Honda eyes ’09 launch of new five-seat hybrid

by Hiroko Nakata

Honda Motor Co. said it will launch a new gasoline-electric hybrid car early next year in Japan, North America and Europe, underlining its emphasis on hybrids as the core of its eco-friendly vehicle business.

Honda, Japan’s second-largest automaker by sales, expects annual sales of the new hybrid model to reach 200,000 worldwide during the next decade. Combined with the hybrid versions of its Fit, Civic and CR-Z cars, Honda expects its global hybrid car sales to reach 500,000 a year, President Takeo Fukui told reporters.

“As of now, I see hybrid as the most realistic and most effective” among “green” vehicle technologies, Fukui said as he unveiled the project as part of Honda’s three-year strategy through business 2010.

Sales of Honda’s current sole hybrid model — a hybrid Civic — stood at 51,759 units worldwide in 2007.

Last week, Nissan Motor Co., the nation’s third-largest automaker, said it will focus on electric vehicles as the most promising type of environmentally friendly vehicles.

Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn said the company will launch a new electric vehicle in business 2010 in the U.S. and Japan and two years later in other markets.

With oil prices surging and global warming becoming an ever more serious problem, automakers are now looking to eco-friendly and fuel-efficient vehicles as a core part of their future strategies.

Toyota Motor Corp. has taken the lead in the field with its Prius hybrid. Toyota plans to increase its global hybrid sales to 1 million vehicles annually during the next decade.

Honda’s new hybrid will be a five-door compact that seats five people. The price has not been released yet, but Fukui said it will be around ¥200,000 more than a gasoline-engine compact of similar make.

Honda has also developed hydrogen fuel-cell cars as another type of eco-friendly vehicle. The automaker will start leasing its FCX Clarity in July in the U.S. and this fall in Japan, and Fukui said the firm expects to lease about 200 vehicles in the next three years.

But Honda says it will take some time before fuel-cell vehicles become commercially viable due to high costs and lack of sufficient infrastructure, like hydrogen stations.

Fukui also said Honda has no plans at the moment to launch extremely low-cost vehicles in developing countries, but will instead reinforce its motorcycle lineup to meet demand in emerging markets.

Last week, Nissan, Renault SA of France and Bajaj Auto Ltd. of India said they will form a venture to develop, produce and market cars as cheap as $2,500. The move came after India’s Tata Motors stunned the industry by unveiling the Nano minivehicle, which will also be around $2,500.