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.

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  • Anonymous

    According to Honda: “The Fit EV will achieve an estimated 100-mile driving range per charge using the US EPA LA4* city cycle (70 miles when applying EPA’s adjustment factor).
    Driving range can be maximized by use of an innovative 3-mode electric drive system, adapted from the 2011 Honda CR-Z sport hybrid.
    The system allows the driver to select between Econ, Normal, and Sport to instantly and seamlessly change the driving experience to maximize efficiency or improve acceleration.
    While in Econ mode, practical driving range can increase by as much as 17 percent, compared to driving in Normal mode, and up to 25 percent compared to driving in Sport mode.
    Acceleration improves significantly when in Sport mode, generating performance similar to a vehicle equipped with a 2.0-liter gasoline engine.”

  • greg

    Don’t dumb us down, Walton. Everybody knows Honda never should have made the 2nd gen Insight and should have made and imported a Fit hybrid long ago. Keep you current course and I will be buying my next car from Hyundai, Nissan, or Ford. And this is coming from someone who has bought Honda exclusively since the late 80’s!!!

  • Sean Solo

    greg, you are me. Also driven only Hondas since the 80’s and also not happy about the Insight. I would much prefer a Fit Hybrid and would not be “confused” if that were offered.

  • John K.

    Oh, please, oh, please, oh, please, let there be a Honda rep who reads the comments here….

    Please offer us a hybrid version of your Civic GX (CNG) car. CNG gets us off of foreign/OPEC oil IMMEDIATELY (and extremely cleanly). Hybrid tech, even just IMA, will make the GX even more efficient and cleaner. And be sure to have someone create a free Apple iPhone app which will show you all the public CNG filling stations near to you.

    Offer it first in CA since we’re waaay ahead of the rest of the nation in public CNG filling stations, and then as many more stations open in the next two years, slowly roll it out in other states.

    Unlike PHVs, CNG HVs make economic sense — for both manufacturers and car buyers — RIGHT NOW (at least in CA).

  • Indigo

    I don’t think a hybrid Fit would “confuse” Americans. It would, however, dilute hybrid sales at the B-car segment. After all, the Fit and the Insight already share many characteristics.

    As an Insight-II owner, I have to say that this is the car I always wanted. It’s small, it was inexpensive, it gets good gas mileage, it handles well, and I can squeeze a week’s worth of groceries into the hatchback area.

  • Indigo

    Greg: Actually, I think Honda was wise in creating a dedicated hybrid for America instead of the hybrid Fit. Why? Because in the USA, all the reviewers insist on comparing the hybrid variant of a car to the stripped-down base version that runs on gasoline, then screeching “See! Seeee!!! Hybrids cost $10,000 more than a regular car!” But they never compare the EX trim of anything to the hybrid variant.

    I like my Insight-II just fine.

  • Sean Solo

    Actually, my biggest issue with the Insight is the backseat and rear visibility. My current Civic is 13 years old and I’ve been researching newer cars. I haven’t test-driven the Insight yet, but I did sit in one in the showroom. Compared to my 98 Civic, I just felt like everything behind me was so obscured in the Insight. I’m 6 feet tall and my head hit the roof in the back seat and I certainly couldn’t use the headrests. Now I would rarely be in the backseat, but my wife is 5’11” and my dad is 6’3″, so they couldn’t use the backseat much either. I’ll have to admit, I am softening a bit on the Insight the more I read about it. I like the price, MPGs, and the USB iPod connection and cruise on the LX. My thinking is that if I got one I’d treat it like a two-seater. Hate that I’d be compromising though. I also sat in a Fit while I was there and just loved all the space inside. Frustrated. Just give me a couple more inches of headroom in the backseat and I’d probably be sold.

  • greg

    SeanSolo: In other words, just make it a Honda Fit Hybrid. Sold! 🙂 Indigo: I’m glad you like your Insight. But their not selling anywhere near what Honda had hoped. That should speak for itself.

  • greg

    What I would really like the most to see is a Fit HF. Should not be a problem for Honda to work it to get 40+ on the highway, without the hybrid price. A 6 speed manual would be nice also.

  • bruce

    I agree. Build an HF version of the Fit. I have a CRX HF now and I am looking for a replacement as it’s getting quite old. I don’t require the horsepower that car manufactures insist that Americans need, just good fuel economy. Give me a simple efficient car.

  • greg

    Right on, Bruce.

  • Frankiemionetto

    As an early adopter of the Honda Fit in June of 2006, I have been looking forward to the. Advent of the Hybrid Fit. Not a fan of the Insight, I may opt for the new Fiat 500.

  • Conrad

    Honda America, here’s an easy one. The 1.3L VTEC Fit in Japan gets 25% better city fuel economy for only 15% less usable torque vs the 1.5L (20% less horsepower, but who cares and redlines the engine anyways?). Now why can’t we have this in the U.S.?? If you’re not going to offer the 1.3L, the at the very least please gear the transmission for the 1.5L so we get better fuel economy!

  • jim1961

    I owned a 1995 Honda Civic HB CX. The fuel economy was great but the acceleration was abysmal. It was absolutely the slowest car I ever owned. I don’t expect top fuel dragster level performance but this was ridiculous. It was dangerously slow. I could not merge with highway traffic at the proper speed if the on-ramp were slightly up hill. I had always heard a lot of hype about Honda cars being so great. What a disappointment. I remember on a few occasions I would run into some young person (usually at the drive up window of a fast food restaurant) and the kid would excitedly say something like, “Hey dude, nice car!!” I would laugh on the inside. Sometimes I couldn’t help myself from laughing out loud. What a POS. I’ll never own another Honda again.

  • jim1961

    One more thing I’d like to add. A few months ago a friend of mine asked for my advice on buying a green car. I suggested a few different cars and one of them was the Honda Insight. A couple of weeks later she told me she had test-driven a Honda Insight. I asked her how she liked it. She told me she did not like it because it seemed too slow. This person was a 60-year-old woman. If it’s too slow for her then I guess Honda has not changed since they built the 1995 Civic HB I owned. I hate to sound like a huge troll but these are true stories.

  • Anonymous

    Jim, it all depends on your friend’s driving style. Not every little old lady drives like one. I read that a 90+ ‘young’ senior (IIRC) bought a yellow Camaro SS, and he enjoyed driving it. I also know a 60 year old lady who bought a sports car.

  • Linda, who drives an Insight I

    Jim, people who are not used to a CVT transmission (like the one found in the Insight-II) will drive according to engine sound, as they do in a traditional automatic — and that’s a mistake. People frequently do this on test drives, deeming the car too slow. My advice would be to send your friend back to the showroom to drive the car again, this time she should not be afraid to floor the pedal. The Insight-II has great pep when you engage the assist, and the CVT will take care of itself. See if she doesn’t like it a whole lot better when she stops listening to the engine but instead watches the speedometer. :¬)

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  • roger

    I too have enjoyed all these posts. My ‘Linda’ has a used 2005 Insight I with the CVT…and your right… need to pump it a little, and it goes just fine…but have to be careful if you want that 55mpg. Not quite so well in the winter as the engine just doesn’t shut down regularly at stops. With gas prices going to 4.00+ around western washington, sure would like to see Honda make their new Odessey with electric hybrid rear wheels and get us a decent awd model. Up here, just have to have that option in winter. Or perhaps a ‘stretch’ Insight II awd for 7 passengers… Don’t see American car companies on that road, but….hope springs eternal!

  • Richard Poor

    C,mon Honda,

    Build a rugged, pot hole navigating, salt defying, PHEV AWD for the NE USA CRV size is good.

  • Paul Adamson

    I tried on two occasions to buy a new Honda Insight in the 2004-2005 time range and the dealers here in South Florida absolutely refused to order or sell one to me. nuff said ?

  • Herb V

    My wife and I test drove the Insight 2010 model about a year ago. We felt the engine was noisy when starting up for extra power (as if motor was falling out of vehicle) and poor acceleration from 0-60 even for a hybrid. Seats were not comfortable and rear seating too tight. As for visability the back window tinting did not help and rear window pillars created big blind spots.

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