Honda has the highest average fleet mileage of any volume carmaker selling in the U.S. market today. And it's had that distinction for many years.
But in the face of the car-market meltdown, oil prices that have risen from $30 to $80 a barrel within months, and growing global environmental concerns, rules, and regulations, Honda has concluded it's not doing enough.
So the company is in the midst of rewriting its product plans, pushing harder and faster to make its new cars lighter, less thirsty, and more green--while keeping them nimble, clever, and fun to drive. It has already canceled a V8 engine and a line of larger, rear-wheel-drive cars.
Honda unveils 2009 Civic and Civic Hybrid
2010 Honda Insight - rear three-quarter
To many, the CR-Z will be seen as the spiritual successor to the original CR-X sports car
2010 Honda Fit Sport
Honda dropping the Accord Hybrid
2005 Honda Accord Hybrid
2010 Honda Odyssey
2009 Honda FCX Clarity
fcx clarity fuelcell motorauthority 006
2009 Honda FCX Clarity
Here's what Honda is planning, according to Automotive News:
Civic: Smaller, lighter, better
The next generation Honda Civic, which was well along in its development process, is being made smaller, lighter, and more fuel-efficient than originally planned.
It is likely to be no larger than the current 2010 Civic, and perhaps even smaller, reversing the "bracket creep" that has seen many nameplates get bigger, heavier, and more powerful with each redesign.
The Civic platform underlines many Hondas of different styles and shapes, including the 2010 CR-V crossover and the 2010 Element "boxy minivan".
The late redesign means that each of those vehicles could be delayed, pushing them off Honda's customary four- and five-year cycles. Honda is working to ensure that their replacements offer far better fuel economy, equal or better equipment levels, and more "perceived spaciousness" in those smaller packages.
More smaller hybrids ...
The first of three new small hybrids was the 2010 Honda Insight, launched in February, which will be joined next year by the 2011 Honda CR-Z hybrid two-seat sports coupe.
It's meant to succeed the fuel-efficient 1983-1991 Honda Civic CR-X, and will go on sale in Japan next February and in the U.S. next spring. It features a 1.5-liter gasoline engine, Honda's mild-hybrid Integrated Motor Assist system, and a six-speed manual gearbox.
Honda is also planning to launch a hybrid version of its 2010 Fit five-door subcompact hatchback.
... and hybrids in larger cars too
For several years now, the Civic has been the largest Honda with a hybrid powertrain. That's because Honda got burned on its last attempt to build a midsize hybrid, the 2005-2007 Honda Accord Hybrid.
That car pioneered a new category, the 'performance hybrid,' with electric motors tuned for acceleration rather than fuel economy paired with a powerful V6 engine. One notable review was titled, “Sips gas. Hauls ass.”
A fuel-efficient hot rod ?!?
But by 2005, "hybrid" meant "fuel economy" and high-performance hybrids turned out to be a niche so small that few buyers cared. After decent sales for 2005, volumes fell in 2006 as more hybrids focused on fuel efficiency entered the market.
Honda canceled the Accord Hybrid in June 2007, bidding adieu to a category that has only been revived by high-end entries like the 2010 Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid.
New system, twin motors
Nonetheless, Honda has returned to the drawing board with a new hybrid system for larger vehicles that uses two electric motors, rather than the single motor in the Integration Motor Assist system fitted to the 2010 Insight, all Civic Hybrid, and the upcoming CR-Z.
This means Honda is moving from its current "mild hybrid" system, which allows virtually no sustained electric range, toward a "full hybrid" system similar to Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, which allows up to a mile of electric-only travel at low speeds.
The new, larger system might also use a lithium-ion battery pack, which stores twice as much energy in the same volume as today's nickel-metal-hydride packs.
Hybrid minivan for 2011?
Last month, the Japanese business daily Nikkei reported that Honda plans to launch the system on a new minivan in 2011. If that's true, it might even be offered on the U.S.-market Odyssey minivan, scheduled for a redesign in the 2011 model year.
That would add hybrid technology in a niche that it has not so far penetrated: the family vehicle, or "people mover" category.
Honda has also reversed its longstanding opposition to pure electric vehicles, admitting that it might develop EVs for Asian, European, and North American markets. That's not to say it will, but that it might.
Still, industry observers note that numerous companies, among them Toyota, General Motors, Ford, and Nissan, are planning electric mini-cars or compact vehicles. It's widely expected that Honda will launch at least a limited number of electric mini-cars.
These cars are often exempt from various taxes and congestion charges in Europe and Japan, and it's a way to acquire knowledge before rolling out more comprehensive battery electric vehicle programs.
Hydrogen fuel cells continue
Finally, Honda will continue its development of vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells, including its FCX Clarity midsize sedan, in a few select areas where hydrogen fueling infrastructure exists.
The company has long believed that hydrogen is the fuel of the future, but as the industry trend turns more and more toward fueling vehicles from the electric grid, Honda is bringing electric vehicles up in prominence.
For Honda CEO Takanobu Ito to say that electric cars are now also a "core option for cars in the future" is a remarkable concession to the emerging reality. What happens to Honda's fuel-cell program now is anyone's guess.
Can they do it?
Can Honda shake up its products and make them even smaller, lighter, and greener without turning off customers who've acquired a taste for taut handling, clever features, and class-leading engines and transmissions?
It's a tall order, but some industry analysts consider Honda to be the world's smartest car company.
And while they're hardly the only one that's pushing hard for better fuel economy, their starting point is so green already that it makes us wonder: Should other companies be more worried than they are?