Honda will dedicate its Yorii factory, north of Tokyo, to producing hybrid SUVs and minivans—instead of making clean diesel vehicles or micro-cars as previously announced. Nikkei is reporting that the Yorii factory will begin production in 2013. Specific models to be produced have not been announced.
In February, we reported that Honda is developing a hybrid system suitable for larger cars such as the Odyssey minivan and the Pilot sports utility vehicle. Tomohiko Kawanabe, Honda’s chief operating officer for automobile research and development, 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—a timeline that coincides with this week’s news about the Yorii factory.
Honda took an early lead in hybrid development about a decade ago, but has since fallen behind in the hybrid and electric vehicle race. The company had been following a two-part efficiency strategy: diesel engines for larger vehicles and hybrid powertrains for cars. However, it appears the carmaker is focusing its mid-term efforts on hybrids.
In April, Honda president Takanobu Ito, said the company had grown “complacent,” and specifically pointed to its poor performance with hybrids as a key sign of the problem. “Even before the green thing was big, they were into green,” Ed Kim, an industry analyst at AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin, California, told BusinessWeek. “Over the last few years, they’ve been completely leapfrogged in new engine technologies.”
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. 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 solely to charge the battery. The new system is also likely to employ lithium ion batteries instead of the nickel metal hydride technology currently in use. Honda reportedly will apply its new hybrid approach to a new minivan and unspecified Acura models.
Honda also been researching pure electric cars, but favors hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as a long-term strategy for zero-emissions vehicles.
The combination of relatively low gas prices, and a sluggish economy, have dampened hybrid sales in the U.S. in recent months. It’s a different story in Japan. Toyota’s Prius was the top-selling car in Japan in June for the 14th straight month—due to high gas taxes and generous consumer incentives for hybrids. In June, Toyota sold 31,876 Priuses in Japan, but only 10,988 in the United States.
There are currently no hybrid minivans available to U.S. consumers. Honda is apparently setting its targets for 2013: A high-mpg hybrid minivan; a sedan that beats the mileage of the Toyota Prius; and a hybrid minivan that delivers better MPG than the class-leading Ford Escape Hybrid. If Honda succeeds, it could re-establish its leadership role for fuel efficiency.