Honda Recommits To Fun, Frugal PathBy Paul Seredynski December 10, 2011
The 2011 Tokyo Auto Show punched up its glitz factor this year, but the real pageant for major Japanese automaker Honda Motor Co. Ltd. took place the day before the show. Gathering the international press at its Twin Ring Motegi racetrack, Honda for some time under fire for losing its powertrain-engineering edge previewed a salon-seasons worth of advanced-drivetrain technologies. The well-choreographed demonstration acknowledged a Honda that may have strayed a bit, but one that is re-correcting with gusto. Via a sneak peak at a bevy of new technologies, the tech tour-de-force message was crystalline: Honda products will be fun again, while also providing class-leading efficiency. Though any fuel-economy verdicts will have to wait for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certifications, the sampling of new gasoline direct-injection engines, continuously variable transmissions, a new global diesel engine family, plug-in hybrids and EV offerings shows Honda is flat out on its Earth Dreams Technology course, with a stated goal of reducing emissions from its products 30 percent by the year 2020.
The tech jamboree was well-timed, with many wondering when and how the storied automaker will recover from recent natural disasters and a string of product missteps. Its been a very, very difficult year, Honda President and CEO Takanobu Ito acknowledged. And to be honest, I must say, Im afraid we have not really been able to keep up with all the changes that are happening in our environment surrounding us right now. Ito, who took over the reins at Honda in June 2009, noted that the technology demonstration was arranged to highlight Hondas progress. The first task that I thought I would need to do when I started out as president is provide advanced technology. We need to provide something ahead of the others, particularly in the areas of hybrid, battery and further enhancement of fuel cell. So in the very limited time so far, we have been preparing to do those things all at once.
Our day at Motegi certainly showed Honda has been busy on multiple fronts, though it will require actual production versions of the prototypes we previewed to know if Honda is getting some of that old magic back. With the rise of the Korean manufacturers and U.S. domestic makes rediscovering the small car, Honda is working in a much more crowded space. Frankly speaking, in the past the gap between Honda and our competitors has been quite substantial, explained Tetsuo Iwamura, president and chief executive officer of American Honda Motor Co. And because of the improvement of competitors, even as Honda has improved itself, the gap has been narrowed.
Though the product demonstrations at Motegi were the highlight of Hondas junket, they also displayed a host of concepts at the Tokyo Show that look a few more years down the road. These included the Clarity-profiled AC-X four-door plug-in concept, the EV-STER open-top sportster concept and an EV Micro Commuter Concept. For the production technologies demonstrated at Motegi, Honda gave no definitive launch timetables, but stated these advances are coming ASAP. The new powertrains will begin entering the market in 2012 and spread quickly throughout Hondas global lineup. Below is a sampling of the most notable technologies, and our early impressions garnered from the exceptionally brief test drives:
Fuel-Efficient Tech Barrage
Hondas day-long Earth Dreams Technology preview at its mountainous Motegi facility highlighted six aspects of its new fuel-efficient powertrain technology, any one of which might typically have warranted its own media unveiling. These included: an all-new 4-cylinder engine family featuring direct-injection fueling; new CVT transmissions; a new lightweight turbodiesel engine architecture; a new hybrid powertrain with plug-in applications; a new electric Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) drivetrain and the electric powertrain for the upcoming Fit EV.
Likely first to market in 2012 will be Hondas all-new, direct-injected, dual-overhead cam (DOHC) engine architecture. The new 4-cylinder mills will range from 660cc (crucial for Japans popular minicars) to 2.4-liters, with much of the same technology applied as well to the 3.5-liter V6. The new engines feature tighter bore spacing and thinner blocks and camshafts to reduce engine weight by 15 percent. Hondas proven variable valve timing and lift technology (VTEC) will be leveraged to allow fuel-saving Atkinson-cycle (longer-intake duration) operation during low-load conditions. Combined with obsessive friction reduction and new exhaust recirculation measures, plus idle-stop capabilities, the new engines are expected to boost efficiency up to 15 percent, while maximum torque improves 10 percent.
Coupled with the new 4-cylinders are new-generation CVTs, smaller and lighter versions of the transmissions noted for fuel-efficiency but decidedly not performance and refinement which Honda is optimistically labeling the fun CVT. The U.S. market should see two new CVTs for its compact and midsize platforms. Thanks to a new belt structure, the new trannies have a wider ratio spread, a new electronic oil pump improves compatibility with engine start-stop technology, and an improved hydraulic control system optimizes pulley control for better efficiency (with gains of 10-percent in midsize applications, Honda claims). Revised electronic controls (what Honda calls G-Design-Shift) for the trannies have been tweaked to quicken throttle response and improve acceleration.
Radical New Diesel
One of the most surprising powerplants displayed at the technical overview in Japan was Hondas new i-DTEC 1.6-liter 4-cylinder turbodiesel. An open-deck design using a compact turbocharger and 16:1 compression ratio, Honda claims its the worlds lightest diesel engine. The new mill will replace Hondas (not for U.S. sale) 2.2-liter turbodiesel, and engineers claim friction levels in the motor have been reduced to the level of a gasoline engine. Improved thermal management thanks to a new cooling system is said to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 15 percent.
We got a quick spin in an Acura TSX-equivalent (above) powered by this new diesel coupled to a 6-speed manual transmission. The engine is unlike any other diesel, gaining revs quickly, and feels like a growly and very torquey 4-cylinder gas engine with a low rev ceiling (5,000 rpm) and just a slightly heavy crankshaft. Noise, vibration and harshness levels were a little high compared with a production car, but there was plenty of torque (more than 220 lb.-ft.) and the prototype pulled as if it had far more than 1.6-liters under the hood. We found it interesting that the test mule was a U.S.-market Acura product at one time, Acura had pledged to differentiate its U.S. model lineup by implementing diesel engines. Regardless of Acuras potential intentions, Honda certainly could use an engine like this in the new-generation CR-V, but there was no timetable on U.S. sales for this global engine.
New Two-Motor Hybrid
Honda hasnt had much luck with hybrids in the U.S., but its new two-motor series hybrid may change that. We sampled a plug-in version of the new powertrain in an Accord sedan (above), and if mpg figures are as competitive as Honda claims, besting rival Toyota Motor Corp.s Camry Hybrid, this sedan will be a player for sure. The design uses a 6-kWh lithium-ion battery for 10-15 miles of full-EV range (at speeds up to 62 mph) before the Atkinson-cycle 2-liter DOHC 4-cylinder (from the new direct-injection family) kicks in. The hybrids drive motor is a new, 120-kW unit, and the hybrid Accord felt exceptionally polished and spritely. Three driving modes allow choices from full-EV to a freeway-friendly motor-connected setting. The Accord plug-in hybrid will begin production in 2012, with a conventional hybrid version coming in 2013.
Conceived with performance in mind, Hondas new electric Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) intends to provide the output of a V8 with 4-cylinder fuel efficiency. Weve heard that before, but the electric SH-AWD system may pull it off (Hondas conventional, non-electric-motor-based SH-AWD system is offered on Acura products in the U.S.). Rigged up in an Accord mule (above), the system features a front-mounted direct-injected 3.5-liter V6, coupled to an integrated 7-speed automated manual transmission/30-kW electric motor. Out back, two more 20-kW electric motors drive each rear wheel. A lithium-ion battery is mounted below the rear seat, and there is no mechanical connection between the front and rear wheels.
Our idle-stop capable Accord mule could step off in full-EV mode, while more aggressive throttle inputs get the V6 spinning. The genuinely clever part is that the rear electric motors can help the car get through corners more swiftly by selectively adding or subtracting torque at each rear wheel. Additionally, if the inside rear wheel is slowing to increase the yaw rate, that regenerative braking can create power sent to the outside rear wheel to help further aid cornering. Pushed through a series of slaloms, you could feel the added power from the electrically driven rear wheels help launch the prototype out of corners.
The Fit EV
When this new full-electric subcompact launches in limited numbers next summer, it may be the first EV to truly sway the masses towards all-electric conveyances. According to the Honda, the ultra-efficient Fit EV will net a 116-MPGe rating, compared to 99 MPGe for the Nissan Leaf, and 112 for the Mitsubishi i. Honda claims the juiced Fit will travel 123 miles on a charge, and recharge time for the 20-kWh lithium-ion battery is three hours on a 240-volt charger. The Fit EV uses a 92-kW coaxial motor that can produce 188 lb.-ft. of near-instant torque (the gasoline powered Fit produces 106 lb.-ft. at 4,800 rpm) and top speed is limited to 90 mph.
The Fit EV provides three driving modes. The range-extending Eco mode makes it feel like most other electric vehicles: quiet, with adequately deliberate acceleration. The normal mode drops range but really wakes the car up, and most folk will be more than happy to squirt around in this mode. The Sport mode turns the Fit EV into a downright zippy machine, and though some described its tire-smoking (while rolling) torque as dangerous, it made this author laugh out loud. Mind you, the Fit EV is no Tesla Roadster, but in its range-eating Sport mode its actually fun to drive. A special B mode on the transmission selector allows for much more aggressive regenerative braking, and combined with the Sport setting will likely alter most folks perceptions of electric cars as pure transportation devices.