OFFENBACH, Germany - Honda is determined to beat Toyota into Europe with a new eco-friendly car.
It will launch the Insight, a gasoline-electric two-seat coupe, in Germany, the United Kingdom and Switzerland next spring - and at a highly competitive price.
In Europe, the Insight will be priced at about $21,000 before taxes. Honda executives said that is at least $6,500 less than the cost of building the car.
'We are investing in the future,' said Hisao Suzuki, president of Honda's European research and development division, based in Offenbach, Germany.
Toyota launched its eco-friendly Prius in Japan two years ago. The Insight is only now reaching Japanese buyers. Honda is also seeking a competitive edge in the United States, where the Insight will be launched in mid-December. Retail price in the United States is expected to be under $20,000.
Around 500 Insights are scheduled for Europe next year - 200 each for Germany and the United Kingdom and 100 for Switzerland. The British allotment could be increased on demand. Belgian dealers also have expressed interest in the car. France and Italy are not seen as suitable markets at the moment.
Honda does not plan to market the Insight aggressively in Europe. It wants the car's high-tech, low-emissions message to filter through slowly to the European motoring public.
The Insight's initial competitors will be small, sporty coupes such as the Ford Puma and the Opel Tigra. In the long run, its main rivals will be the Prius and any other innovative, hybrid or dual-fuel arrivals.
The Insight is powered by a 1.0-liter, three-cylinder, 12-valve, low-friction gasoline VTEC engine. The front-wheel-drive vehicle is mated to a five-speed manual transmission. An electric motor powered by a nickel-metal-hydride battery is linked to the powertrain.
This power pack services all the electrical needs of the car. It is located over the rear axle and weighs only 44 pounds.
Honda avoids describing the Insight as a hybrid vehicle. The battery never takes over from the gasoline engine, and it is not a dual-fuel car. Under acceleration, the battery powers the electric motor to boost the output of the gasoline unit. At 5,700 rpm, it increases the 50-hp engine's output to 56 hp.
The battery boost cuts out when the car is cruising, slowing down or braking. That gives the battery time to recharge itself. To save fuel and cut exhaust emissions, the engine cuts out automatically when the car stops. It restarts when the accelerator is pressed.
The Insight has best-in-world emission and consumption figures, says Honda. Combined fuel consumption of 70.1 mpg compares with 34.0 mpg for the Civic 1.5-liter, which has a performance similar to the Insight's.
A four-seat sedan using the same mechanical principles as the Insight is likely within two or three years, according to Honda. The company also is testing a clutchless manual transmission.
Honda builds the Insight in Japan alongside its new S2000 sports car at the Takanezawa plant.