Honda Motor Co. President Hiroyuki Yoshino is striving to be a latter-day Charles Lindbergh by being the first across an ocean with a revolutionary new vehicle.
The Japanese-built Honda Insight will touch down in the United States in December. The gasoline-electric hybrid promises to outperform Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius in acceleration and fuel economy.
If so, that will make the Insight the most efficient gasoline-powered car sold in the United States next year.
But Honda's triumph over Toyota is a Pyrrhic victory. The Insight is really just a high-volume engineering experiment masquerading as a low-volume production car.
In a production car program, engineers always sacrifice some performance at the altar of cost and practicality, but that tithe seems to have been waived for the Insight's creators.
The Insight's powertrain will return an official EPA rating of 61 mpg city and 70 mpg highway, according to Honda, while the federalized Prius likely won't top 50 mpg.
To achieve those stellar numbers, Honda designed an aluminum-bodied two-seat mini-commuter with just five cubic feet of cargo space above a rear sub-floor swollen with batteries. The engineers of the Prius undoubtedly wanted maximum fuel economy, too, but they settled for a steel-bodied compact sedan with four usable doors and a real trunk.
Honda chose aluminum because of its low weight. The Insight's body-in-white weighs just 330 pounds, half that of the steel-bodied Civic three-door hatchback. Honda workers hand-assemble each Insight at the company's Takanezawa plant from three modules that combine aluminum extrusions, stampings and die castings.
Unless Honda had access to bargain-priced tooling and materials, each Insight skeleton probably costs $3,000 to $4,000 more than a Prius skeleton, says Richard Schultz, a former Alcoa Inc. manager and an aluminum project consultant for Ducker Research in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
The estimate is based on general knowledge of low-volume aluminum and steel production and pins the cost of a low-volume steel structure at around $7,000 per unit. Blame the Insight's higher costs on exotic tooling, such as the machines that bend the aluminum extrusions for the Insight's A pillar and sub-frame. It also takes more time to build an aluminum structure, and it requires special welding and rivet technology to join the complicated matrix of parts into a finished body.
We haven't even touched on the Insight's engine, which has a redesigned variable valve timing system, a sophisticated drive motor just 2.4 inches thick, and a computer-controlled power management system.
No wonder Insight project manager Koichi Fukuo calls Honda's new S2000 roadster, 'the easy one.'
Yoshino acknowledges that the Insight is an experiment, a precursor to more useful vehicles from a company that strives to be expert in all engine technologies. Fair enough, but it also is a costly experiment full of very elegant engineering solutions to questions the market hasn't asked yet.
Honda committed about 750 engineers for three years to the Insight, and just 3,000 will be built annually. That is 250 more engineers than the company typically assigns to developing new Accords and Civics, and Honda built almost 900,000 of those cars just in North America last year.
Honda's 'victory' over Toyota is even less clear-cut if one considers that fact that the Insight uses nickel-metal-hydride batteries built by a Toyota-Panasonic joint venture. Every time Honda builds an Insight, Toyota receives a check.
Can a small automaker that vows to stay independent stretch its resources on experimental products with limited market appeal? Down the road in Hiroshima is a Ford Motor Co. subsidiary that could supply one opinion.
History will decide if Yoshino's effort deserves to be remembered with Lindbergh or the Hindenburg.