TOKYO — Yasunari Seki was just sitting down at a Chinese restaurant in Torrance, Calif., with fellow engineers from Honda Motor Co. when the call came from across the Pacific.
Drop all your work on clean diesels, product planning chief Hiroshi Takemura told him. Return to Japan for a bold new project meant to shake up the hybrid marketplace.
So began Seki's assignment as chief engineer of the vehicle destined to become the new Honda Insight. His mission was twofold: Create a car to challenge Toyota's Prius as the global hybrid king and cut enough cost to create a hybrid that people could afford.
"After the phone call, I couldn't eat a bite," Seki recalls of that dinner on Jan. 19, 2006.
Three years later, his Insight has become the template for future Honda hybrids, including the upcoming CR-Z sporty hybrid and a hybrid version of the even smaller Fit. More important, the five-door Insight hatchback sets a new industry benchmark for hybrids as small and inexpensive.
Seki, who turns 51 on April 1, eked out creative cost cuts not only from a redesigned electric-gasoline drivetrain but also from the chassis, interior and engine. The result is a package that competitors — including archrival Toyota Motor Corp. — will be hard-pressed to match.