Honda makes big bet on small Vezel crossover

The Japan-market Vezel hybrid; the U.S. car gets a new name, no hybrid version at first.
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WAKO, Japan -- In Japan, the hybrid version of the Honda Vezel is expected to account for 90 percent of sales of the new Fit-based compact crossover. Not so in the United States.

Honda Motor Co. won't even offer the hybrid variant in U.S. showrooms initially. When U.S. sales begin in the second half of 2014, the Vezel will have a standard gasoline engine. Down the road, the Vezel will get a turbocharged version to improve fuel economy and boost power, the car's chief engineer says.

Timing of the turbo debut hasn't been decided, but Yoshiharu Itai said he expects to use the new line of small turbo engines Honda introduced last month before the Tokyo Motor Show. He is considering the 1.5-liter turbo, which Honda showed in an Acura ILX sedan.

"We haven't decided yet what model year it will be, but we have that in our plan," Itai said of a turbocharged Vezel at a recent briefing outside Tokyo. "We are creating a package so that turbocharging could be installed with this model."

The Vezel will compete in an increasingly crowded segment of small utility vehicles that includes such rivals as the Mazda CX-5, Nissan Juke and Subaru XV Crosstrek. It is about 9 inches shorter than the CR-V, currently the smallest crossover in Honda's U.S. lineup, as well as 1 inch narrower and 1 inch lower. The wheelbase is also about 1 inch shorter. It's 7 inches longer than the current Fit hatchback.

The front-wheel-drive Vezel weighs about 680 pounds less than the front-wheel drive CR-V. The Vezel comes in a front-wheel- or all-wheel-drive layout. The Japan-market gasoline Vezel combines a 1.5-liter direct-injection Earth Dreams engine with a continuously variable transmission.

The current U.S. Fit hatchback uses a 1.5-liter engine. The CR-V has a 2.4-liter engine. Honda has not divulged the U.S. drivetrain configuration for the Vezel.

A spokesman said Honda wants to establish the gasoline version in the market before deciding whether to add a hybrid option. Honda is banking on the vehicle to fuel a surge in U.S. sales. Honda built a plant in Mexico with capacity of 200,000 units just to make the crossover and the Fit hatchback. More than half of the plant's capacity will be devoted to the crossover.

Honda Motor also announced last week that it will unveil two new-generation cars at next month's Detroit auto show: the third-generation 2015 Honda Fit subcompact and a prototype of the 2015 Acura TLX performance luxury sedan, which will replace the TL. Both cars go on sale in the United States in the second half of 2014.

Vezel is the car's Japan-market name. The U.S. name will be announced later. The Japan name comes from the word "bezel," the mounting for gemstones.

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