Honda's N-One retro minicar - image: Honda Motor CoEnlarge Photo
Americans tend to do a lot of driving on the Interstate at speeds of 60-70 mph (or in some places, considerably higher), and this is where the N One's practicality for Stateside (or even European use) starts to fall apart. Its rather quick-ratio steering, while on the light side, feels well-weighted, but by the time we reached 120 km/h (75 mph) it felt somewhat darty on center, there was a faint shimmy from the front end, and engine noise became a serious issue (we couldn't imagine cruising for even 10 miles this way). That said, it could accelerate from 50 to 70 mph with unexpected ease and confidence, and this little car felt frisky and eager at city speeds.
Driving the N One felt perfectly normal, except for the narrow cabin. The seating position in front wasn't nearly as mushed-forward and van-like as we expected, and a middle beltline along the dash houses all the important controls for climate and audio.
While a number of small-car enthusiasts have already rallied for the N One here in the U.S., we can't imagine the automaker ever bringing it to the U.S. in its current form—in part, because of its narrowness, but also because of safety. While the N One might be a very safe vehicle in Japan, when we asked an engineer point-blank if this model passes U.S. regulations, he shook his head without hesitation and pointed to the side pillars and roof.
Barriers for U.S. sale: safety and fuel-efficiency
An American Honda representative put it this way: Honda generally aims for no-compromises top safety ratings in every category for cars it sells in the U.S. And since it wasn't originally engineered for the U.S., the N family (including the N Box) might pass regulations for Stateside sales but wouldn't meet those company expectations.
The other issue would be fuel-efficiency. While kei cars might get quite good gas mileage at low speeds, they tend to suck fuel at surprisingly fast rates at American highway speeds—so a car like the N One might not prove to be much more efficient than a Fit on U.S. roads.
Meanwhile, the Japanese auto industry is having trouble making money from kei cars. The combination of shrinking auto sales, and decreasing interest from the younger generation in kei cars (they want larger cars, or not at all) is putting a pinch on a market that once flourished.
Next time? We think a retro-Civic design along the lines of the N One—a little wider and longer, and perhaps a little less boxy—would be an American small-car bullseye.