Some say the idea of a city car is getting a bit old. Cars don’t like modern cities and modern cities are happy to return the compliment. The main roads of Top Gear’s nearest urban centre are squeezed by bus and cycle lanes, and what space remains is a thrombosis of Uber Priuses. You have to pay a stiff charge for driving, and stiffer ones for parking. Think hard, because you might be better off on a two-wheeler.
Still, if you are driving, the best sort of car to shrug off all those impositions is a small electric one. The new Fiat 500 and Honda e both snick through narrow gaps and bag tight parking spots. They evade the toxicity and congestion charges and often get free parking while they’re plugged in. Bystanders regard them with a smile, as they’re largely noiseless and unpolluting, and their design enhances the townscape. Most of all, within the confines of a city and a ring-road, they’re riotous fun.
The pair of them do it in surprisingly different ways, though. Car spods tend to call the Honda retro, but no civilians have the slightest consciousness of the car that it’s supposed to be reprising. So really the e is modern, full stop. Whereas the Fiat does look to a continuous and well-loved visual heritage. They’re both skilfully drawn, but especially the Honda, because it is extremely hard to shape something so simple without any trace of naivete or clumsiness.
Honda might have used mid-century inspired cabin furniture, but to make things truly retro it would have had to install an entire bank of curved black-and-white CRTs like Apollo mission control. Instead it used six flatscreens, yet the layout is fairly straightforward and certain things you need rapidly in city driving, like the parking cameras, get actual switches. Meanwhile in the Fiat, the acreage of screens is lower but their usability just as good. Both interiors feel premium, despite some hard plastic, the Fiat’s a brown scratchy grained kind a Bravo owner would recognise, and the Honda’s shiny black stuff no different from a Ballade’s.
Beneath all that, the architecture of the two differs enough to have a pretty profound effect on the driving of them. The Honda is low, and rear-wheel drive. So its boot, with a motor under its floor, is glovebox-depth. Not a good car for a major dose of retail therapy. Around the front I expected, on opening the bonnet, to find some kind of frunk. But no, it’s full under there of high-voltage electronics, in a space where the Fiat manages to fit both the electronics and the motor.
Broadly this is because the RWD Honda’s front wheels are further forward, so the front seats are also more forward, yet you sit lower with your legs straight ahead. It feels sporty in here. In the Fiat the FWD motor shoves the driver’s feet backward. You sit higher and more upright, more hunched over the wheel, and your hips are further back too so there’s less room in the rear seat. The rounded roof also robs head space from anyone in the back. In short, then: Honda for humans, Fiat for stuff.
And the human at the Honda’s wheel will be having the better time. It’s a car that just feels right from the get-go. Welcomed by a snug seat, legs and arms relaxed, you’re addressing steering and throttle and accelerator that react just-so to your intentions. The whole thing moves with you, slinky yet entirely stable. Pour it into a roundabout with all it’s got and the front tyres tell you they’re easing gently outwards. Lean on the whole of the torque and the rears join tidily in. It’s not fast, but it is nippy.
The tyres roll quietly down the surface, and the suspension rounds the sharp edges off urban and A-road brokenness. The whole assembly feels happy out on a dual carriageway too. But you just know what I’m going to say next. OK, I won’t. I’ll talk about range in a minute.
First, a town dance in the Fiat. It’s not so quick, but the difference between the two is small enough not to matter unless it’s greasy below, when the front-drive 500 is the more likely to have traction issues. But it doesn’t have the Honda’s sense of flow through urban chicanes – after a bit of lean and squeal, the 500’s ESP arrives to check things. And you might well have provoked it by doing too much steering, on account of the wheel being so light. The ride’s a bit jiggly too, the pitch and rock exaggerated by the fact that you’re sitting higher up.
But it’s not bad, not at all. Like the Honda, it’s quiet and progressive to accelerate. It’s ultra relaxing when urban congestion is driving you mad, and invigorating when a gap opens up.
And if the gap is from one city to another, the 500’s battery has you covered. It’ll do 160–170 miles on an English motorway, when you’ll do 70mph some of the time, but get held back by traffic or average-speed-limited roadworks the rest. London to Sheffield without plugging in, Manchester to Newcastle easily, Glasgow to Birmingham with a quick top-up stop. And you get all the advanced driver assists.
In suburban driving on a warm day, it’ll doubtless hit WLTP, as will the Honda. But the e is pegged at about 100 miles of motorway range. Oh, and you can’t go to zero in any EV (chargers are too far apart) nor rapid charge to 100 per cent (it slows after about 90 per cent). So a long motorway haul in the Honda means an hour’s charging for every hour’s driving. For many, that’s a deal-breaker.
The Fiat’s longer range makes it a true car as well as a smartly turned and quite enjoyable urban-transit module. But in many households, big journeys aren’t the small car’s job. It’s impossible to do more than 100 miles in and around a city in a day, and the Honda is the happiest and best tool to do them.
Photography: Jonny Fleetwood