Honda's 'toy box' of technology
3-year rollout seeks industry leadership in fuel economy
UTSUNOMIYA, Japan -- Honda Motor Co., fighting to restore its reputation for innovation, is poised to open a "toy box" of new technologies and products that will make it the industry leader in fuel efficiency, the company's top car engineer says.
The coming three-year blitz -- based on the company's new range of "Earth Dreams" engines, transmissions and hybrid systems -- will boost the average fuel economy of its fleet 10 percent, says Yasuhisa Arai, senior managing officer at Honda R&D Co.
"It's going to be like a bottomless toy box, pulling out something new one after another," Arai told Automotive News at Honda's global technical center north of Tokyo. He laid out the time frame for launching the technologies on several vehicles, starting with the redesigned Accord, which goes on sale this autumn.
"We've been in the top group for fuel efficiency for some time. And we want to break out of that group and lead the industry through the innovation of Earth Dreams," Arai said.
It remains to be seen, though, if Earth Dreams is truly revolutionary or just evolutionary. "The technology itself is almost identical to the similar direction of everyone else. Almost everyone has direct-injection engines these days," CFO Fumihiko Ike concedes.
The Earth Dreams suite of technologies, unveiled last November, represents the biggest overhaul of Honda's drivetrain since its introduction of VTEC variable-valve timing in the late 1980s.
The biggest step for Earth Dreams is the widespread application of direct injection across the company's gasoline engine lineup. Honda is a neophyte to this fuel-saving technology, having briefly employed it in only one nameplate with a gasoline engine.
Yasuhisa Arai, Honda R&D Co.: "We've been in the top group for fuel efficiency for some time. And we want to break out of that group and lead the industry."
Tougher at the top
The previous-generation Honda Stream, a Japan-market compact wagon, got the technology in 2004-06. Honda now wants to load it on nearly every car.
Honda needs the technology to keep pace with rivals such as Hyundai, Ford and Nissan, which are boosting fuel economy through greater use of direct injection, turbocharging, six-speed automatic transmissions and continuously variable transmissions.
A new hybrid system, also part of the Earth Dreams package, aims to steal customers from Toyota Motor Corp.'s extensive lineup of hybrids.
Honda's stated goal is to achieve "top-of-industry" fuel efficiency in every vehicle category in three years. But it's a fuzzy target with plenty of wiggle room.
Arai hedges his bets on the Fit small car by suggesting that it really sits in a category of its own because of its class-leading interior space. While he says becoming the clear leader in mid-sized sedans will be difficult, he sidesteps questions about how close Honda already is to top status in any segment.
Earth Dreams is part of a trend in branding powertrains. It follows the likes of Mazda Motor Corp.'s Skyactiv powertrain technologies and Ford Motor Co.'s EcoBoost lineup.
"In terms of engine technology, it's not such a big breakthrough," says Toru Hatano, a powertrain specialist at IHS Automotive in Tokyo. But the new drivetrains "are important for Honda to improve fuel economy, especially with that expected to be a key selling point for the next-generation Accord."
Hatano would have liked to see more improvement in continuous variable valve timing or downsizing to eke out further mpg gains.
Honda President Takanobu Ito says the technology is not as dramatically innovative as the CVCC engine, which met emissions standards without using a catalytic converter, or the VTEC project. But he says its impact on the company will be similar.
Arai says his mission was even wider in scope than those high-profile technological achievements.
"This is a very important building block for the next generation of vehicles," Arai says. "This is revolutionary in the sense that we are renovating many engine series in one go."
The Earth Dreams lineup includes four new gasoline engines with direct injection and double-overhead cams; a turbocharged diesel engine; three redesigned CVTs; and two new gasoline-electric hybrid powertrains for mid-sized cars.
Earth Dreams technology will debut in the United States in the 2.4- and 3.5-liter fuel-injected engines offered in the redesigned Accord sedan arriving this fall. That car also will get the Earth Dreams two-motor plug-in hybrid system in the winter.
The rest of the engines will be rolled out over the next three years as vehicles are redesigned or get a midcycle restyling.
Civic variable timing
One question is when the Civic will get an Earth Dreams upgrade.
Arai says Honda wants to put a new engine into the current-generation Civic, which debuted last year, but nothing has been decided. It's likely too late to add it this year, he says.
"That's one of the most important cars for us," Arai said. "If we tried to put it in this year, probably we would not make it in time. But we are in the process of preparing for it so that we will never, ever lose with this car."
Honda is also debating whether to equip future Civic hybrids with the new two-motor system that will debut this winter on the Accord, Arai said. The current Civic hybrid uses the motor-assist hybrid system seen in the Insight and CR-Z hybrids, which has received lackluster reviews.
The new hybrid technology arrives first this winter in a plug-in Accord to meet California emissions standards. It will be followed by a standard hybrid.
When combined with a V-6 engine, the plug-in will deliver V-8 power and four-cylinder fuel economy. The system can run in electric-only mode, electric-and-gasoline for passing and acceleration, or gasoline-only for highway cruising.
Cost is the main obstacle to carrying the system over to the Civic, Arai said.
The chief engineer downplayed the idea of equipping the Odyssey minivan with the two-motor hybrid system, saying the Odyssey likely would be too heavy to be a candidate for the technology.
The nonhybrid versions of the Accord still are expected to outsell by far the electrified version, Arai said. The nonhybrids will get better fuel economy through the new engines and CVTs.
The 2.4-liter Accord is expected to be offered only with a CVT, while the 3.5-liter version comes with a stepped-gear automatic transmission for more immediate throttle response. The Accord coupe will offer a manual or automatic with the 3.5 liter, and a CVT only for the 2.4 liter.
The Accord hybrid system will be teamed with a 2.0-liter engine and a lithium ion battery.
Another first for Honda will be the use of a dual-clutch transmission in the new all-wheel-drive hybrid drivetrain earmarked for the Acura RLX and NSX.
The so-called Sport Hybrid SH-AWD -- short for Super Handling All-Wheel Drive -- system uses one motor in the powerplant, plus electric motors at both rear wheels to deliver independent torque for tighter cornering. The powerplant will be teamed with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, which Arai said was chosen over a traditional automatic for its sportier performance.
One other toy from Honda: an overhauled integrated motor assist, or stop-start, hybrid system for the next-generation Fit small car scheduled to arrive next year.
Diesel Engines: 1.6-liter, compact turbocharger
Transmissions: 3 new continuously variable transmissions, 1 new 7-speed dual-clutch transmission
Hybrids: 2-motor, 2.0-liter engine system; 3-motor, 3.5-liter all-wheel-drive system
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