Honda has always kept a front-facing image of being focused on efficiency. The automaker was the first to sell a hybrid in the United States—the original Insight two-seater, back in 1999. In recent years, however, hybrids have made up less than 1 percent of the company’s U.S. sales. When it comes to hybrids and plug-ins, Honda has a lot of catching up to do.
But Honda has big plans to address that. By 2030, the company aims to electrify 65 percent of its global fleet. Battery-electric vehicles will make up some of that, but hybrids and plug-in hybrids will play a major role in meeting the goal.
In a recent media panel, global president and CEO Takahiro Hachigo gave a few more details about how the automaker is going to reach that ambitious target, as well as its aim for 2050—to cut its total CO2 emissions to half of what they were in 2000.
After the reintroduction of the Honda Accord hybrid this past year, a trio of new Honda Clarity models is a start, showing how the automaker can cover the green-vehicle bases with three different powertrains: fuel cell, electric, and plug-in hybrid. However, this model, with its quirky styling, large-sedan packaging, and highish prices, still doesn’t directly take on mainstream green cars such as the Toyota Prius or the Hyundai Ioniq. The Clarity fits right in with what we said in reviewing the original Insight 17 years ago: “High-mileage cars are to the auto industry what art-house films are to movies.”
Look Out, Prius (Again)
What actually will make a play for mass appeal is a standalone Honda hybrid expected to be revealed at the Tokyo auto show later this year and slated to go on sale in 2018. The U.S.-built dedicated hybrid won’t be a variant of a mainstream entry like the Civic but a compact vehicle with its own sheetmetal.
Honda hasn’t yet disclosed whether the new model will be a passenger car or a light truck. With Toyota Prius sales down significantly versus several years ago despite a recent redesign, and with Hyundai Ioniq sales trailing those of the closely related Kia Niro, which has more upright crossover packaging, there may be an incentive for Honda to cast its dedicated hybrid as a crossover utility vehicle this time around.
Honda’s move toward greater electrification also will include new hybrid versions of existing models. Honda has announced that it will put the two-motor (i-MMD) system already employed in the Honda Accord hybrid (and soon Clarity plug-in hybrid), into a light-truck model—expected to be CR-V, with other models potentially to follow. One company official also recently confirmed the possibility of applying the three-motor hybrid system from the Acura MDX Sport Hybrid to the Honda Odyssey minivan. Such a move might broaden the Odyssey’s appeal, as the new variant would not only deliver better mileage but also offer all-wheel drive.
Long-Range EVs and Fuel Cells
The automaker is also investing in the development of longer-range electric vehicles—including one that will arrive in 2019 for the China market. That’s considered to be a developmental step on the way to another long-range Honda EV that is several years out. Hachigo said that Honda aims to keep motor and battery technology in-house—or in joint ventures, such as the one announced earlier this year with Hitachi Automotive.
“We are not trying to catch up with the others; we’re trying to achieve something very unique to us,” asserted Hachigo. Honda-developed fuel-cell systems, and Honda’s partnership to build them at higher volume with GM, will be still be an emphasis, especially with larger vehicles, and “the ultimate type of ZEV [zero-emission vehicle],” he said.
The CEO hinted that we might not see another project like the Clarity, with its dedicated platform, regional appeal, and relatively low-volume intent. Indeed, Honda will have to move beyond that strategy if it’s going to raise its profile in the green-car space.