Hybrids vs. the Honda Jazz

hondajaxx.jpgRod 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!

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.