Honda at the Crossroads


An electric revolution is happening and Honda, though it is without Hybrids or EVs here currently, is hard at work reinventing them. We check out progress in Japan.

Words: Peter Louisson   |   Photos PL/Supplied
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Strange as it may seem, at present Honda has no hybrid fuel saver vehicle for sale locally and no EV either. The reality is that that situation may not change until 2019. Its only electrical ‘vehicles’ at present are the likes of Uni-Cub and Asimo, and they’re not for sale yet.

But the firm has environmental irons in the fire, plenty as it happens. And it has electrified direction, in the form of a 2030 goal that will see two-thirds of sales involving vehicles with a motor and battery. The exact type and scope aren’t yet known as that’s too far down the line, but Honda has partnered with Hitachi, instigating a joint venture company that will develop motors for electric vehicles.

It has also linked up with GM for future development of fuel cell vehicles, the companies announcing earlier this year that a new firm will be established to develop the next generation fuel cell technology as of 2020.

Instead of a battery, electricity is generated by a fuel cell which contains catalyst-coated plates. These trigger a chemical reaction that combines hydrogen and oxygen gases to produce water vapour at the tailpipe and electricity for the motor. Otherwise, it’s just like a battery EV.

Both GM and Honda have been building FEVs since before 2010, and have been cooperating on development since 2013. The new company will be based near Detroit, primarily supplying the US market. These propulsion systems are seen as particularly useful for larger vehicles because of their space efficiency; big battery packs required for heavier vehicles cut into load space.

The other advantage is extended range and rapid filling time. The main drawback is limited infrastructure. Currently there are less than 100 filling stations in the US, and a similar number in Japan but Honda is convinced of hydrogen’s long term viability as an alternative or adjunct to battery EVs.

Hachigo-San said that in Oceania the focus will be on hybrid vehicles, given BEVs require government subsidies to make fiscal sense

Meantime, outside of fuel cell EVs and a supercar, Honda has not produced an electrified four-wheeler since 2014. But it is set to restart soon, the company announcing that it intends to build a hybrid version of its second-generation Clarity fuel cell vehicle sold currently only in the US and Japan. NZ Autocar got a brief drive of a preproduction version the day before the show, and also of the fuel cell vehicle.

Clarity has a windswept shape with wheels partly enclosed, and styling is designed to appeal to US aesthetics. The luxury five-seater has a generous interior, with lounging room in the rear for three adult passengers.

Honda claims its battery EV version will be a “segment leader in size and comfort” while the fuel cell version is quick to refill (3 min to replenish its 141L tank) and has a 750km tank range. Powering it is a 130kW/300Nm motor supplied by a lithium-ion battery sustained by the hydrogen fuel cell.

The PHEV variant is seen as a low emissions, long range electrified vehicle. All three ride on a common platform that masters on interior space and comfort, and generous stowage. Its cabin is luxurious, leather clad, with pushbuttons instead of a shift lever.

The FCV’s take off is brisk without being ludicrously so, and it corners with a reasonable degree of confidence. Despite regenerative braking, the pedal feels surprisingly normal. Later we were taken for a hot lap in a stripper Clarity Racing vehicle with 250kg of weight removed, racey rubber fitted and stiffened suspension.

Our test driver offered a “please enjoy”, before letting rip around the oblong track. This felt quicker, though hardly a racer. Back at the mustering point, another Clarity had been plugged into a generator that was powering a coffee maker so we had a soothing cup of joe afterwards.

We also drove the two-motor plug-in hybrid which has increased battery capacity and an EV driving range of over 100km. This initially didn’t feel as quick as the FCV but sure got a move along when the 1.5L Atkinson cycle petrol engine kicked in to assist with acceleration.

System power is similar to that of the FCV, at 135kW and 315Nm.

Next day, at the Tokyo show, the company announced it will begin producing an electrified plug-in hybrid version of the current CR-V, and likely as not this will be the first of the next-generation hybrids we will see in New Zealand, probably launching in 2019. This comprises a two-motor system (Intelligent Multimode Drive) with a single fixed-gear ratio (no transmission).

There’s the possibility that that will be beaten to our market by some other hybrid, like the latest NSX, but what’s clear is that we will see a flurry of new electrified vehicle activity from Honda in the near future, and you can safely bet that most new future Honda product will have either a plug-in hybrid variant of the gas-powered car or a BEV example, or both.

It’s all part of Honda’s long term plan for reducing global emissions, and its overall goal of ‘expanding life’s potential and the joy of driving’.

For the company is rather diversified; it began building powered bicycles, and naturally grew into a motorcycle manufacturer, recently achieving the extraordinary by building the 100 millionth Honda Super Cub, a scooter that first went into production 60 years ago.

That makes it not only the longest selling Honda but also the best selling motorcycle ever. New 50cc and 110cc Super Cub models were unveiled at the show, with neo-retro styling harking back to the original 1958 model.

Honda expanded, like Suzuki, into car manufacture, and it builds a range of power products (mowers, generators, marine engines). It has also launched aeronautics division, its first private twin-engined business jet designed in Japan and built in the US.

The HondaJet uses Honda-developed engines, and is said to be more space- and fuel-efficient than its rivals. Just like its automobiles then! First deliveries began late 2015.

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As to electrified vehicles, currently Honda sells hybrids only in Japan; there have been no hybrids available for a couple of years in New Zealand since Civic, Jazz, CR-Z and Insight went out of production.

But that’s set to change in the not too distant future, and the shift to electrified vehicles will be dramatic. Honda has been and will continue to be in a transitional period, as is the industry, but an electrified future is slowly evolving in response to the dual threats of global warming and air pollution.

At the Tokyo show the CEO of Honda, Takahiro Hachigo, announced that a CR-V hybrid would launch in Japan next year, and so the goal of electrifying the majority of Honda’s products within 13 years is beginning.

Evidently Honda is aiming to hit its target early in Europe, by up to five years. If the demise of diesel as the fuel of choice gains pace, electrified vehicles will likely gain a foothold earlier there than in some other parts of the world.

Eventually, by 2030, when it reaches its target of two-thirds of sales being electrified, Honda expects that half of these will be plug-in hybrids, while 15 per cent will be pure or fuel cell EVs.

Pure EVs are set to supplement hybrid technology, and earlier this year Honda showed off its adorable four-seater Urban EV concept at the Frankfurt show, a big hit there.

This homage to the original 1973 Civic was on stage at Tokyo and sales of a city car based on the concept will begin in 2019 in Europe and 2020 in Japan. The Urban EV concept is shorter than a Jazz and likely the rear hinged doors, mirrorless exterior, bench front seat, and giant wrap-around oblong display will be replaced with more conventional items.

Honda CEO, Hachigo-san, said that in the Oceania region the focus will be on hybrid vehicles, given BEVs require government subsidies to make fiscal sense.

So it’s unlikely initially that we will get to see the production version of Urban EV concept, unless the new coalition government takes more positive steps and introduces an aggressive green initiative.

Honda has long championed the sports car and it could be that the first electrified vehicle into New Zealand after the recent hybrid hiatus is the ultra-exclusive second-generation NSX.

Expect a price tag for the ‘New Sports Experience’ to begin with a three, followed by nine, and then four other figures. Unlike the original out of Japan, this is designed and built in the States. It utilises a 3.5L bi-turbo V6, supplemented by three electric motors, two of which contribute to SH-AWD capability.

At the other end of the electrified sports car spectrum is Honda’s Sports EV Concept, sitting right alongside the Urban EV concept at the Tokyo Show. It too is a styling stunner, with retro influences.

There’s a hint of the timeless Miura in the front end of the Sports EV Concept, and a soupçon of Mustang. It features bulging fenders, an elongated bonnet, sloping roof, a lowered centre of gravity and wider tracks compared with the Urban EV, all part and parcel of the sports car design ethos.

No details of the mechanicals yet, other than that it shares the new EV chassis architecture with the Urban EV.

There’s no on sale date either, nor confirmation of production, but at an interview session after the show, Honda’s CEO lit up when a Kiwi asked about future sports cars from the company, and while not confirming it had been rubber stamped hinted that if enough people wanted it then “we would love to do it”.

It would also put Honda at the forefront of the EV sports car sector, something that is likely to find favour if the increasingly busy Formula E series gains traction.

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