Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Inside Line: 2012 Honda Fit Hybrid First Drive

No immediate plans for this coming to North America....
The Honda Hybrid We've Been Waiting for
By Peter Nunn, Contributor

There's little doubt that Honda has a mixed record with hybrids. The original Civic Hybrid was well received, but its successor never achieved Prius-like mpg, while more recent entries like the Insight and CR-Z have garnered complaints for their dynamics and styling alike. However, with the launch of the new 2012 Honda Fit Hybrid in Japan, Honda may have at last found the right formula for green car success.

We get our turn behind the wheel of Honda's new eco warrior on the streets of Tokyo, but this car would make a lot of sense in the U.S., too. Cheaper and nicer to drive than the Insight — with all the space and practicality of the regular Fit — the Fit Hybrid exudes a sophisticated all-round feel. And it backs that all up with some pretty tidy fuel economy and CO2 emissions numbers.
Too bad, then, that Honda says the Fit Hybrid won't come to the U.S.

Simple Hybrid Solution
Already on sale in Japan (and slated for select European markets in early 2011), the subcompact 2012 Honda Fit Hybrid borrows the Insight's 1.3-liter IMA gasoline-electric hybrid powertrain. The Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system drives the hatchback's front wheels and stows its compact battery pack and power control unit neatly beneath the cargo floor. This packaging has allowed Honda to preserve the Fit's signature million-way-folding rear seats on the hybrid model.

Once again, it's a simple, efficient engineering solution from Honda, one that sees the Fit Hybrid turn in a high of 30 km per liter (equivalent to about 71 mpg) on Japan's generous 10.15-mode fuel cycle, coupled with CO2 emissions of just 77.4 g/km.

Not bad, but here's some perspective: The Toyota Prius is a heavier car with a larger-displacement 1.8-liter gas engine, yet it actually turns in the equivalent of 89 mpg under the same test conditions and earns an even cleaner emissions rating of 61 g/km. Ouch.
So, the Fit Hybrid isn't going to be the car that knocks the Prius off its perch — not with Honda's current level of IMA technology, at any rate. The hybrid conversion also adds about 220 pounds to the Fit, not to mention the equivalent of over $4,000 to its price tag.

Would you pay over $20,000 for a Fit Hybrid? The American side of Honda doesn't think so, at least not in great enough quantities to justify bringing it over.

More Refined Than the Insight
All these thoughts flash through your mind as you pull open the door and slide behind the wheel for the first time. The regular Honda Fit is already an excellent small car. Is the more highbrow hybrid model really worth it?

In cutthroat Tokyo traffic, the 2012 Honda Fit Hybrid is not without appeal. It feels sharp and lively. It steers well at speed. And it has the kind of body control and low NVH levels that you can only dream of in the Insight.

The basic platform architecture and front strut/rear torsion-beam suspension is the same on the Fit Hybrid and Insight, but Honda has resolved spring and damper rates far more successfully this time. The Fit Hybrid has a supple, well-controlled ride that wouldn't shame an Accord.

That said, the Honda Fit Hybrid is by no means a sporty car. Its electric-assist power steering is low on feedback as we round a corner in Tokyo's bustling Shibuya district. And, of course, if you push the little front-driver too hard, it understeers and feels soggy. Encouraging for a Honda, though, the hybrid Fit's brakes feel powerful, with a strong initial bite and an easily modulated pedal.

Respectably Quick
As on the Insight, the hybrid Fit's 1.3-liter gasoline four-cylinder develops 88 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 88 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. And as ever, the engine is peerlessly smooth, free-revving and well matched to Honda's continuously variable transmission (CVT).

The hatchback's small, front-drive electric motor is good for 13 hp at 1,500 rpm and 58 lb-ft of torque at 1,000 rpm. It lurks in the background, ever ready to provide an extra slug of power when needed or charge the nickel-metal hydride hybrid battery pack as required. Honda rates the IMA system's combined output at 98 hp and 123 lb-ft of torque.

The gas engine shuts down when you come to a halt to save fuel and emissions, but you still can't travel any meaningful distance in pure EV mode, as you can with the Prius. Then again, the Prius often feels numb, even sterile, while the Honda Fit Hybrid drives pretty much like a conventional car.

Honda won't offer up a 0-60-mph estimate, but the Fit feels respectably quick, helped along by useful low-range torque courtesy of the electric motor.

If you're feeling pious, you can press the green Eco button, which softens throttle response, amps up the regenerative braking and reduces air-conditioner oomph to promote more fuel-efficient driving. As you drive, there's a small hybrid flow meter in front of you, showing the direction of the current and, as in the Insight, the speedometer groovily changes color (blue to green) to match your eco driving.

Even using Eco mode, we don't get anywhere near that carefully orchestrated 70.6-mpg test bed figure during our tour of Tokyo. Still, if this hatchback comes to the U.S. as the 2012 Honda Fit Hybrid, we expect it to do much better than the current gasoline Fit's ho-hum 28 city/35 highway mpg rating.

We Want a 2012 Fit Hybrid
Honda has been wily with its pricing strategy for the Fit Hybrid in Japan. The hybrid Fit starts at 1.6 million yen, which by today's exchange rates, comes out to the equivalent of $19,500. In contrast, the third-generation Prius costs Japanese customers 2.1 million yen (about $25,000), while Honda's own Insight runs you 1.9 million (about $23,000). You shouldn't read too much into those prices, but they give you an idea how 2012 Honda Fit Hybrid prices might shape out in the United States.

The risk, of course, is that Honda might cannibalize its own sales with this new, value-priced Fit Hybrid — both in Japan and the U.S. The automaker already has three hybrids in this price territory, and the trump card, a Civic Hybrid reportedly capable of beating the Prius in the mpg race, is headed our way in late 2011.

We're not sure how much room this leaves for a U.S.-spec 2012 Honda Fit Hybrid. What we do know is that Honda has delivered on a cool, effective new hybrid with a lot more utility than either the Insight or CR-Z. As far as we're concerned, it's Honda's most appealing hybrid to date.


No comments:

Post a Comment