Honda Hybrid May Be Called Insight; Set To Out Prius the Prius

By Michelle Krebs June 16, 2008

By Peter Nunn

Honda logo - 144.JPG TOKYO -- Surging gas prices, global warming and the need to go green make this absolutely the most perfect time for Honda to roll out an all-new, cutting-edge gas-electric hybrid. Honda's eagerly awaited, long overdue rival for the Toyota Prius is set to land in American driveways in the first half of 2009. 

Smaller than a Civic and with a unique five-door hatchback style, Honda's "New Dedicated Hybrid Vehicle" may well revive the Insight name when it goes on sale. Strong rumors in Tokyo also suggest that this "new Insight" will adapt and repackage the Civic Hybrid's IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) front-drive powertrain and first appear in public in concept form at this October's Paris Auto Salon, ahead of its full official launch at the Detroit auto show in January.


If there's a no-show at Paris, then Honda's new concept hybrid will certainly be shown at the Los Angeles Show in November.

New Math for Honda Hybrids

Honda first spoke publicly about this new fuel-sipping global hybrid in Tokyo back in summer 200. At that time, Honda President Takeo Fukui floated the idea of a yearly sales plan of 200,000 units, with North America projected to take half.

Things have moved on quite a bit since then. This May, Fukui outlined a more ambitious plan involving not one, but four new compact hybrids, coupled with a new hybrid target of 500,000 units a year by around 2015.

Honda will produce not only a new Civic Hybrid, but also a version of its small, slinky CR-Z Honda CR-Z concept - 260.JPG sports coupe concept seen at the 2007 Tokyo Show.

Add this dedicated 'new Insight' hatchback to the mix as well, plus a hybrid version of the next Fit, which may appear around 2013, and you have Honda's new hybrid quartet and that fresh half a million-unit target.

Some actually believe Honda is already being too conservative with these estimates based on the fact that the coming global hybrid may well turn out to be the coolest, most talked about, most gotta-have small green Honda in more than three decades.

A car that conceivably could do the unthinkable and out-Prius the Prius.

In which case, in $4 gallon America, sales of this small, super-efficient Japanese-built Honda hybrid could just skyrocket, and soon.

A Historic, High-Mileage Honda

Not since the days of the first, pivotal CVCC-engined Civic of 1973 will Honda have had such a mainstream, marketable eco champion on the blocks. The car's design and space are good, according to a source familiar with the project, borrowing a lot from the fresh, flowing design of the FCX Clarity, Honda's groundbreaking new fuel cell sedan that officially went into production Monday in Japan with much ceremony.

The hybrid's economy is also "insane" says this well-placed insider with a good-natured laugh, which suggests a rating well above today's Civic Hybrid which has an EPA-estimated city/highway rating of 40/45 mpg, the best of any 2008 Honda. 

So how insane, exactly? Well, Japanese sources predict a domestic fuel rating of
30 km/l, equal to 71 mpg in the U.S. Now, that's in Japan's 10.15-mode fuel cycle, which is now a bit old and quite often shows hybrids in an especially flattering light.

Some are talking about even more, as in 35 km/l (equal to 82 mpg), which is pretty much what the old Insight registered in Japan (although it was much less in the U.S.). A more realistic expectation for the U.S., then, would seem to be in the 50-55 mpg-plus range.

Affordably Priced

Another enticement would surely be sticker price. Honda's also let it be known that the price differential over a typical Fit-type model in same class will be just ¥200,000 or so (some $1,850, at the time of going to press). That's in Tokyo, at least.

Honda, it's believed, wants to start this "new Insight" off for under $19,000 in Japan, so well undercutting the Prius.

So, here's a "smart" new little Honda that'll be compact and affordable, combining stellar mileage with low emissions and a fresh hatchback design, and will come with a Honda badge on the hood. It's hard at this point to see exactly what could go wrong.

Well, maybe in-house competition from the Fit and Civic Hybrid coupled with the arrogance of certain Honda dealers who know how to charge top dollar for any hot new Honda. Those are two areas that could dent its chances. But surely, not for long. 

Regaining Honda Hybrid Leadership

Honda has certainly learned its lesson with hybrids. Even though it was the first into the 2006 Honda Insight - 264.JPG hybrid race in the U.S. with the tiny, two-seat Insight coupe, which bowed in December 1999, Honda has since had to sit back and watch, as have others, as Toyota's eaten up the market and the Prius has gone on to become the rock star of today's eco generation.

Worthy as they have been, the Civic and Accord hybrids just haven't caught on in the same way. Honda has at last woken up to one of the Prius' biggest strengths: that its unique styling tells the world at glance you're driving a high tech, ultra eco car. If you want to make an environmental statement, the Prius is still the hottest game in town.

With that revelation on board, Honda's thus crafted the design for an all new, five-passenger hatchback body which, we hear, also bears more than a passing resemblance to the Prius, from certain angles, certainly around the A-pillars.

This "new Insight" is reputed to stand some 3 inches longer than the latest Fit and about an inch wider, while being based off the same 98.4 inches wheelbase.   

Platform and architecture will be Fit-derived and power served by an updated version of the Civic Hybrid's 1.3-liter IMA powertrain, sources say.

Sticking With NiMH Batteries

What's certain is that Honda will site the car's compact nickel-hydride (NiMH) battery pack beneath the trunk floor, as opposed in the rear seat back as per today's Civic Hybrid sedan.

Honda still has major reservations about the viability of the more advanced style of high power, lightweight lithium-ion batteries for mass-production.

Honda will use Li-lo in the FCX Clarity fuel-cell car for the time being and nothing else. This means, Honda's near future hybrids won't get it. As Honda sees it, lithium-ion batteries still need to improve their safety/reliability until the company's fully convinced of their worth for mass-production.
Adding Value Through Simplicity

Honda also talks about "a major cost reduction" with the engineering of the new car, which sounds attractive. But what Honda's really talking about here is the ongoing process of making the key IMA hybrid components -- four-cylinder gas engine, electric motor, CVT transmission and battery pack -- all smaller and lighter, more tightly packaged while also using fewer parts.

Adding to the value equation is the fact that Honda's IMA system is simpler than Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system in the Prius. Honda's IMA is fundamentally set up for maximum economy and when driving, the gas engine is pretty much running all the while. Honda is apparently less bothered about having its hybrids run on pure, silent, zero emission, electric/battery power, something Toyota's trying actively now to extend.

Japanese sources suggest the new global hybrid will run with a modified version of the Civic Hybrid's 1.3-liter 3-Stage i-VTEC four-cylinder +IMA powertrain. With 94 horsepower, performance in the smaller body should still be promising, especially when the 15 kW-class electric motor engaged. Suspension will again be Civic-derived.

At a time when Toyota is planning to move the Prius up market, from 1.5 to 1.8 liters with the coming third generation, Honda's ploy of producing a smaller, lighter, cheaper 1.3-liter competitor for major world markets looks pretty astute.

Battle of the Hybrids
Toyota, of course, will respond by producing not one, but three versions of the next Prius, according to sources, including a smaller edition than now, which will hit directly on this new global Honda hybrid as the coming global wars heat up. 

Honda's new global hybrid will be built in the same Suzuka plant in Japan that made the courageous, wacky but ultimately unsuccessful Insight coupe, which Honda pulled from the market in 2006.
Honda, it's fair to say, hasn't really clicked yet on hybrids. But starting early in 2009, at coincidentally the same Detroit auto show at which the keenly awaited new Toyota Prius will go live, Honda will at last be fully in the game with this small, super competitive and ultra fuel-efficient "new Insight."
Still, even at 500,000 hybrid units a year, Honda will still be totally outpaced by Toyota which is forging ahead with an aggressive plan for selling 1 million hybrid units a year by the early 2010s.

Twenty years after the 1989 Detroit Show when Lexus and Infiniti came out and announced their intentions towards America's luxury market in no uncertain fashion, a completely different but no less intense, high stakes power game will unfold as Honda's "new Insight" and the next Prius go head-to-head under the lights at Detroit's Cobo Hall.
The green revolution will finally then have arrived.


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vc95 says: 7:09 PM, 06.16.08

Thanks for the excellent and informative blog...always exciting to hear the inside scoop.

I do disagree with one particular point that is made by the author. And that is that the reason why Honda's Hybrids have never caught on was their lack of "look at me" futuristic styling.

In my opinion, if I'm going to go green then I'm going to go green all the way and Honda's mild hybrid powertrain, always seemed like a weak alternative to Toyota's system. Ultimately, I suppose, cars with higher mpg's are actually greener no matter how they get there, but for my money, I will always prefer the gee-whiz science fair-effect of cruising without the internal combustion engine clouding up the issue.

Of course, I could be totally wrong on this issue (I assume Honda has done serious market research), but I guess time will tell.

hev_angel says: 9:22 PM, 06.23.08

I'm always sad when I see people use the marketing term "mild" to describe Honda's IMA. If that's mild, what do you call the Chevy Silverado? And now that the current generation of IMA runs on the battery at cruising speeds, what will you call it? Marketing didn't leave any room between "mild" and "full", did they?

There are more descriptive terms out there that don't ascribe "better" and "worse" to the methods, just point out the differences. "Better" for you might be "worse" for me. (Yes, I've owned both Toyota and Honda hybrids, so I can compare them first-hand.)


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