanent-Magnet Electric Motor (123 hp, 189 ft-lbs).

• EPA estimated range: 82 miles.

• Price: $259 monthly lease.