Tiny Honda reprises 60s pioneer

22:30, Nov 11 2012
The Honda N360 was a Japanese car pioneer held in great affection even 45 years on.
The original: The Honda N360 was a Japanese car pioneer held in great affection even 45 years on.
Honda N-One: Uses design cues from the 60s car to good effect.
Honda N-One: Uses design cues from the 60s car to good effect.
Honda N-One: Uses design cues from the 60s car to good effect.
Honda N-One Premium: The high spec model, with optional turbo and all-wheel-drive.
Honda N-One
Mini-like: As well as the N360, the N-One also has the look of the early BMC car.
Honda N-One
Spacious: For its size, the N-One has a lot of room.
Honda N-One.
Driving environment: The use of a dash-mounted shifter means the front floor area is usefully uncluttered.

Honda's first car was the N360, a front-wheel-drive single overhead cam parallel twin-cylinder engined minicar that was always praised for its crisp looks and surprising performance, despite having such a tiny engine.

Click photo at left for more views of the Honda N-One.

After 45 years, Honda has decided to use its distinctive shape as the theme for a range of city cars called the N-One, based on the company's N-series platform, which has already spawned a family of very small commercial vehicles.

The N360 went into production in March 1967 and used a power unit that was developed from the company's 450cc "Black Bomber" albeit with a simpler single cam set-up and a smaller bore and stroke, to enable it to fit in with Japan's "Kei" car regulations.

Despite having a swept volume of just 354cc, the engine still managed to produce a healthy 23KW which was the equivalent of about 90 brake horsepower per litre.

The "N" used in the N360 and the new N-One is for "norimono" which is "vehicle" in Japanese. The early N-series cars grew to 400 and 600cc versions as Honda wanted to market the car overseas and the original 360 model was seen as too small to cope, though from driving one in the 1970s, it was at least as fast as the 850 Leyland Mini and quicker in terms of acceleration.


The N600 ended production in 1972, in time to make way for the first Civic model.

There are enthusiast clubs in Japan that have helped preserve the likeable N360 and N600, and I know of at least one former Motor Corp and Honda employee who has a pair of them in New Zealand.

Not a company to ignore the possibility of connecting new vehicles with models from its history, Honda displayed concept city cars based on the simple airy styling of the first N360 at recent Tokyo motor shows to test public opinion.

The concepts were received with overwhelming positivity, not the least because the modern iteration of the "Kei-car" class is growing in popularity, thanks to burgeoning fuel prices, the quest for smaller and smaller carbon footprints and the need to occupy as little urban space as possible in Japan if you insist on having personal transportaion.

The Honda N-One was launched in Japan last Friday, and instead of using tiny twins like those employed by the old N360 and N600 the extra weight involved in providing modern crash safety equipment and the kind of home comforts we take for granted these days, like big sound systems and air conditioning means it has larger power units.

The N360 weighed just 508kg in the 60s, while the N-One tips the scales at 840kg.

The latest compact of "Kei-car" regulations allow engines up to 660cc and Honda offers the new N-One with naturally aspirated and turbocharged three-cylinder engines of that capacity. The car is also to offer all-wheel-drive and front-drive versions of the car.

US pundits are already lamenting that the car is probably too small for North America, but Honda will be looking very closely at the European markets, where cars in the sub 100g/km CO2 emissions bracket are allowed in city centres without paying daily congestion charges of NZ$20 day. Official emissions figures for the N-One haven't been published yet, but its combined economy rating of 3.7L/100km suggest it will fit such regulations perfectly.

The N-One uses the same engine and powertrain as Honda's slightly taller and heavier N Box models with a continuously variable transmission sending engine power (42.5kW in the standard car and 48kW for the turbo model) to the front or all four wheels, the 4x4 option being for the turbocharged engine only.

At just 3385mm long, the N-One is nearly 80mm shorter over all than a Fiat 500, though at 2520mm its wheelbase is longer.

The Honda N-One is developed under the aegis of Honda's M/M system which translate to: "man maximum, machine minimum."

Thus, despite being so short overall, its long wheelbase allows the interior to seat four, with extra flexibility coming from the car's fold-flat Magic Seat system pioneered on the Jazz hatch and US Ridgeline ute models. The fuel tank is mounted under the floor in the centre of the car and as well as liberating such large volume of useable space, it keeps the car's centre of gravity relatively low too.

The N-One lineup includes a higher grade model called the N-One Premium, which features a higher-quality exterior and interior with special cabin and body colours and contrast tones for the car's roof.

On the safety side, the N-One offers equipment unheard of in Kei-cars of the past. There's an Emergency Stop Signal (ESS) system, which responds to sudden braking and quickly blinks hazard lamps automatically to alert the drivers of trailing vehicles. Also standard is VSA (Vehicle Stability Assist), an HSA (Hill Start Assist) system that temporarily prevents the vehicle from rolling backward when starting on an upward incline, side curtain airbags and what Honda calls its Pedestrian Injury Mitigation Body, which has structures that absorb the impact of a collision on a pedestrian's head and legs in case of a collision.

The car went on sale this week in Japan from NZ$16,000, and while that's too close to Jazz pricing for it to be landed here new, we'd expect the car to be high on the list of used imports in a year or so, as the public realises the benefits of smaller, cleaner motoring. Oh, and it does look so cute!