Honda's Low Carbon Hatch and Smart Home

SMART HOME: All part of Honda's plan to monitor and ease a family's whole carbon footprint and not just that of their car. The Honda city electric vehicle shown could easily be an electric Jazz or a plug-in hybrid.

Japanese car maker Honda has been developing conventional plug-in and fuel-cell electric vehicles (EVs) for years. However, as well as merely swapping petrol power for electricity, Honda has also looked at how the power for its EVs is generated in the first place.

To demonstrate this, the company has even built a proposed future home to show how electric power for every part of a typical family's needs can impose less and less of an agenda on its neighbours and on the national power grid.

On the grounds of its Twin Ring Motegi racing and test track northeast of Tokyo, Honda has built what it calls its Smart Home, which is all part of a residential and transport management system that powers and manages the energy of the home. It represents the most effective way to live within one's energy means that I have seen.

The Smart Home's roof, on the southern, most effective sun-catching side in Japan, is covered with solar panels that replace the usual silicon-based photovoltaic setup with a copper, indium, gallium and selenium material.

Honda says its photovoltaic layer is one-80th the thickness of a typical monocrystaline silicon version, and while its overall energy conversion efficiency is just a little less than that of silicon, it converts more wavelengths of light into electricity.

The advantage of this is an ability to operate in low sunlight and shade more efficiently than conventional systems. Thus winter conditions are less of a problem.

A computer-controlled system, called the Smart E-Mix Manager, helps direct current into or out of all the devices that need it, to the most efficient end.

The Smart Home also includes a natural-gas, propane or even petrol-powered "cogeneration system" that uses a single- cylinder engine to produce 1kW of electricity and up to 2.5kW of recoverable heat energy for hot water and home heating.

A 2kW-hour lead-acid battery is also used to store surplus energy, and charge the electric vehicle.

The Smart Home is still in development and Honda intends to add additional features and amenities to it, such as independent electricity production in the event of a natural disaster.

Honda already has a system that uses solar cells of about the expanse of a typical garage roof to charge its new all-electric Jazz.

The system stores energy sufficiently well so that the car can be fully charged by morning, and if during the day, the charger is full any extra energy can be put into the national grid system and/ or directed back into the household.

The Jazz could have been designed from the start to use electric power, with its fuel tank mounted under the front seats and creating huge expanses of storage and passenger volume when compared with other B-segment hatchbacks.

The Jazz EV swaps its petrol engine for a 92kW electric motor, while the fuel tank is replaced with a lithium-ion battery that Honda says will give a range of about 190 kilometres. A special onboard charger setup allows the Jazz to reach a full charge in about three hours from a 240v system.

Slowing down and braking helps charge the car too, through the same regeneration methods already used by other electric car makers.

The battery cells and electric power unit dovetail elegantly with the car as a whole, although the battery pack does eliminate the under-squab flexibility of the Jazz's famous "magic" rear seat.

Also, changes had to be made to the car's rear suspension to accommodate its new method of propulsion.

This is no bad thing, as instead of the petrol car's fairly ordinary torsion-beam setup, it uses a more sophisticated multi-link arrangement.

As a result, the EV car rides so much better than the stock Jazz, and displays the kind of crisp turn-in and well-sorted body control that the petrol car cannot.

It is remarkably good fun, with a level of steering feeling - and not just for an electric system - that amazed me the moment I took the car through its first test-track corner.

Using a three-mode drive system, as in the CR-Z hybrid, the Jazz's throttle pedal can be primed to imbue three distinct responses from the almost silent drivetrain.

Sport allows the Jazz EV to launch off the line as if there's no tomorrow, along with a tell-tale yelp of briefly spinning rubber.

Switched into Econ mode, it's as if you've gone into slow motion by mistake. It probably preserves the battery a tad, and it offers slightly better range, so you may need to commute in this mode.

However, my favourite drive setting was Normal, which is quick enough for the Jazz to stay ahead of traffic, while showing a less alarming depletion of energy resources on the car's dash display graphic than the Sport setting does.

I have driven a few electric vehicles now - ground-up designs as well as factory and home-converted petrol cars - and while you could say the Jazz EV is one of the latter, albeit in a corporate kind of way, it is simply the most fun and convincing car of this type I've had my hands on.

True, they will have to do something about the car's range, and I will miss those clever theatre-like fold-up rear-seat squabs, but, my word, the car feels so right in every other area.

It's not beyond imagining a Jazz EV like this living with its family unit, say 50km or less from work.

It would have little effect on the grid or your power bill, but would provide as much fun or more than a conventional car, plus a pleasingly smug feeling that you won't be getting from our fossil- fuelled machines.

We won't be able to buy the Jazz EV just yet.

In Japan and in California, Oregon and some yet to be finalised East Coast states, about 1100 examples of the Jazz EV, which is also known as the Fit EV, will be available on lease for about $NZ480 a month.

That sounds like a lot for a small car, but this isn't just a small car. It proves that using electric cars can be fun and that you don't necessarily need forests of wind vanes and several flooded valleys to cope with charging them.