Honda’s Hybrid Comeback: Hybrid Minivans and SUVs
Honda is developing a hybrid system suitable for larger cars such as the Odyssey minivan the Pilot sports utility vehicle. Tomohiko Kawanabe, Honda’s chief operating officer for automobile research and development, today told Reuters, “We’ve left the research stage and entered the field of development.” Kawanabe said these vehicles could hit the US market in about three years.
Honda took an early lead in hybrid development about a decade ago, but has fallen behind Toyota and Ford in the race for appealing fuel-efficient gas-electric vehicles. Honda has been advocating a two-part efficiency strategy: diesel vehicles for larger vehicles and hybrids for cars. However, it appears that the company might be flipping that strategy by producing larger hybrids for the US market and diesels with smaller engines for Europe and Asia.
In late 2008, the company abandoned its large-vehicle diesel strategy, but held firm to its goal of producing smaller relatively affordable hybrids. In July 2009, Honda president Takanobu Ito promised to speed up production of hybrid cars, focusing on small hybrids, such as the CR-Z and a Honda Fit Hybrid. Ito said, “Our theme is hybrids.” In January 2010, Ito said that it apply hybrid technology to Acura vehicles.
However, its biggest move in that direct, the 2010 Honda Insight, failed to capture interest from consumers. Last week, Honda Executive Vice President Koichi Kondo told Bloomberg that the 2010 Honda Insight might have compromised too much size in the name of efficiency, and hinted that the company might abandon plans for a gas-electric Fit. “There are plenty of people who think that the current Fit meets their needs already” Kondo said. “A hybrid version might seem expensive. Our engineers are really struggling.”
New Life for Honda Hybrids
In today’s interview with Reuters, Honda’s Kawanabe said the company is studying development of a small diesel engine for emerging markets including India, as well as in Europe. “If you want to compete in markets like India, and also Europe, (a small diesel engine) is necessary.”
Honda’s single motor hybrids are less expensive than gas-electric systems offered by Toyota and Ford, which are considered “full” hybrids. However, many observers believe that Honda will need to develop a full hybrid system, and eventually a plug-in hybrid, to be competitive.
The prospect of a full range of Honda hybrids, especially a Honda hybrid minivan, is expected to be well received by hybrid fans. Toyota’s recent quality problems could create an opportunity for Honda to become competitive with hybrids. If Honda can succeed, a new level playing field for hybrids could emerge, with Toyota, Ford, Honda, General Motors and Nissan going head-to-head with electric-drive vehicles.