Honda: Don't count conventional engines out

TOCHIGI, Japan - Honda Motor Co. Ltd. is investing heavily in fuel cell technology and hybrid powertrains, but the automaker's top executives believe the internal combustion engine has plenty of life left in it.

"We believe the internal combustion engine will power the auto industry for years to come," CEO Hiroyuki Yoshino said in a press introduction of the Civic Hybrid and Honda's latest fuel cell vehicle, the FCX-V4.

But Takeo Fukui, president of Honda R&D Co. Ltd., a traditional company steppingstone to the chairmanship of Honda Motor Co., said engine makers face challenges on many fronts.

"Worldwide population growth, global warming, increased energy use by the rising and developing nations and the developed countries: These are all factors that cannot be overlooked by the industry," he said.

"They assert themselves. They raise questions that need to be answered. That is why we put so much effort into the development of alternative fuel technologies and advanced power sources for mobility."

Yoshino, who has been at the helm of Honda since June 1998, has resisted calls to develop a V-8 for use in flagships such as the Acura RL luxury sedan and NSX sports car. They have fared badly at the hands of V-8-powered competitors.

The rationale has been that Honda V-6s offer the power of many V-8s without the weight or fuel-consumption penalties. But that resistance may be changing, Yoshino suggested.

"We are working on several engine options," he said. "We will not rule out a V-8."

To avoid the costly mistake that Toyota made with the U.S. launch of the T100, Honda will need a V-8 if it decides to enter the competitive pickup market in the United States, a segment Yoshino says Honda is considering.

Although Honda's immediate attention is focused on a smooth opening of its Alabama plant, trucks are on the company's long-range radar, Yoshino said.

"If you talk about the distant future, I cannot rule out the possibility," he said. "But in the foreseeable future, I can safely say no to that."

Fukui suggested that the development costs of hybrids needed to be brought down through technology to make the vehicles more competitive.

"The need for additional high-cost parts like batteries and an additional motor shows up in the vehicle's final bill," he said.

"We are experimenting with things like bigger capacitors, which store electric power without the disadvantages of normal batteries. And we now pay much attention to diesel engines as an alternative."

Automotive News Europe Correspondent Georg Auer contributed to this report

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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