By on January 26, 2010

Honda’s half-hearted approach to hybrids is about to be shaken up, possibly leading to the development of a hybrid system that goes beyond Honda’s traditional integrated motor assist (IMA) system. Automotive News [sub] reports that Honda CEO, Takanobu Ito has told his Research and Development staff to develop a hybrid which beats the Toyota Prius in fuel economy. Or else. This development probably has something to do the failure of the Honda Insight (Prius sales in 2009 were 139,682. Insight sales for the same period: 20,572); as Honda Executive VP, John Mendel said “Are we happy with how sales are going? No, we’re not happy.” Mr Ito made it clear that Honda’s hybrid line up is a top priority. “We want to develop and expand our hybrids,” said Ito. “We made some major sacrifices to shift people and resources to do that.”

TTAC has reported on some of the problems plaguing Honda’s hybrids, especially the recently-announced CR-Z, which was designed to be a sporty hybrid aimed at enthusiasts, and can be had with a manual transmission. However, choosing the manual transmission results in a major drop in fuel economy, which kind of defies the point of having a hybrid. The manual transmission gives 31/37mpg. Whereas, the CVT gearbox gives 36/38mpg. To give some extra perspective, a Mini Cooper with a manual transmission, gets 28/37mpg without any hybrid trickery. In a world where Toyota’s reliability is being called into question and Honda’s fuel economy is now looking rather suspect, it’s clear that nothing stands still in the world of cars. And with Hyundai poised to bring its own hybrids to the US market, Honda will have to scramble to stay ahead.

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21 Comments on “Honda Fights Back For Hybrid Relevance...”


  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    Heck my friends 2009 black 4 door LT Cobalt XFE with a 2.2 liter 155 HP Ecotec is rated for 37 highway and in the real world going 75 MPH pulls over 40 all day long on the open road. It averages well over 30 in day to day driving too. And to think GM squandered this opportunity on the new Cruz with new gutless engines to pull good mileage when they aready have an engine that will already perform well.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Getting good mileage on the highway is easy; you can do it with gearing, parsimonious ECU programming and (mostly) aerodynamics. Hybrid-electric powertrains can help, too (note the Camry and Fusion hybrids versus their gas counterparts; both the hybrids get better highway mileage) but aren’t as beneficial.

      Getting good mileage in the city, or in stop-and-go, is much harder. That same Cobalt XFE will suffer badly in gridlock, while interstate queens like the Impala will return low teens. Forget small, blown engines: in the city, they’ll suck down fuel like their larger brethren.

      The Prius, on the other hand, will return about the same in the city as it does on the highway. So does the Insight, though it’s still less efficient than the Prius.

    • 0 avatar
      Aqua225

      psarjjinian:

      You and I believe Jim Moran, are both major downplayers of turbo + efi vs. gas/electric/battery hybrids. However, I do not believe you guys have all the facts. The reason I say this, is that the manufacturers appear to be definitely biased towards turbo + d-efi in upcoming products.

      I have three theories, and just like you, I can’t know for sure, but will bet its probably a combination of all three:

      (1) Efficiency lies in the capabilities of the software engineer, with respect to a hybrid. This means detecting lots of corner cases, and handling them correctly. But implementing lines and lines of code for corner cases can result in unintended operation of the drivetrain. Ie., bugs. And not just any bugs, but nasty one-off bugs, and in this realm, bugs can kill. Probably makes sw development for these vehicles a super-expensive nightmare.
      (2) Battery life is probably not as good as any of the manufacturers want. NiMH is tough, but it will deteriorate in function over time. Not only is this another corner case for the software, but this will cause range/performance to drop over time, sometimes predictably, sometimes unpredictably. Even if they move to the vaunted Lithium Ion battery chemistry, Lithium Ion is just as unpredictable, if not much worse, since they wear quicker and they also deteriorate over time, unrelated to even if the battery is used or not (spoilage).
      (3) Direct injection equipment is actually pretty old. Caterpillar & GE & EMD have been using electronic direct injection for years (plus a whole host of truck manufacturers), and the injectors have billions of road miles on them. Moving them over to gasoline engines reduces stress on the injectors since the fuel pressure is lower (by about 10:1 ratio from what I have read on deployed GDI systems). Turbo reliability has also increased dramatically since the 80′s, when turbos developed their bad reputation with the car driving public. Added to improvements in forging and casting technologies, and we should be building higher power density piston engines — I am truly surprised its taken us this long to get some these coming engine designs.

      Anyway, thought I’d drop my 2 cents as well…

    • 0 avatar
      Steven02

      psarhjinian,
      I think you missed the point. The highway mileage for the CR-Z is terrible. The city mileage is not good for a hybrid, especially as a manual. The Cobalt XFE is rated at 25/37. The Mini Cooper is 28/37.
      The CR-Z is bad for mileage and makes little sense.

      For what is it worth, I wouldn’t want a Prius on the highway in TX. Good mileage on the highway is easy, but the Prius is a dog at highway speeds. For people who want more than that, something like a Mini or a Cobalt XFE, manual Corolla, Civic etc makes much more sense. I just don’t drive in the city and a Prius wouldn’t do it for someone like me.

    • 0 avatar
      srogers

      The CR-Z hardly has “terrible” highway efficiency if it’s indeed 37 mpg. Compared to what?
      Secondly, as psarhjinian as said, the main advantage to a hybrid is in city efficiency, and anything that is 10%(manual trans.) better than a MINI (and uses regular gas) is very good in my opinion. As long as we don’t compare it to the Prius, it’s doing OK.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven02

      srogers,
      37 mpg highway for a very small car for highway usage is pretty bad. Essentially an old Cobalt with an old engine is able to achieve this with some minor tuning differences. Everyone knows that the city mileage for a hybrid is usually much better, but the highway mileage is still very disappointing for this car. I think it is having an identity crisis trying to be a sporty efficient hybrid.

  • avatar
    rnc

    Toyota is a much larger company than Honda, they (Honda) are building Hybrids primarily for the Japanese market where government programs encourage such, however the US is Honda’s largest market, where hybrids are still up in the air and sales are a much lower %. Honda focusing on hybrids over ICE/Transmission tech could end up costing them a great deal in the future. Toyota can afford to develop both in parallal, can Honda (the answer seems to be no, yes they were profitable last year, but look at everything they cut out of the pipeline to stay that way). If Ford brings the 3 cyl. EB engine to market (it is in testing now), along with dual clutch, it will provide the same mileage as current hybrids w/o the added cost/weight of batteries, electric motor and regen brakes (and actually be fun to drive, something that Honda’s used to be). It really looks like they’ve (Honda) lost the direction. As has been said over and over again, they made it with econo boxes that had something special and that special was thier drivetrains, not anymore.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      If Ford brings the 3 cyl. EB engine to market (it is in testing now), along with dual clutch, it will provide the same mileage as current hybrids w/o the added cost/weight of batteries, electric motor and regen brakes (and actually be fun to drive, something that Honda’s used to be).

      What you are describing is something not a lot less complex, and certainly more stressed mechanically, than a hybrid. Turbocharging is not exactly magic: it takes more complex timing, a bunch of plumbing, much higher compression, the turbo itself. On top of this you’re adding relatively-untested direct-injection. Next. the dual-clutch transmission is also a mess of complexity: far moreso than the Prius’ eCVT. All in a car (the Fiesta) that is tiny.

      Never mind that Toyota’s hybrids are some of the most reliable and efficient cars on the road (remember, the Prius is a midsize car; there’s no diesel or turbo+DI gas car that comes close it it’s combination of efficiency and space; the Insight is no slouch here, either): turbochargers do not exactly have a storied history of reliability, whereas hybrids do.

      I don’t get this bias against hybrids as “too complex”, especially when the flipside of the coin (turbodiesels, direct injection, complex transmissions) are just as complex and costly as well.

    • 0 avatar
      rnc

      My point is that Honda has lost it’s direction and is chasing when they used to lead. My other point is that with what Honda used to be great at it is possible to achieve where they are going and that where they are going may/or may not be where the US market goes (which is by far the most important to them).

      Also didn’t recall trashing hybrids or calling them overly complex, used Ford’s 3EB/DCT as an example of what used to be expected (and delivered) from Honda.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven02

      psarhinian
      Direct injection is nothing new. It has been used for years with diesel, only recently with gasoline in cars. Actually, it is easier in cars because of less pressure. This isn’t exactly anything new and untested.

      Dual Clutch systems were placed in cars starting about 6 years ago, but I haven’t heard anything bad about them yet. Actually, I have only heard good things about them so far. Many manufactures are looking into the benefits of these systems and have plans to implement them.

      Turbos aren’t built like they were in the 80′s. They are much more reliable today.

  • avatar

    The engine is only part of the Insight’s problem. They were aiming for the lowest price and found out that the hybrid market (as of now anyway) is willing to pay more.

  • avatar
    jaje

    Here is where Honda can really do a great hybrid by doing a clean Diesel hybrid combo. Locomotives run on diesel serial hybrid drive trains not gas parallel and the rail road industry is much more mature in hybrid technology than cars.

    A diesel gets 30% better mpg than a gas engine overall. Add Hybrid technology to get another 25% better fuel economy and you have a world beating hybrid. Hell Honda doesn’t need to redesign their IMA just switch to diesels (and they have world class diesel engines in Europe). Just make the right transmission to work with these. Anyway – No one buys a hybrid for performance (at least yet). Honda’s bet in that realm has failed (Accord Hybrid).

    • 0 avatar
      TR4

      Making a diesel hybrid is much less advantageous than with gas. While the electric can step in and replace the gas engine in situations where the gas is inefficient (slow speed city) the diesel stays fairly efficient over a much wider range.

      Combine the diesel cost premium with the hybrid cost premium and consider the minor benefit and you’ve got a tough sale.

    • 0 avatar
      jaje

      I was considering this but with Honda’s IMA system that works just fine (just doesn’t deliver the full hybrid system Toyota uses). Pair that with a diesel and you should get hwy mileage of 60+ mpg and city of 50+ making it more efficient than a Prius but with a simpler (cheaper) hybrid system with a more efficient diesel engine (than the simpler cheaper gasoline version). As I researched the railroad industry – they very quickly got rid of all gasoline engines in favor of diesel (also the commercial industry has done away with gas powered heavy haulers in favor of more efficient diesel engines).

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Locomotives use diesel-electric power partly for efficiency, but also (mostly?) because it’s an easy way to deal with the torque locomotive engines produce; as a kind of electric transmission. I might be wrong about this.

      Comparatively, there’s not a lot of incentive for passenger car hybrid-electric diesels: the efficiency gain is low, and the added complexity and cost of both diesel and hybrid-electric power is prohibitive.

    • 0 avatar
      Aqua225

      The electric transmission in a locomotive is used to move the massive power of the diesel to the wheels reliably. I believe the typical thermal efficiency of a locomotive “electric transmission” is overall about 86% (ac induction motors for traction motors).

      Yes, a mechanical transmission can easily exceed this… but they generally don’t by much, if you read many of the magazines who follow the car modification market. Usually a car transmission is good for 10 to 15% power loss between the wheels and the flywheel. Which could put electric transmissions on par with mechanical transmissions… however I suspect we could beat the 86% mark in a car, simply because you can use things like permanent magnet alternators rather than controlled-field alternators like locomotives use.

      Additionally, a car’s tractive effort could be greatly improved from a standstill even with a relatively small engine. Most cars have oversized engines to provide a comfortable torque margine at the low end to get the car moving in a satisfying manner, since piston engines using internal combustion just don’t have much lowend torque (at least not compared to later on in the horsepower curve). With an electric transmission, the engine could rev immediately to its redline, producing maximum electricity, and the motor controllers could then move that power to the wheels (as much as the rubber can handle).

      Having a smaller engine means better fuel effiency at cruising speed as well as just puttering around town (or stuck in traffic as it were).

      To me, it seems like a win, but it’s definitely not cheap :) Your car becomes a poster child for copper, not exactly cheap currently. You could use aluminum wiring, but it will drop efficiency.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    Also consider that diesel engines cost more to maintian & repair. Actually a diesel in something like the Volt where it could run at a constant speed would make a lot of sense but you’ll never sell it to the US consumer.

  • avatar
    srogers

    I doubt that the diesels work as well with start/stop technology. They don’t like cold starts, and, with their high compression, take more cranking power to fire up.

    • 0 avatar
      jaje

      They may not like cold starts but once the engine is warm – it doesn’t matter how cold it is outside. Even with gas powered hybrids they don’t do the start/stop until the engine is up to operating temperature.

    • 0 avatar
      Aqua225

      Cranking power is a constant with the diesel, but cold start issues are largely a thing of the past due to electronic Direct FI. Supposedly many diesel only have glowplugs now for the most extreme environments, since the engine computer can dynamically alter the injection events.

      Ie., it can fire the injector at TDC to light off the engine where the compressed air is at its hottest, and then vary the timing to some other point as the engine warms up and the fuel can be injected before/after TDC for maximum power/fuel efficiency.

  • avatar
    jaje

    Or maybe Honda can just shelve hybrids all together and instead work on applying start stop systems to all their cars – this would make a significant difference in city mileage / stop and go. By making over 100 million gas powered cars & trucks more efficient for a lower cost – we’d all save much more gas than a million hybrids could ever do – not even considering the battery replacement requirements.


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