Takanobu Ito, Honda’s president, said last week that the company has grown “complacent,” and specifically pointed to its poor performance with hybrids as a key sign of the problem. To correct the situation, Ito is pushing his engineers to have the next-generation Honda Insight beat the Toyota Prius’s fuel economy numbers—and to deliver it as soon as possible.
“I’m not satisfied,” Ito told Automotive News. In the first quarter of 2010, Honda’s share of the US market fell to 10.1 percent—from 10.5 percent a year earlier.
In concept, the Honda Insight was intended to compete as a more affordable alternative to Toyota Prius. But the price of the Insight, typically in the low $20,000s, is not the much cheaper than a Prius—and the fuel economy is considerably lower. The Prius gets 51 mpg in the city and 48 on the highway, compared with the Insight’s 40/43. The copycat shape of the Insight added to the negative comparison with the Toyota Prius, which has outsold the Insight by about 5 to 1.
In addition to trying to beat the mileage of the Prius, Ito wants to roll out a new two-motor hybrid technical design—one motor employed to increase engine power and another to solely charge the battery. The new system is also likely to switch to lithium ion batteries from the nickel metal hydride technology currently in use. Honda will apply its new hybrid approach to a minivan and in Acura models. A rework of Honda’s hybrid system could potentially create a technology pathway to plug-in hybrids.
More Lessons to be Learned
Honda’s new and improved hybrids are not expected until about 2012. Meanwhile, the company will introduce the Honda CR-Z hybrid coupe this summer. Unfortunately, the small hybrid could be another case of neither-here-nor-there, at least according to Graham at Fifth Gear, the British television show. The CR-Z looks sporty enough, but at 122 horsepower, it’s “not blessed with red-blooded speed,” said Graham. At the same time, the fuel economy averaging at 37 mpg is only “reasonable” and “doesn’t sound that good next to a Prius.”
Yet, Honda engineers and designers should take heed to Fifth Gear’s positive feedback on features that could be applied to future hybrids. Graham calls the interior “mad and brilliant,” and praises the availability of a six-speed manual gearbox—a first for hybrids. Given the CR-Z’s moderate level of high-speed handling and cool interactive dashboard features, the reviewer said, “You can’t accuse it of being dull.” Pricing in the US for the CR-Z has not yet been announced.