Global Economics

Testing Honda's Green Machines


Our reporter test-drove the carmaker's latest alternative-fuel prototypes. The FCX Concept fuel-cell vehicle was the clear highlight

On Sept. 23, I got to try out some of Honda's (HMC) next-gen green vehicles at the company's research and development center in Tochigi, Japan (see Businessweek.com, 9/25/06, "Honda Revs Up Its Green Techs"). Among the vehicles on show were versions of Honda's latest gasoline, diesel, and flexible fuel-powered prototypes. The car that caused the most excitement, though, was the FCX Concept fuel-cell vehicle.

The sleek FCX Concept was first shown off at the Tokyo Motor Show last year, although only now has Honda let members of the media try one out for size on a track. Honda says it will begin marketing a limited number in Japan in 2008.

SEDAN LOOK.

The new, improved fuel-cell operable prototype has plenty going for it. Its fuel-cell stack is 20% smaller and 30% lighter than an earlier fuel-cell car. Meanwhile, its power plant is 180 kg, or 40% lighter. Its range is about 570 km, or 356 miles.

All this enables Honda to produce a car that looks more like a sedan than the normal boxy fuel-cell concepts. Generating speeds of up to 100 mph, the FCX sounded more like an aircraft as it whistled past. Behind the wheel, it handled fairly well, too, although the lack of engine noise was a little unnerving.

That lack of noise also made for a sensation of traveling more slowly than in reality. I had to regularly glance at the speedometer to get a feeling of how quickly I was moving. The interior also has a space-age feel with electronic dials monitoring the performance of its lithium-ion cells and fuel-cell stack.

CLEANING UP DIESEL.

Honda's next-generation diesel engine also looks like it will raise the bar. Honda says it will be capable of meeting the most stringent U.S. environmental requirements and will produce the same level of exhaust emissions as gasoline engines. It works by using a catalytic converter to absorb some of the nitrogen oxide (NOx) while converting a portion into ammonia. The latter is then reacted afterward with the remaining NOx to create harmless nitrogen.

The converter is designed for use with the 2.2-liter diesel engine used since 2003 in Europe on the Accord. A few things still need ironing out before it can be introduced. For instance, the test model's engine was relatively noisy. Honda, though, says that will be sorted out soon enough.

Whether a super-clean diesel will be enough to get American and Japanese drivers to embrace the fuel, of course, remains to be seen. In Japan, diesel's dirty, noisy image is a big problem. Until Mercedes-Benz launched a diesel last month, only one diesel passenger vehicle—Toyota's (TM) Land Cruiser Prado SUV—was on the market.

A relaxed Honda President Takeo Fukui, sitting just a few meters from the test track in Tochigi, didn't seem unduly concerned, though. "We share the same problem in the U.S. and Japan, but if we make diesels that provide clean emissions and low vibrations, hopefully [customers] will say Honda's diesels aren't too bad," he said.

FLEXIBLE-FUEL OPTIONS.

Still, just in case diesels don't catch on in those markets, there's no shortage of alternatives. Among them, Honda also showed off an improved version of its VTEC engine and a new ethanol/gasoline engine for the Brazilian market. The company says the new gasoline VTEC (or Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control system) achieves higher performance and better fuel efficiency than the current versions by controlling intake valves more effectively. This, claims the company, leads to a 13% increase in fuel efficiency—pretty good for an automaker already renowned for its fuel sippers—and emissions 75% lower than Japanese standards set in 2005. The new VTECs are slated to go into production within three years.

But of all the green machines buzzing round the track in Tochigi, it was Honda's flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs), burning ethanol or mixtures of gasoline and ethanol, that are closest to production. On the test track, Honda offered the keys to a 1.4-liter Fit subcompact FFV and 1.8-liter Civic. Both engines allow ethanol-to-gasoline ratios ranging from 20% to 100%.

This delivers fuel economy and performance—as I can testify from zipping around the track in the Civic FFV—on par with a gasoline car, but, using bioethanol made from sugarcane and other plant sources, it reduces carbon emissions. Honda plans to introduce its FFVs in Brazil by the end of this year. That's eagerly awaited, no doubt, but for me the FCX Compact was the star of the show.


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