MOTEGI, Japan (Reuters) -- The head of Honda Motor Co. said there could be plenty of demand for battery-powered electric cars, making the strongest endorsement yet of the technology that his predecessor had long shunned as impractical and unrealistic.
Japan's second-biggest automaker announced in July plans to launch a plug-in hybrid and pure electric car in 2012, but had stopped short of laying out a roadmap of how they would contribute to its business.
"It's starting to look like there will be a market for electric vehicles (EVs)," Takanobu Ito, who took over as chief executive last year, told a small group of reporters at a test-drive event north of Tokyo.
"We can't keep shooting down their potential, and we can't say there's no business case for it."
Under Takeo Fukui and other former CEOs, Honda had been a strong proponent of hydrogen fuel-cell cars as the best zero-emission alternative to today's combustion engine cars because they have a similar driving range of 500-600 km (310-375 miles), unlike battery EVs' limited reach.
Nissan Motor Co.'s Leaf, which will become the world's first mass-volume electric car when it goes on sale next month, can only be driven for 160 km (100 miles) on a full charge since packing more batteries to extend the range would make the car prohibitively expensive.
"The thing is, not everybody needs to drive 500 km a day," Ito said, echoing the argument made by Nissan and its partner, Renault SA, to sell battery EVs in big volumes around the world.
Ito stopped short of predicting how big the EV market could be, and how soon.
But he added that pure electric cars made more sense than plug-in hybrids, which are hybrid cars that carry more batteries that can be charged from an outside source.
"Plug-in hybrids are essentially for people who drive short distances, but it has the handicap of having an engine, a motor and a stack of batteries," he said. "Why wouldn't you just drive an EV?"
In a move that could further accelerate the industry's drive towards EVs, Ito is due to take the wraps off a new electric car concept at the Los Angeles auto show on Nov. 17. It would be the first time for a Honda CEO to unveil a new model at the annual show.
California has some of the world's strictest environmental regulations, and Honda had said it would sell battery-run EVs there only to meet the state's zero-emission requirements.
Japanese rival Toyota Motor Corp., also a recent EV convert, is planning to unveil the electric RAV4, co-developed with Tesla Motors Inc., at the L.A. auto show. Toyota and the California electric car start-up tied up earlier this year, agreeing to develop battery and EV technology together.