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Driving Honda’s Circa-1997 EV Plus Electric Hatchback

by Ron CoganMay 31, 2022
Modern electric vehicles emerged in the 1990s with automakers and independents all in the fray. One of the most high-profile efforts was Honda’s EV Plus.

There was a lot happening in the electric vehicle field during the early years of California’s new low-emission vehicle (LEV) program in the 1990s. This program, which required automakers to offer new model vehicles with increasingly lower emissions in successive years, was initially focused on internal combustion models. That is, until GM announced it would offer a production electric vehicle based on the Impact electric car prototype shown at the 1990 L.A. Auto Show. The realization that auto manufacturers could actually make production vehicles with ‘zero’ localized emissions set in motion a series of events. The most important of these was the addition of the ZEV – or zero emission vehicle – classification to California’s emissions program.

This didn’t apply only to GM, but seven of the largest marketers of vehicles in California. Required numbers were set based on a percentage of each automaker’s sales in the state, with financial penalties to be imposed if these numbers were not met. Understandably, there was a new urgency to electric vehicle development programs on the part of the affected auto manufacturers.

Honda EV Plus Innovations

The 1997 Honda EV Plus offered smart underhood packaging.

Prototypes were created, electric drive technologies explored, and electric demonstration vehicles were fielded to gain understanding of how best to meet consumers’ needs. One of the many early limited production electric vehicle models was Honda’s EV Plus, a study in innovative design. It's not that the stylish vehicle offered cutting-edge style – its evolutionary ties to the Civic hatchback were evident at the time, and Green Car Journal editors were reminded of BMW's circa-1991/1992 E1 and E2 electric concept vehicles. Rather, it was Honda’s overall approach with the EV Plus and its smart packaging from corner to corner that netted this automaker high grades in EV market savvy. That kind of achievement was not easy at a time when endless focus groups and gut hunches seemed to rule the EV development world.

Since the electric powertrain, large battery pack volume, and mass presented unique packaging requirements, the frame of the Honda EV was designed differently than that of a conventional vehicle, shared Ben Knight, then-vice president of Honda R&D at the time. The passenger cabin, with its raised flat floor, was above and completely separated from the single under-floor battery pack. While that’s a signature feature in most electric vehicles today, it was a notable innovation in the mid-1990s. Along with a roomy interior devoid of battery placement, this configuration provided the side benefit of a low center of gravity.

The Honda EV Plus used a liquid crystal instrument dispay shown.

An Electric That's Typically Honda

This EV's clever ground-up design offered a roomy and well-thought-out interior that typical of Honda models of the day. Standard equipment included dual airbags, automatic climate control, electric power-assist steering, a two-way remote communicator, and power windows, locks, and mirrors. It also featured a unique liquid crystal display instrument cluster with state-of-charge and miles-to-discharge shown in bars, and speed in large numerals.

The two-door, four-passenger hatchback had nearly identical height, length, and width dimensions as the Kia Sportage at the time, weighing in only about 300 pounds heavier than the Kia SUV even with the electric Honda’s sizable stash of batteries. Projector headlamps were used up front while high-mounted taillamps flanked the rear hatchback window of this Honda EV. A charger inlet was located on the passenger side fender ahead of the door.

EV Plus Range Was 125 Miles

Packaging beneath the hood was color-coordinated and top-notch. Knight pointed out that seven components were combined here including the electric car’s management ECU, motor ECU, power drive unit, DC to DC converter and inverter, and an onboard charger. The motor and batteries shared a liquid central cooling system.

Green Car Journal editors who road tested the Honda EV found it to offer reasonable performance for the era along with satisfying ride and handling. Its 49kW brushless DC motor, powered by 24 12-volt Ovonic nickel-metal-hydride battery modules, achieved 0-60 mph acceleration in about 18 seconds. While that kind of acceleration seems glacial by today’s standards, at the time it was pretty much standard fare for most early electric vehicles. Driving range was estimated at 125 miles based on the U.S. Federal Urban Driving Schedule, to full battery discharge and without air conditioning. Top speed was an electronically-governed 80 mph.

Ovonic nickel-metal-hydride battery packk used in the 1997 Honda EV Plus.

The 1997 Honda EV Plus represented the next logical step in electric vehicle market development for this automaker. Honda had been evaluating prototype CUV-4 electric vehicles with utility partners Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric for a year and a half prior to the EV Plus launch, and also evaluating the vehicle's use as an airport rental car with National Rental Car in Sacramento.

An EV for Consumers and Fleets

Knight told GCJ that very early in the program, Honda studied the potential size of the EV market and who potential customers might be, looking at both consumer and fleet markets. This brought about a stark reality: While fleets offered the best chance for early EV placement and were on the minds of all automakers developing electric vehicles at the time, the fleet market was too limited to guarantee a model's success. So Honda geared up for both, with a plan to lease the vehicles to both consumers and fleets in a turnkey program that was fairly inclusive, with roadside assistance and battery maintenance included.

Side view of 1997 Honda EV Plus electric car.

Honda's limited 1997 EV rollout of the EV Plus was more of an extensive demonstration program than an actual new model launch. The aim was to work toward meeting the requirements of California’s ZEV mandate while evaluating the vehicles' advanced NiMH batteries, infrastructure issues, and customer acceptance. Dealers initially leased and serviced Honda's EV Plus in Southern California and Sacramento. The EV Plus was delivered to initial lessees in spring 1997, with some 300 Honda EVs planned to be in service over the next several years. This early movement in the electric vehicle field set the stage for Honda’s focus on electrification in the years to come.