Rod Edwards for Triple Pundit: Across the web, last week’s comments by Nissan/Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn on the hybrid business model have polarized the green community. Ghosn explained Nissan’s lack of hybrid technology (Toyota licensed Altima-hybrid excepted) as a reflection of the fact that hybrids are a low-volume, high-investment product with benefits that can be met in less expensive ways. Fuel-efficiency can be achieved, suggests Ghosn, by continuing to evolve cars and internal combustion engines (ICE) – resulting in less expensive vehicles for consumers, and sparing shareholders the expense of investing in a new family of technologies. Responses to Ghosn’s position have ranged from the expected “Ghosn is a tool – hybrids are the future – Nissan is going down” to “Perhaps Ghosn has a point.”
My own position – as contrarian as it may seem, coming from a green writer – sides with the latter group.
IMHO, there’s a lot of efficiency left to be wrung out of ICE – whether via techno-trickery like Direct Injection, materials science (creating lighter, more efficient motors a la Honda K-series), or via simpler piggy-back systems – like hydrogen injection, thermo-electric recovery, or biomimicry. Real hybrids (not talking starter assist, here) add a tremendous amount complexity, weight, and expense to a car. The full-on hybrid techno-assault is certainly one way to improve mileage, but I’d argue that simplicity in execution and the use of evolutionary technologies are capable of producing an equally high-mileage/low-emissions vehicle with the same utility, less expense, and easier maintenance.
Case in point: The Honda Jazz. In North America, the Jazz name is affixed to a scooter, but in the rest of the world, the Honda Jazz is an inexpensive, top-selling 4-door sub-compact that gets 51.4 mpg (combined) – and a real-world 60 mpg on the freeway.
It seats five adults, and with “magic seats” offers a tonne of cargo room and layout flexibility. The Jazz was the Car-of-the-Year in Japan several years ago, and continues to be a leading seller globally with UK prices (for example) starting at a miniscule £8,800 – that’s around $15,000 US converted directly. You can expect it to be stickered substantially less ($12,500?) in North America without the traditional Euro-premium. Word is that Honda will start selling it in North America in 2006 (replacing the migrated-upwards Civic as Honda’s entry-level car).
So – for substantially less than the Prius’s $21,275 sticker price, you get a car that while smaller in stature, offers equivalent mileage, similar utility, all the regular safety & comfort features, and a simple and easy-to-maintain drive-train. Honda does this with nothing more than a few evolutionary tweaks to the Jazz’s motor: a special valve configuration and two spark plugs per cylinder are designed to more efficiently combust the air/fuel mixture – achieving hybrid-equivalent mileage and power from a straight gas 1.3L motor sans-rocket science. Add to this some well-thought out interior tricks such as relocating the gas tank to create more cargo space, and creating flippable, foldable, “magic seats” and you’ve got a very compelling value equation.
To bring it back to Ghosn’s comments: are hybrids a valid product category, or are they an accident of timing, technology, and marketing? Hybrids bridge the gap between today’s gas engines and the future’s electric solution (whatever form it takes); Ghosn’s argument is that ICE can bridge the gap just as well with less cost to consumers and investors – and with market entrants like the Jazz, I tend to agree.
This article was contributed by Rod Edwards at Sustainability Zone. Thanks!