TOKYO -- Honda Motor Co. unveiled improvements to its flagship Civic's gasoline and hybrid engine systems on Tuesday that would boost mileage and performance on the car's remodeled versions due later this year.
With global sales of nearly 600,000 units a year, the Civic is Honda's best-selling model after the Accord, and the refreshed version is widely expected to generate big sales gains for Japan's third-biggest automaker.
Honda said the improved i-VTEC (intelligent Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control System) technology -- a mechanism that helps engines burn fuel more efficiently while enhancing driving performance -- would raise the engine's fuel economy by 6 percent in the new gasoline-only Civic.
The new 1.8-liter engine is 11 pounds lighter than the 1.7-liter engine that powers the current Civic, thanks largely to the use of fewer components -- something Honda has promised to pursue to lower costs.
Honda also developed a more powerful, fuel-efficient hybrid system that would enable its gasoline-electric vehicles to run solely on the electric motor at low cruising speeds for the first time, like Toyota Motor's popular Prius sedan.
The new system features an evolved, three-stage 1.34-liter i-VTEC engine, combined with Honda's integrated motor assist technology to achieve a 20-percent jump in output -- comparable to the performance of a conventional 1.8-liter engine.
The system is smaller, lighter and costs up to 30 percent less than the existing version, a Honda engineer said.
Honda has long been at the forefront of "green" powertrain technology, perhaps most famously with the development in 1973 of the CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) engine -- the world's first to meet U.S. Clean Air Act requirements without a catalytic converter, and which gave the popular Civic its name.
Honda is one of a handful of carmakers to offer mass-market hybrid cars; its FCX model is the only zero-emission fuel-cell vehicle certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California regulators for regular daily use.
But Honda's ranking as one of the world's most fuel-efficient car brands is mainly due to its widespread use of environmentally friendly gasoline-engine technology, and that trend will continue despite the development of an improved hybrid system, an executive said.
"The most meaningful way to raise the fleet's overall performance and efficiency is to make new technologies like this available on a wide range of vehicles," Motoatsu Shiraishi, senior managing director and head of Honda's R&D unit, told reporters.
"We intend to use this technology on all vehicles that share the Civic powertrain eventually," he said.
The current Civic engine also powers some Stream and Edix/FR-V minivans.
Despite the popularity of its fuel-sipping Prius hybrid, Toyota ranks third behind Honda and Nissan Motor in average fleet-wide fuel economy in the United States, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington, D.C.-based independent research group.
"In terms of the technology that Honda and Toyota have, I would argue that they're running neck-and-neck," said David Friedman, research director of the group's Clean Vehicles Program.
"But Honda has been willing to get more of it out on the road, and that's a really important difference."
With about 27,200 sold last year, hybrids make up just 2 percent of Honda's sales in the United States, where it sells a little more than half of its Civics.
Honda is projecting a rise in its U.S. fleet's average fuel economy to 29.5 miles per gallon in 2005, up from last year's 29.0 mpg and the industry average of 24.6 mpg, even as SUVs and other light trucks make up a bigger portion of its lineup.