Editorial: In Search of: Honda's Hybrids

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
editorial in search of hondas hybrids

Once upon a time, Honda represented everything that Detroit was not. Efficient, lean, reliable and most of all, innovative. While The Big Three soldiered-on with the same powertrains for decades on end, Honda constantly renewed, redesigned and released cars that genuinely improved their customer’s lives. Profits and widespread admiration followed… until the Honda hybrids came along. Then Honda, long regarded as the technology leader, got its ass kicked by Toyota. What happened?

The 1999 Insight was an absolute masterpiece of technology. Honda coupled a 70 hp. 1.0L engine (with an air fuel ratio of 25.8) to a 13 horsepower electric motor. It was ‘Wow!’ technology back in the Clinton Era. At only 1847 pounds, with a wind whispering 0.25 Cd, the Insight generated exceptionally high fuel economy numbers (70/61) for their customers. What customers? This was an especially difficult question to answer as the Insight was not ready for prime time.

The ‘Integrated Motor Assist’ technology wasn’t the problem. Simply put, the Honda was a niche vehicle. At the turn of the century, with gas at a buck a gallon, the high-tech fuel-miser niche that was so small that the Insight literally offered a zero carbon imprint on dealer’s lots.

Honda optimistically projected 6500 sales for for the model year 2000 Honda Insight. Dealers unloaded a measly 3805 units during the hybrid’s first full year of release. And that was the high water mark. Worse, the sales failure killed the Insight’s evolution. For seven full years, the model’s design and technology became stuck in neutral, with limited modifications. That was where the real tragedy for Honda took shape.

While Honda was initially content with having a long model run and a limited market, Toyota had other plans.

When the first generation compact Prius was released in Japan in 1997, Toyota’s Corolla had officially become the world’s best-selling vehicle. The Prius was designed as a hybrid-only model from Day One. Toyota fully redesigned the Prius in succeeding generations to accommodate the changing nuances of the hybrid buyer.

At first the Prius failed. It racked-up just 5562 U.S. sales in 2000. Even as gas prices rose, both Toyota and Honda were besieged with anti-hybrid issues and innuendos. Both companies had to deal with the financial fears associated with battery packs. Warranties were extended, and some customer assistance was offered.

But Toyota– not Honda– used adversity as a PR tool. Before long Toyota was highlighting battery failures in 56 degree below zero Arctic weather and proudly proclaiming that no other battery had ever needed to be replaced. It wasn’t factually correct (a.k.a. complete bullshit) but the story played well with the general public.

By 2003, Honda was putting the same technology in the Insight (with minor modifications) into the Honda Civic. They gave the conversion more torque, an extra 300cc’s of displacement and a bit more engine heft. Speaking of heft, at 2700 pounds, Honda’s CVT transmissions would now power a vehicle that was nearly 850 pounds heavier than the Insight.

It didn’t take long before Consumer Reports and a rash of owner review sights began to highlight the very expensive and frequent transmission work requireed to keep the Honda Civic hybrid on the road. After a few battles, Honda upped the transmission warranty to 100k and agreed to replace or modify components in the hopes of avoiding the inevitable. Unfortunately, with cases of third and fourth transmissions being replaced within 100k, the Civic Hybrid began to lose serious traction with the public.

While these Civics sat with their Taurus quality transmissions, the Prius was garnering reliability awards from J.D. Power, Consumer Reports, and was quickly becoming the de-facto poster child of a mass ‘hybrid’ market. Honda had abandoned a sheetmetal design projecting their hybrid model’s green, high-tech, Space Age credentials (albeit in a less-than-practical two-seater) for a mass market clone car. The Prius’ shape morphed in the exact opposite direction, from flat-line Echo cardiogram to an Insightful hybrid statement.

With gas prices in the upswing, the Prius’ aspiring hypermilers and the eco-conscious consumers were soon joined by those simply looking at the economic proposition of ownership. By 2005, with a second ground-up redesign, the Prius passed 100k annual sales, heading for over a million hybrids sold worldwide by 2007. In the same year, Honda would sputter-out only 32k Civic Hybridss, 3400 Accord Hybrids), and three of the now defunct Insight. Honda now had a full fledged failure on it’s hands.

Beneath the skin, much of Honda’s failure in the hybrid market can be traced to the same shortsightedness and bad customer support that’s afflicting the Detroit Big 3. The depressed valuations and bad owner reviews for the past Honda Hybrids will undoubtedly make the 2010 Honda Insight a far tougher sell.

Should Honda offer a stronger warranty on their new vehicles? Should they simply recall the defective transmissions and offer a longer warranty for current owners? It’s easy to say yes. But every automaker has to draw their own line is between taking care of the customer, and taking care of the bottom line.

As these pictures demonstrate, Honda is determined to take-on the Priora of the world with a kick-ass hybrid. That isn’t afraid to look like a knock-off of its direct, perhaps only competitor. Priced to go. With (one hopes) brand-faithful reliability. Even so, Honda will need to figure-out how to take on a rival who kept their product exclusively focused on a very unique and evolving customer. As Honda and The Bailout Big 3 are learning, the road to redemeption is long and perilous, with persistence, determination and humility providing the best chances of success.

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  • Ghillie Ghillie on Nov 13, 2008
    Steven Lang : November 12th, 2008 at 11:33 am Ghillie, you need to read my article again. My bad. Both Fred D. and Bytor refer to CVT problems with Insights - maybe that's what I was thinking of. Also Steven your post at 10.38 immediately following Fred D.'s does not correct him on this and what you say there does not confirm that CVT issues are confined to the Civic and do not afflict Insights. Anyway - I'm glad that that's cleared up. As for the intricacies of Honda's warranty response to BCM and battery problems, you obviously know much more than I do, so I'll keep out of that one other than to repeat that the experience of most people posting on Insight Central seems to be a good one. Despite it's faults (leaks around the driver's door seems to be a not uncommon problem) I think the Insight is one of the most amazing cars ever made. It's a light weight all-aluminum sports car. It's impractical only if you need more than two seats (like most sports cars) and it has more storage under the hatch than most sports cars. Most owners seem to get about 70mpg in the MT cars and don't have a problem with the handling. Those that do, find that swapping out the LRR OEM tires transforms its road manners for the loss of a few mpg. But mostly, it's just plain fun at road legal speeds - quick steering and light weight see to that. The Civic hybrid seems an inferior car to a Prius - it will be interesting to see how the new Insight stacks up.

  • Steven Lang Steven Lang on Nov 13, 2008

    Yep ghillie, I definitely agree with everything you've mentioned. The Insight is an exceptional vehicle. But related to the Insight, I think Honda's recall activities may be partially attributable to the fact that there is such a strong enthusiast foundation for that model and that it sold in such limited quantities. Most folks who look at hybrids are concerned about the 'economic proposition' of keeping them. In many cases, they are willing to even forgo a lower overall cost IF the product is generally reliable and the long-term maintenance expenses are reasonable. Buying a Prius instead of a Corolla these days would be the textbook example of that mentality. Unfortunately the Civic Hybrid failed in part because Honda chose not to stand behind their own product. A lot of folks have been saddled with bad CVT's, catalytic converters, and battery packs that end up costing far more than the typical engine or transmission repair. A company with the name, perceived quality, and commitment to innovation that Honda has should have performed far better when it came to taking care of their own customers. As much as I love many of Honda's products (I've owned everything from Acuras to Helixes) I think the parent company has really left the customer holding the bag when it comes to expense. Until that mentality changes, I wouldn't advise anyone buying a Honda hybrid until the costs of long term ownership become far more reasonable.

  • MaintenanceCosts Despite my hostile comments above I really can't wait to see a video of one of these at the strip. A production car running mid-eights is just bats. I just hope that at least one owner lets it happen, rather than offloading the car from the trailer straight into a helium-filled bag that goes into a dark secured warehouse until Barrett-Jackson 2056.
  • Schurkey Decades later, I'm still peeved that Honda failed to recall and repair the seat belts in my '80 Civic. Well-known issue with the retractors failing to retract.Honda cut a deal with the NHTSA at that time, to put a "lifetime warranty" on FUTURE seat belts, in return for not having to deal with the existing problems.Dirtbags all around. Customers screwed, corporation and Government moves on.
  • Bullnuke An acquaintance of mine 50+ years ago who was attending MIT (until General Hershey's folks sent him his "Greetings" letter) converted an Austin Mini from its staid 4 cylinder to an electric motored fuel cell vehicle. It was done as a project during his progression toward a Master Degree in Electrical Engineering. He told me it worked pretty well but wasn't something to use as a daily driver given the technology and availability of suitable components of the time. Fueling LH2 and LOX was somewhat problematic. Upon completion he removed his fuel cell and equipment and, for another project, reinstalled the 4 banger but reassembled it without mechanical fasteners using an experimental epoxy adhesive instead which, he said, worked much better and was a daily driver...for awhile. He went on to be an enlisted Reactor Operator on a submarine for a few years.
  • Ajla $100k is walking around money but this is almost certainly the last Dodge V8 vehicle and it's likely to be the most powerful factory-installed and warrantied pushrod engine ever. So there is some historical applicability to things even if you have an otherwise low opinion of the Challenger.And, like I said up thread, if you still hate it will be gone soon anyway.
  • Carlson Fan GM completely blew the marketing of the Volt. The commercials were terrible. You'd swear they told the advertising company to come up with an ad that would make sure no one went out and shopped a Volt after seeing it!...........LOL My buddy asked why I bought a car that only goes 40 miles on a charge? That pretty much sums up how confusing and uninformative the advertising was.