Honda Is Not Trying To Dethrone Toyota’s Hybrid Dominance

Honda, which started the modern hybrid segment in 1999, now possesses “world-class” hybrid technology but for those wondering when it means to assert its theoretical superiority in new Toyota-beating products, it’s still steady as she goes.

Today Honda has three up-and-coming hybrid technologies – in general terms, a 1-motor, 2-motor, and 3-motor system. These all outperform Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) still riding it out in some Civic-based models, and their capabilities actually could surpass present-generation U.S. hybrid sales leaders.

In other words, if Honda wanted to make a run toward the hybrid market end-zone, it could in theory do so if it fully applied its existing technology to new products.

As proof of that, in Japan, the 1-motor setup in the Fit Hybrid exceeds both the home-market Prius c (known there as the Aqua) and Prius Liftback in fuel economy and emissions. Also, here in the U.S. the new Accord Hybrid’s 2-motor system outperforms the Camry Hybrid and other competitors.

Even in the plug-in hybrid segment, Honda’s Accord PHEV tops all others in efficiency, but Honda has made that a limited market car to gather data for the future.

During an interview last week at the New York auto show with Honda spokesman Chris Martin, we noted as much, saying it does not seem like Honda is anxious to “dethrone” Toyota.

2014 Accord Hybrid.

2014 Accord Hybrid.

“Could we? I mean let’s think about it. Our goal has never been sales leadership,” Martin said. “We’ve never aimed to be number one in a segment. That’s not Honda’s goal, ever. Our goal is satisfy customers, retail leadership.”

By “retail leadership,” Martin said Honda focuses on one-at-a-time sales to individual consumers, and the Japanese automaker avoids inflating its numbers with fleet sales.

In contrast, he said, Toyota – whose Prius family and other hybrids comprise a sizable slice of the U.S. sales pie – adds in fleet sales to its retail numbers to come up with more impressive figures.

Martin said as a customer-centric company, Honda does not reach as far to make the absolute most sales it could, and its cars tend to retain their value because of this.

“If somebody goes to trade in [a Honda car] in three years, they don’t lose their shirt on it because we don’t do fleet sales,” Martin said. “You know, we don’t do heavy crazy cash on the hood discounts, so all the whole value of those cars goes down.”

But while Toyota has said its Prius is the number one seller in California, Honda in qualified terms says its Civic actually is.

“So, I would say we’re not aiming for number one in any segment on total sales because if you look at California for instance, where Toyota has claimed Prius is the best selling vehicle in California,” Martin said, “it’s not to individuals, because how many taxi cabs are there that are Priuses? The best selling car in California to individuals is the Honda Civic.”

So, we chimed in, Toyota adds in its fleet sales?

“They’re fleet sales,” Martin continued. “They add their fleet sales into their retail and so total sales, yes, the Prius is the best selling car in California, but that’s not Honda’s priority.

“So you ask us, ‘would we want to beat Toyota?’ I’m sure some people within Honda would tell you that would be absolutely great, but only if we’re doing it on retail sales.”

Steady As She Goes

Meanwhile Martin said, Honda has largely committed to its 2-motor system as found in the Accord.

The company has announced no plans to introduce to the U.S. the Fit Hybrid or small SUV Vezel Hybrid which use the 1-motor system. The Vezel – to be called the HR-V here – will only come to the U.S. at this point as a conventional gas-engined vehicle.

The 2-motor system does away with a conventional transmission and simulates a CVT with its direct drive motors.

The 2-motor system does away with a conventional transmission and simulates a CVT with its direct drive motors.

Honda in 1999 introduced the Insight, a car that has now been canceled due to low sales and a bit of redundancy within the IMA hybrid ranks.

From that same period onward, Toyota began to more successfully proliferate its Prius – a car that’s now in its third generation, and whose Hybrid Synergy Drive system is the basis for a host of Lexus and Toyota variants.

Martin said Honda’s bread and butter at this point comes from success in conventional vehicles.

“We had the number one car in America last year, the Accord, to actual individual buyers,” said Martin, “Number one compact car overall was Civic, and then of course that makes us the retail leader as well. Number one SUV, CRV retail. Odyssey number one minivan retail. Pilot was like number three, I think, but it’s an aging model.

“So those are really the four core vehicles in our lineup that are most of our sales.”


At Beijing this week, Honda is showing a “Concept B” which will offer a hybrid powertrain. It’s likely the 1-motor system, but Honda has not said.

But does this mean Honda is not concerned about hybrids? Absolutely not, said Martin. Just because the 1-motor system is off the table for now, and only Acura is getting the 3-motor system at this juncture, anything is possible in the future, he said.

And otherwise, the company that started the hybrid revolution, and now has the technology to reassert itself in a far more thoughgoing manner knows it, but is taking care not to tip its hand, and maintains a calm demeanor.

“There’s more coming,” said Martin. “So we will be applying it to more models, we just haven’t announced what.”