NEXT VERSION: Test driving the 2013 Honda N-One kei car

We love it when automakers dip into their bag o’ heritage for a little inspiration. Such is the case with the Honda N-One kei car. It is, sadly, not sold outside Japan. Guest writer David Lovett, however, is in Japan, and was able to test drive one and report his findings. Enjoy. —Ben

The Honda N360 is a neat looking little car and that 36 horsepower, 360cc air-cooled inline-twin is so endearing that it’s hard not to love. At a paltry weight of just 475 kilograms (1045 lbs), the kei displacement motor moved the whole package along a pretty good clip too. In my eyes, it is one of the all time great 360cc kei jidosha, right up there with the Suzuki Fronte Coupe, Subaru R2 SS and Mitsubishi Minica Skipper

Honda has apparently been thinking the same thing, because they’ve been teasing us with comeback concepts for a while now (my favorite being the miniscule EV-N). All of those concepts eventually led to a design deemed fit for production and on the first of November, the brand new Honda N-One went on sale.

I couldn’t let this retro N360 slip by without a short test drive, so I cleared out my schedule for a few hours and made my way down to the local Honda dealer and kindly asked them if I could have the keys. They happily obliged in what was without a doubt, the best dealer experience I’ve ever had. We were given one smart key to the N-One you see here, which was a Premium 2WD model.

First impressions? God it’s cute. Only one thing bothered me about its looks, however,  and unfortunately it’s on the front. There’s a small gap between the hood and black grille that functions as an air intake. It feeds a large intake duct that runs to the intercooler for the 660cc turbocharged inline-three. The problem, though, is that it looks like the hood is popped all the time.

Other than that, I absolutely adore how this car looks. I adore the long wheelbase with wheels pushed to the corners. The brake lights are comprised of beautifully crafted square elemnts. Also, if you jab the brakes hard at a decent speed, the brake lights flicker to get the attention of the person behind you.

Once you crack open a door, you’re presented with a minimalistic interior very reminiscent of older cars. My favorite feature is the almost bench seat. It’s hard to capture in photos just how awesome this seat looks, but it really fits well and is extremely useful for your Showa girl to slide up under your arm.  A wide armrest between the two front seatbacks folds down and can be used by both driver and passenger without their elbows running into each other.

I was very surprised with how much room there was inside. This is a kei car that a full sized American can sit in and drive comfortably. What’s even more mental is that there’s the rear seats are equally spacious even with the front seats scooted all the way back. The salesman informed us this is because Honda decided to design the interior to fit four 95th percentile American males, or four dudes up to 190 centimeters (six feet one inch) tall.

The dash is kept simple and clean and the gauges are very easy to read. You can get your N-One with an infotainment screen in the dash. What’s really special about it is that you can then plug your cell phone into a USB port and use the screen to play music or even display your phone’s navigation program. Genius!

So, how does it drive?  The first thing you notice is the visibility. The seating position is quite high and so you can see quite far down the road (although I would prefer the seating position to be a bit lower). The windshield has great visibility and the A-pillars are surprisingly thin. Apparently Honda used special high-tensile strength steel to make them as thin as possible while still being strong enough in a crash. The car weighs in at around 900kg (1,985 lbs), nearly double the original N360’s mass, but the engineers have found a way to make it feel surprisingly light.

The engine in this model was the turbo version, but they also offer a naturally aspirated variant as well. Both engines are DOHC three-cylinders, with the turbo version making a kei-regulation-limited 64 horsepower and the N/A version making a slightly less 58 horses. Still, the turbo engine has plenty of torque to make the car feel quick. Push the pedal and the turbo gets into boost almost immediately. It accelerates better than most full-size one-liter cars on the market but is, unfortunately, only available with a CVT.

That’s a real shame because this car would be properly fun with a stick. For now though, we’ll just have to live with the paddle shifters behind the steering wheel and simulated gears, which don’t quite make up for the lack of a clutch pedal and the satisfying clunk of slotting into the next gear.

The steering is electrically assisted and after looking into the dense engine bay I can understand justification for putting the power steering on the column. It does a good enough job of emulating hydraulic assist but it’s not sensational by any stretch of the word. It is, however, solid and stable at speed and light enough at slow speeds to make parking a breeze.

That long wheelbase resulting from the tires being at the edges gives the car a very stable feeling when driving and more trunk space than your average kei car. To give a bit of reference, the wheelbase on this kei car is 2,520mm while the wheelbase on the much larger Toyota Corolla is just 2,600mm. Most kei cars have a shorter wheelbase and feel uncomfortable on the highway, but the N-One has the wheelbase and power to make it every bit as comfortable at 120kph (75mph) as a Corolla or Nissan Versa.

All in all, it’s an excellent car. Modern kei cars generally have a “built on the cheap” feel to them, but the N-One feels very well made. Perhaps that’s because the model I drove costs ¥1,400,000!  That’s a heart stopping $17,000 USD. Of course, we were driving the Premium model. The non-turbo 2WD G Model comes in at just ¥1,150,000. At the other end of the scale, the turbo 4WD Premium Tourer L Package model rings up at a staggering ¥1,791,950. I spec’d out the model I’d want and it came in at just ¥1,230,000, which is very affordable for a new car, especially one this good. For fun, try building your own N-One.

Without a doubt, if I was looking for a new automatic car that sips gas but still has the ability to make me smile, the N-One would be on my short list. A lot of Japanese consumers apparently feel the same way because they’ve been buying the N-One up faster than Honda can produce them. If you want the base G model, you’ll have to wait two months. If you want a nice two-tone Premium model like the one above, you’re looking at a 10-month wait!

So is it a worthy successor to the N360? I’d say a resounding yes if it was available with a manual transmission. The only ray of hope is that the salesman said Honda really wanted to make the car with a stick shift originally, so if we’re lucky they may be able to push a manual into the lineup later in the vehicle’s life. Until then, I’d rather put the money aside and hunt down an original N360 in good condition instead. You get the same gas sipping economy but in a smaller, lighter, and hugely entertaining package.


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26 Responses to NEXT VERSION: Test driving the 2013 Honda N-One kei car

  1. jivecom says:

    kei forever

  2. E-AT_me says:

    Honda.. if you’re listening, and i know you’re not, bring it over.. This is the car that you need in showrooms.. so cute i just wanna hug it!! hahaha.

  3. dankan says:

    I’m glad to hear that someone is finally making cars big enough for modern young Japanese people. They’re not all tiny anymore, but for some reason, Japanese companies (shoe companies especially) haven’t realized that. So, I’m happy to hear that there is now a kei car for my 6’2″ 230lb brother-in-law.

    And I would seriously love to have a kei car here in Ottawa, but on the other hand, between the morons in their oversized pick-ups and the transport trucks, it would probably be a bit of a bad decision to as a family car.

  4. hondaonly says:

    Car looks great minus a few things I noticed. The front lower grills fog lights and chrome look really cheap and tacky. Also I don’t like how the front grills are clearly split vertically down the middle for air flow. Also the rim package looks really bad to me. Cool car other than that and things you could easily change. I actually like the air gap under the hood.

  5. Toyotageek says:

    I like. I eagerly await the Tomica version! 😛

    • Nakazoto says:

      At the dealer they had legions of 1:12 models that were awesome looking, if not a little big. It never dawned on me to go searching for a Tomica version, though. I know what I’m doing this weekend, haha.
      Thanks for reading the article!


  6. vballin says:

    I would totally rock this over the xB or Cube

  7. Gib says:

    I’m not sure if I like the hood/grille gap (aka air intake) or not…I’d like to see it first hand. I’m also certain this car would struggle to sell in the USA without a little more size.

    Still, it’s very cool. I hope Honda keeps up this retro design direction – it would be very interesting to see an updated version of the 1300, as I think a modern version of that old front end could be breathtaking if done correctly.

  8. goki says:

    Another great article by David! Awesome job on covering just about everything on the car.

  9. Tyler says:

    What’s the fuel consumption like? Does Japan have a kind of EPA to give us numbers?

    If this were a stick I’d definitely want one. It would look nice lowered on some larger, wider wheels, with an air dam and rally lights out front.

    I wonder how much power you could squeeze out of that engine if you didn’t have to go by the kei car guidelines.

    • Nakazoto says:

      Japan uses JC-08 Mode for fuel consumption and emissions. I have no idea what that means or how they measure but they do give us some numbers on the N-One homepage for fuel consumption. The premium tourer model is rated at 20.8 km/l, which is 48 mpg. Pretty impressive, but what’s really amazing is the base G model. It’s rated at 27 km/l, which is a stunning 63 mpg! Here in Japan, gas is running at near 150 yen per liter, which is near 7 dollars a gallon. Fuel consumption like that is definitely a welcome thing.

      These little kei motors can actually produce quite a bit of power with a few modifications. Getting some of the older Kei pocket rockets like the Mira Avanzato or the Cappuccino up to 100 hp isn’t unheard of. I’d be worried about the CVT though if you upped the power too much on one of these N-Ones.

      Personally, I think the N-One would be absolutely epic with the engine from the brand new air cooled CB1100F swapped in. It’s not a huge amount of power at just over 100 hp, but you get less weight, wicked revs and a sequential gearbox (who needs reverse). Also, the air cooled engine would be an excellent throwback to the old N360s!


  10. Have you seen the N-one mugen version? i absolutely love it 😀

  11. Sideglide says:

    I agree with others. I would want to see the front grille gap in person. I suppose if I was knelt down, it bothers me, but from my eyeline, it might not be too bad.

    The Mugen model looks better but from what I’ve read, there are no performance benefits with the Mugen model. It’s strictly aesthetics.

    I truly see this car as a throw back to not just fun auto design, but also what made Japanese cars unique. Now we have cars that always look mean, dangerous, and “manly”. The N-one is playful, welcoming, and feminine, but not “girly”. I’m actually surprised that more companies haven’t put out a lighthearted auto in some time. The sales of the VW Beetle and the Mini (BMW) would seem to spur more manufacturers to follow suit. But they haven’t yet. IF this car ever does get introduced to the western markets (like the Chevy Spark from the Korean market), it could be the beginning of a game changer.

  12. thermos says:

    Useless cars like the smart fortwo sell in droves here, people would happily buy the N-One over a smart on Honda’s track record alone… nevermind the cool styling and awesome options.

  13. 79cord says:

    Needs plain & simple lower air vent & styled steel wheels!

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