By Andrew Ganz
Tuesday, Nov 27th, 2012 @ 11:45 am
 

Cute is more than just an adjective in Japan, a culture where citizens take most things - like building cars - pretty darn seriously. Yet every once in a while, worlds collide and a Japanese automaker builds something so adorable that you can't help but grin when you see it.

Such was the case the first time the Leftlane staff saw the Honda N One, a cheeky, itty bitty "kei" car with a contagious smile.

So when we were offered a brief opportunity to ring an N One around the automaker's research and development center test track a few hours outside of Tokyo, we flashed our pearly whites and hopped aboard.

Kei movement

Japan's unique vehicle tax and insurance structure has long ensured the presence of a special class of cars generally not sold elsewhere - kei cars. A far cry from those reliant Chryslers of yore, the Japanese kei car class is restricted to 660 cc, 63 horsepower motors and a maximum footprint set at 134.4 inches by 58.8 inches. The kei car class is big business in Japan, where these inexpensive (less than $15,000, which is not very costly in Japan) runabouts are sold by the gaggle. Japanese automakers have also eyed the Chinese market for potential kei car growth.

Despite their trim proportions, kei cars maximize interior space, a theme that translates remarkably well into larger Honda vehicles. Hop into a North American-specification Honda Civic or CR-V, for example, and you'll find arguably the best utilization of available space in the cars' classes.

The same is true with the N One, which has seatbelts - and genuine space - for four adults of North American build. Regardless of outboard seat, passengers will find excellent leg and head room, while the second row bench either folds flat against the floor or up to allow large items - like a flat screen TV box - to be loaded through the side doors. Pickups in the U.S. have a similar degree of rear bench flexibility, but the concept has generally not been applied to passenger cars here.

Looking the part

A well-designed interior is essential to any kei car's success, so the N One stands above the crowd by offering that aforementioned happy look and an accessory catalog directly inspired by BMW's MINI brand.

The N One's basic look is derived from the company's first kei car, the N360 (the N in the name comes from norimono, the Japanese word for "vehicle"), but only the Mickey Mouse-ear round headlamps serve as a visual connection since the look is thoroughly modern - and individual - otherwise.

The N Ones Honda had on hand for us to sample were of the garden variety, but buyers can deck their cars out in an almost impossible to fathom combination of add-ons ranging from upholstery choices to dashboard appliques to roof panels. In short, the N One is a mini-MINI of sorts.

Two models are on offer, both of which are mated exclusively to CVTs - manual transmissions are not popular in Japan. A naturally aspirated model puts out 57 horsepower, while opting for the turbo boosts that figure all the way to a sky-high 63 ponies. Since Northern Japan gets a lot of snow, both front and all-wheel-drive variants are available, but we concentrated our testing on the front-drive turbo.

Despite boasting the best power-to-weight ratio in the N One lineup, the little car is hardly a speed demon - in fact, pushing it above 65 mph on Honda's test track seemed like a travesty.

Driven at city speeds, however, the little runabout is as nimble as a go-kart and its CVT helps it make the most of the available low-end power for painless urban cruising. The ride quality is stellar, feeling more along the lines of a compact sedan.

After all, that's just what buyers in Japan's congested cities have sought for decades - and now they can go to a normally staid Honda dealer and pick up a kei car with a little spice.

Leftlane's bottom line

Does the N One make any sense for North America? Not as it stands, no. But we think Super Sized model made in the scale of the Honda Fit would be a riot - think of it as a Kia Soul with a brilliant interior.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.