Although Honda built its reputation in engineering and innovation, in recent years it has strayed from that path – there have been no new engines, transmissions, hybrid, electric or plug-in systems in an era when the competition is bombarding us with new thinking.
Honda Motor president and CEO Takanobu Ito admits the company has had trouble. “The real challenge facing car companies around the world is the speed at which change is taking place. To be honest, we have not been able to keep up as well as we’d like.”
He also heads up Honda R&D and in that role says his first task as president is to push for advanced technologies, advances that will put Honda ahead of the pack in the fields of batteries, hybrids and fuel cells while working on further efficiencies with the internal combustion engine. “We’re hard at work on all of these at once,” he said recently.
The previous day, at the company’s R&D centre in Motegi, 125 km north of Tokyo near the area decimated by the March earthquake and tsunami, we had sampled a steady stream of new innovations that will find their way into an array of new vehicles in the next couple of years.
We drove a variety of new and future vehicles powered by a completely new family of four- and six-cylinder engines. We tried several new transmissions, a truly innovative all-wheel-drive system, various hybrids including one without a transmission, pure electric vehicles and a sleek sedan powered by a fuel cell.
On the engine front, a unique combination of variable valve-timing, twin camshafts and direct injection has been developed allowing engines to run on the fuel-savings Atkinson Cycle without the loss of power or torque previously associated with that method. These include a quartet of new four-cylinder gasoline engines ranging in displacement from 1.0 to 2.4 litres and a new 3.5-litre V6. The new 2.4-litre will first appear in the next Accord, late in 2012, and perhaps the new CR-V shortly afterward.
We drove vehicles powered by a new 148-horsepower, 1.8-litre four that would be right at home in a mid-cycle version of the new Civic being readied for the 2013 model year and a 127-horsepower, 1.5-litre four destined for the Fit. In all cases, these preliminary power figures are on the conservative side but considerably higher than current engines of similar displacement, while consuming 10 per cent less fuel. We also sampled a Civic powered by a potent little 1.6-litre turbo diesel.
Honda engineers have developed a trio of new continuously variable transmissions for small and mid-sized cars. On road and track they exhibited less of the “motor-boating” and “rubber-band” effects associated with CVT transmissions. Only when pressed hard on the track did they assume the CVT propensity to sound like a clutch was slipping.
Honda has also come up with a seven-speed dual clutch gearbox for higher power applications.
All of these engines and transmission will appear in standalone or hybrid applications across a wide range of vehicles of all sizes and shapes in the next two years.
Honda also showed off what it says is the world’s most efficient two-motor hybrid system, one that allows a big family-size car to operate without a transmission with a resulting saving in space and cost. Headed for the North American market next year in the next-generation Accord, it can run on electric or gasoline power or a combination of the two.
The main electric motor produces 221 lb-ft of torque and is used to launch the car, which can run for up to 24 km on battery power alone. The second electric motor is used as a generator to recharge the batteries. At highway speeds, the electric motor drops out and a 134-horsepower gasoline engine takes over.
The IC engine also comes into use to drive the generator and keep the batteries charged, much like the Chevrolet Volt. With the big electric motor able to get the car to cruising speed there is no need for a transmission.
The company also turned us loose on the big oval of the adjacent Twin-Ring Motegi racetrack in an Accord-size sedan equipped with the new V-6 sending 310 horsepower and 265 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels through the seven-speed DSG gearbox and a pair of 27-horsepower electric motors powering the rear wheels.
In addition to the abundance of instant torque when accelerating, one motor is programmed to send more power to the outside wheel in a corner while the other applies negative torque to the inside wheel.
Off-the-line performance can be silent and seamless with the twin electric motors providing the go – or is truly impressive if you get into the throttle and add the V-6 to the equation. Turn-in is exemplary and transient response exceptional thanks to the rear wheels being used to pull the car into the turn. Add to this the ability to get on the power earlier when existing the corner and you’ve got a true sports sedan.
Look for this combination in a forthcoming replacement for the big Acura RL sedan and the replacement for the NSX sports car.