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Honda e, Renault 5 and more retro-styled electric cars prove why the past is the key to the future

The Honda e is arguably one of the best looking EVs on the market, maybe because of its retro design.

Change can be hard to accept.

EVs brought freedom to car designers. No longer bound by traditional requirements of internal combustion engines after more than 100 years, designers have begun pushing the boundaries of what we typically expect to see.

Take the Jaguar I-Pace, the British brand’s electric crossover. For its entire history, the leaping cat brand has used a ‘cab rearward’ design philosophy; basically, a long bonnet with the glasshouse set further back for an athletic stance.

Jaguar even used this theory when designing its first SUVs, the F-Pace and E-Pace. But when given the freedom to break from the norms of a petrol-powered car, Jaguar designed the ‘cab forward’ I-Pace.

A better example of this design freedom is BMW and its all-electric i3 city car. Aside from the BMW badge there’s almost nothing about the design – inside and out – that connects it to the rest of the Bavarian brand’s range.

Both these models, while important technologically, aren’t what many would call ‘pretty’ or ‘attractive’ though.

There’s comfort in the familiar, which is why the latest trend in the future of EVs is the past. A retro-meets-futuristic design philosophy has begun to spread across the car industry in a bid to attract buyers to zero-emissions motoring.

Here are some examples of this new trend that could shape what we see on the road over the next decade.

Honda e

The Japanese brand can’t claim credit for retro design, but it was the first car company to use it for an EV. Revealed at the 2017 Frankfurt motor show as the Urban EV Concept, it drew a clear design link to the first-generation Civic.

And it was a hit.

People loved the combination of its electric powertrain housed inside a modern interpretation of a classic hatchback. Instead of being shaped in a wind tunnel, the Honda e has the same boxy look and dual round headlights as the 1973 Civic.

Unfortunately, it has been ruled out for Australia by Honda’s local operations, but that’s in large part thanks to its popularity in the Japanese and European markets where it has been warmly received for its combination of retro charm and modern technology.

Mini Electric

The British brand arguably can claim credit for starting the retro trend in car design, and now it has taken things to the next level with an electric version of its funky small car.

In many ways the shortcomings of the BMW i3 are responsible for the Mini Electric, as BMW discovered that consumers are happy to embrace electrification but like the look of contemporary cars.

Already on sale in Australia and priced from $54,800 (plus on-road costs) the three-door Mini is powered by a 135kW electric motor with 32.6kWh lithium-ion batteries for a claimed range of 233km.

Renault 5

Having seen the success of both Honda and Mini, Renault has decided to get in on the retro EV action with a new battery-powered hatch inspired by its 1970s small car.

Renault CEO Luca de Meo admitted that the reborn 5 has been a relatively late addition to the French brand’s new EV offensive, that will see seven electric models launched by 2025, but he said the company needed a hero model.

Like Honda and Mini, Renault has turned to the past for its future hero, but the company’s design director, Gilles Vidal, believes the new 5 concept has everything modern EV buyers are looking for.

“The design of the Renault 5 Prototype is based on the R5, cult model of our heritage,” Mr Vidal said. “This prototype simply embodies modernity, a vehicle relevant to its time: urban, electric, attractive.”

Hyundai Ioniq 5

The South Korean brand laid the foundations for its new Ioniq brand with a rather conventional-looking small car. But for its next new model, the one that will shape its future, it has turned to the past – specifically the 1974 Pony Coupe.

Set to be called the Ioniq 5, Hyundai is yet to reveal the production version of this electric crossover but give us a clear preview with the 45 Concept. The company even called it a “retro-futuristic fastback”, as it takes elements from the Italdesign ‘74 Pony Coupe and turns it into a modern electric SUV that will fit between the Kona and Tucson.

Further proof that if EVs are to make a bigger impression they need designs that appeal to buyers - even if that means looking back in time.