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Honda to build Jazz hybrid

Fit for a king: Honda's new Jazz is yet to arrive, but will score hybrid power.

First petrol-electric light-car could record lowest-ever fuel economy and emissions

27 May 2008

GLOBAL Honda chief Takeo Fukui last week announced at his mid-year press conference in Tokyo that the Japanese company will build a hybrid version of its Jazz light car by 2015.

By that time, the company hopes, problems associated with the development of lighter and more efficient lithium-ion batteries will have been resolved, making smaller hybrid cars more viable.

A new and simplified petrol-electric hybrid drive system will be installed into the Jazz when the second-generation model, which has not yet been released in Australia, is replaced.

The Jazz will be Honda’s fourth hybrid model after the Civic (already in the market and due for replacement by 2012), a new dedicated small-car rival to the Toyota Prius to be released in early 2009 and a sporty coupe based on the CR-Z concept car that will go on sale in 2010.

No car-maker currently offers a hybrid in the light-car segment and most believe that it makes no sense because these cars are already so fuel-efficient, and because it is harder to absorb the extra cost associated with hybrid in cheaper cars.

However, as senior Honda executives told us in Europe recently, its ‘alternative drivetrain’ policy differs greatly from other car-makers.

While Toyota, General Motors and Chrysler are using hybrid drivelines in larger cars and SUVs to not only improve fuel economy but also performance, Honda has determined that hybrid is for small cars and diesel engines are for large vehicles.

15 center imageLeft: Honda FCX Clarity and CR-Z concepts.

The cut-off for Honda is the Civic – which, uniquely, will get both hybrid and diesel power.

Honda is pushing the green theme hard and clearly sees the Jazz (or Fit, as it is known in most other markets) Hybrid as an economy and low-emission leader.

“The Fit has great fuel efficiency to begin with, and if you put in a hybrid, it’s going to get even better,” Fukui said at the news conference.

“So, with crude oil prices going up this much, I think a Fit hybrid is now starting to make sense.” Next year’s hybrid small-car is expected to be based on the sleek FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that will be leased to about 200 selected customers over the next three years in the United States and Japan, with deliveries starting next month.

Honda Motor Co executive chief engineer Kenzo Suzuki told us in Austria three weeks ago that production of the 2009 hybrid car is scheduled for 200,000 units a year – four times that of the Civic Hybrid.

To meet this demand, Honda is expanding its Suzuka motor production facility in Japan with a new line that will increase capacity from 70,000 motors a year to 250,000 by the end of this year.

Mr Suzuki also said that it would be cheaper than the Civic, which already enjoys a $4410 price advantage over the Prius in Australia, so the new car could be the first hybrid with real volume potential.

He said that hybrid costs would be saved by reducing the use of rare metals, simplifying the total systems as well as the electronics, and through the additional volume lowering unit cost.

By the time the Jazz hybrid is released in 2015, Honda expects to be selling 500,000 hybrid-powered vehicles a year, but Toyota plans to be selling one million annually within the next few years.

Mr Fukui said that the price premium for the Jazz hybrid would have to be less than $2000 over the price of a petrol model.

Despite the lop-sided ‘battle’ between the Prius and Civic Hybrid, as well as the volume projections, Mr Fukui does not intend for Honda to play second fiddle to its Japanese rival.

“We’re not that interested in comparing ourselves with Toyota, but I don’t think we’re going to come in as second runner to them,” he said.

Although a number of car-makers are hopeful of having lithium-ion batteries to market as early as 2010, Mr Fukui confirmed that the industry has still to resolve some safety hurdles, let alone cost barriers.

Lithium-ion batteries have been responsible for the successful downsizing of laptop computers and mobile phones in recent years, as well as longer charge life, but they are prone to overheating and, in extreme cases, bursting into flames.

This would obviously be a more catastrophic event in the case of a car full of people than with a laptop or mobile phone.

As Mr Suzuki told us: “We need to work on the technology. The batteries need to be improved a lot.” Next year’s Honda hybrid small-car will rely on proven but heavier nickel-metal hydride batteries, as used on all existing hybrid vehicles around the world.

Like the FCX Clarity (and the Prius), it will have five doors and carry five people.

Read more:

Honda eyes 100K, and Acura

Honda's next Jazz in all its glory

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