Honda MC-ß

Honda is less an automaker, it has been said, and more of a motor company that builds vehicles into which to put its engines. That sort of perspective goes a long way towards explaining the mind-boggling diversity of the company's product lineup. The Japanese industrial giant makes lawnmowers, marine engines, robots... even jet aircraft. It's also one of only a handful of companies that makes both cars and motorbikes. We recently had the chance to sample something that falls in between.

It's called MC-β – shorthand for Micro Commuter Beta, which already tells you it's Honda's second stab at the formula. The first Micro Commuter prototype was announced a year prior and, though marginally larger, struck us as a more complete product than its successor. But it'll likely still be a while before the formula is perfected and put into production, and even then it isn't likely to find its way any time soon to Honda's American showrooms – whether those showrooms are selling cars, bikes or ride-on mowers.

Driving Notes
  • The MC-β is designed to meet Europe's L7 heavy quadricycle regulations, while testing the waters for a similar framework proposed by Japan's transport ministry that'd be even smaller than the pint-size Kei cars that already dominate the streets of Tokyo.
  • At 98 inches long, 50 inches wide and 60 inches tall, it's marginally bigger than the Renault Twizy, an electric commuter that Honda obviously benchmarked for this project. To put its size into context more relevant to American drivers, it's about the same height as a Smart ForTwo, but measures 7.7 inches shorter from bow to stern and nearly a foot narrower than a vehicle we scarcely thought could get any smaller. Or to put it another way, it's a third shorter in length than the latest Mini Cooper and a foot and a half narrower, yet it stands five inches taller. In short, it's tiny.
  • Honda set up a makeshift autocross course at its R&D center in Tochigi for us to see how the MC-β handles. Which is just as well, because with a 43-mile-per-hour top speed, the banked track on which we sampled the Civic Type R would hardly have been the place to wring the MC-β's neck. (It also makes its 0-60 time rather irrelevant, since the MC-β can't actually get up to 60 mph.)
  • Juice comes from a lithium-ion battery pack that's said to take less than three hours to charge from a 200-volt plug, under seven hours on 100 volts, and will go 50 miles between charges. That powers an electric motor that's tuned to deliver 6 kW (about 8 horsepower). It could be retuned to produce as much as 11 kW (~15 hp), but that'd still be significantly less than the 15-kW (20-hp) maximum allowed by the aforementioned L7 regulations in Europe. As it is, the system gives the MC-β about as much oomph as a 150cc scooter – only with the benefit (or liability) of a car's frame around you.
  • Only it's not quite a car frame. The MC-β's pipe architecture is derived from Honda's motorcycle division, not from its automotive unit. And it doesn't have much in the way of doors to speak of, either. Like the Twizy, the MC-β has what would barely qualify in a Western saloon as half doors. There are no side windows, either, which has both its benefits and drawbacks: It saves weight, of course, and obviates the need for climate control in all but the most extreme of temperatures. Of course, it doesn't offer much protection from the elements, either. (For its part, Renault ended up offering optional windows on the Twizy to address that problem.) There's a second seat in the back which (on the previous version at least) could be swapped out for a pair of child-size seats.
  • Climbing in – or rather sliding over and onto the front seat – the part we like best about the MC-β is the central driving position that makes it almost feel like a formula racecar. Almost: the seating position is much higher, and of course there's much less power on tap than you'd find even in a Formula Vee racer. But then, the MC-β isn't designed for racing. The immediate response and rear-drive layout make the MC-β feel nimble enough, but more in a golf-cart sense than we'd equate to any roadgoing car we've ever driven.
  • Given the MC-β's small form, Honda's decision to forgo power steering seems logical enough. What's left is a rather heavy steering wheel (particularly at low speeds) that's entirely manageable, but demands a firm grip rather than a finger to turn. But with no gears to shift or place to rest your arm, you drive with both hands on the wheel regardless.
  • The high central seating position does make it easy to place between the cones, much as it would be for obstacles on the street. But without much bolstering to speak of in the seat, we really had to hold on in the corners for fear of flying out the window as the standard seatbelt struggled to keep us in place. (The flat seat undoubtedly helps with ingress and egress, though.) The driving experience felt like we were seated atop a couple of cases of beer strapped to a skateboard: despite its tall frame and narrow track, the vehicle's low center of gravity keeps the wheels on the ground, but leaves the driver teetering on top.
  • A performance vehicle this is not, and we doubt this will be the last prototype Honda tries before putting such a commuter vehicle into production. But if there's any company with the diversity of experience to make it work, surely it's Honda.
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