Exclusive Interview: Honda Plots Its Green Car Roadmap
Despite its investment in hybrids, electric cars, fuel cell vehicles and the compressed natural gas Civic GX, Honda has earned a reputation for a string of green car missteps. The Accord Hybrid flopped; the redesigned Honda Insight didn’t go mainstream; and the Honda CR-Z coupe’s sporty-efficient combination was panned by auto critics.
Yet, the company is tenacious—taking a hard study of each shortcoming, and applying those lessons to new and improved green strategies. We spoke with William Walton, manager of product planning for Honda’s lineup of cars from Fit to Accord, to see if Honda might have finally set out on the right course.
1Mild Hybrids for Small Cars—at Right Price
Honda’s hybrid system has been criticized because it’s a mild form of gas-electric technology that uses electricity to assist the gas engine, rather than to power the wheels on its own. According to Walton, the ability of that same system—known as Integrated Motor Assist (IMA)—to significantly boost MPG at a relatively low cost makes it perfectly matched to small cars. “A lot of people are accepting of hybrids,” said Walton. “But do they put the money down when it’s time to purchase? That’s a whole another subject.”
Finding the right combination of cost and hybrid benefit is about applying the right kind of hybrid technology to the right vehicles and to a specific type of customer, according to Walton. He likes the three models in Honda’s current small hybrid portfolio: the Insight for the environmentalist; the Civic Hybrid for the more mainstream buyer; and the CR-Z for buyers looking for a sportier ride. “We’re not one size fits all. We have different characters for different types of consumers.” The Insight and CR-Z both start under $20,000.
2Plug-in Hybrids for Larger Cars
The mild hybrid technology is well suited to small cars, but won’t work for larger and heavier cars, so Honda had to develop an entirely new hybrid system that “will fill a void that we currently have,” said Walton. The larger hybrid system will first be made available in a plug-in format in 2012, and then could roll out as a conventional hybrid. “We want to see what happens with the plug-in vehicle architecture, and take learnings from that,” said Walton.
“We’ll have the architecture to be able to expand. It’s just a matter of scalability, how large and how much investment do we want to pump into it. There needs to be a clear value story for the customer.”
Honda is not talking about the platform for its first plug-in, but Walton provided a few hints. “It could be all new or it could be an existing vehicle. He pointed out that Honda created an all-new vehicle, the Honda FCX Clarity, for its fuel cell program whereas other manufacturers used existing vehicles. “I wouldn’t put it past Honda to do something out of the ordinary.”
3Honda Fit as EV, Not as Hybrid
While Honda is selling the Fit with a hybrid option in Japan and Europe, that will not be coming to the United States, according to Walton. The three current hybrid offerings already address the different customer segments. “We don’t see an area for the Fit to excel,” Walton said. “If we offered the Fit hybrid, it could be confusing to our customers.” (Walton said that the Fit makes sense in Japan, because the Insight is “priced more upstream” there.)
On the other hand, the Fit is perfect as an electric car. “In terms of battery packaging, the Fit hatchback is better suited to carry the larger battery sizes required to power an all-electric vehicle.” The Fit EV will be introduced in 2012.
440-MPG Gas Cars Are Not Really Competition for Hybrids
Walton acknowledged that he’s keeping tabs on the new wave of conventional gas-powered cars rated at 40-mpg on the highway. “The industry is only advertising the highway fuel economy,” he said, calling for more consumer education. “Unless you live on the highway, most people are spending time in some city or stop-and-go traffic. That’s where we separate from non-hybrid vehicles and hybrids is the city and highway rating.” Despite the hype, there are only three conventional hybrids that achieve greater than 40 MPG as an average of both highway and city driving. Two of the three are Honda cars—the Insight and Civic Hybrid. The other one is the 50-mpg Toyota Prius.
5More Dedicated Hybrids, But Not Sold with Green Messaging
“Our feeling is that you’ll start to see more and more vehicles only offered in hybrid form. New hybrids are on their way in,” Walton said, while refusing to comment on Honda’s future product plans. What did he mean?
He said that Honda has learned a lot from CR-Z customers, who buy the coupe because of its styling, not because it’s a hybrid. “We know that customers will buy hybrid vehicles if you deliver something that they’re looking for, not only for its fuel economy.” He said that’s how car companies will meet higher fuel economy ratings—by creating new hybrid-only vehicles that are appealing on multiple fronts, and just happen to be hybrids.