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 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.

20 responses

  1. I think Ghosn’s comments are a red herring and almost irrelevant to the discussion of fuel efficiency.
    Car buyers don’t want fuel efficiency. Survey after survey show that consumers do not rank fuel efficiency among the top buying criteria. Keep in mind, however, this is the average consumer. They do care, however, in low total cost, value, etc. So therefore, consumers are indifferent to hybrids versus alternatives. How else can you explain that US manufacturers sell more than SUVs than other categories?
    More important, Nissan’s and most companies’ corporate strategy is to gain a competitive advantage. It makes no sense for everyone to invest R&D into hybrids today. In fact, it would be foolish to compete with Toyota, who has a many-year lead. I’d wait for the technology to become cheaper (unless my competitive advantage is in building engines).
    In Ghosn’s shoes, I’d do exactly what he did. License some technology to learn a little about the specific (green?) market, and make minor improvements in my current technology.

  2. Auto companies could offer better fuel economy in many ways, but they don’t. Unfortunately, we consumers can only pick and choose between the models that the companies decide to sell.
    When I had to replace my 1992 Honda Civic hatchback 2 years ago, I wanted to buy a four-door hatchback with better gas mileage as a replacement. I had two choices, a Toyota Echo hatchback (I’m Canadian) or a Toyota Prius. All the other hatchbacks, like the Ford Focus or Mazda 3 sport, were “premium” models, which come only with over-powered, gas-guzzling engines. It’s fun to argue over which technology is the best way to achieve a goal; but it isn’t fair to compare cars that are actually available to vague future promises.
    Personally, I think that if Nissan and the other companies hadn’t been prodded by the success of the Prius, they wouldn’t even be talking about fuel economy. At least Toyota (and Honda) had the guts to produce and sell hybrid cars so that we consumers could prove that fuel economy is important to some of us. Maybe in ten years time when I have to replace my Prius, I’ll be able to find a non-hybrid that meets my demands for fuel economy.
    Also, I think you are wrong about hybrids being more complicated than non-hybrids. Sure the Prius has some extra electric motors, but the transmission is much simpler than a conventional automatic transmission. Once the development costs are repaid, I think the parts cost of a hybrid will be about the same as the parts costs for a conventional drivetrain. The only significant difference between a hybrid and a conventional drivetrain is the battery; but I think the efficiency gains from regenerative braking and exploiting the differences between gas and electric motors will pay for the battery.
    I’m sure the Honda Jazz will be a very nice small car, just like the Toyota Echo; and if it suits your needs, it will be a better choice than the current Prius. But, Honda could also offer a hybrid Jazz. Any improvement to ICE’s can also be applied to hybrids, which is why hybrids will always offer the best mileage.

  3. I (a Prius owner) think the Honda Jazz is great car … but you are quoting UK gallons in your MPG.
    Anyway, I look forward to efficiency competitions improving everything along the way. Hybrid, traditional, diesel – if it get’s high mpg it’s good.

  4. Ben, don’t blame Nick – the comments are mine! Odograph – Toyota’s quoted mileage from their UK site is 65.7 (city? hwy?) – thanks for pointing out my mistake. What is up with these freaking units anyway.
    Ben & Jimsum – when I’m talking about complexity, I’m looking at any net addition to the basic automotive drivetrain. I think its fair to say that a hybrid Civic or Accord is more complicated than its ICE bretheren.

  5. Most people forget the main reason hybrids were invented – to reduce emissions.
    The automakers use the better MPG to sell the cars, but they introduced the hybrids with the goal of reducing the emissions of their vehicles in anticipation of stricter environmental codes and as a way to meet CAFE regulations, which put a cap on the amount of pollution your entire fleet of cars can produce (trucks don’t count).
    Good hybrids like the Prius and Insight reduce emissions to almost zero. This is their true value. If you want better MPG to save money, get a tiny car, or get a 200-500cc motorcycle, if you live in a warmer climate. If you want to reduce the pollution and get a mild bonus of cheaper fill-ups, then get a hybrid.

  6. Excellent discussion. I hadn’t thought about the reduction in emissions to meet CAFE standards. I’m curious about how Hybrids reduce emissions – is it simply that the ICE is not used as much, or is there something different about the way the ICE is used that reduces emissions?
    Also – an interesting topic no one’s brought up is the issue of battery toxicity and the ultimate disposal of the batteries. I know very little about it, but it’s not trivial, is it?

  7. Nick
    “Is there a recycling plan in place for nickel-metal hydride batteries?
    Toyota has a comprehensive battery recycling program in place and has been recycling nickel-metal hydride batteries since the RAV4 Electric Vehicle was introduced in 1998. Every part of the battery, from the precious metals to the plastic, plates, steel case and the wiring, is recycled. To ensure that batteries come back to Toyota, each battery has a phone number on it to call for recycling information and dealers are paid a $200 “bounty” for each battery.”

  8. Odograph,
    I hadn’t heard of the ‘Battery Bounty’. Brilliant idea. Bound to get results.
    I’m not an engineer or nuthin’ but, ICE engines in cars (not trucks) have emissions controls that greatly reduce pollution while the car is moving, but when you stop and idle, the emissions equipment shuts off, to help prevent the engine from stalling. So your car makes the most pollution just sitting at a red light.
    Hybrids eliminate that whole scenario by intentionally shutting off the engine when you stop, so that period of raw pollution when you idle simply never happens. Also, a car needs the most energy just getting moving from a stop, so it’s pumping lots more exhaust between 0 – 10mph than between, say, 10 – 50mph. Hybrids generally use the electric motor to get going from a stop. Plus, they have much smaller engines, and stronger emissions controls, thus even less pollution.
    I also hear there’s a vile of pixie-dust in the fuel injector, but I haven’t confirmed that yet.

  9. I think Honda has a potential huge hit on its hands with the 2007 Honda Fit (yes, that is the name the US market will use) that will arrive around March 2006.

    For the US version, the engine it might use may not be the 1.3-liter i-DSI dual-spark plug economy or 1.5-liter VTEC performance engines now available for the Fit/Jazz models sold around the world. If you look at the 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid, it has a new 1.3-liter engine featuring an all-new single overhead-cam (SOHC) variable valve timing system akin to that used on the larger 1.8-liter engine found on the regular 2006 Civics. Rated at 95 bhp in 1.3-liter form, this will likely become the base engine for the US-market Fit; I can see a larger displacement version at 1.5 liters rated a 112-115 bhp for the more sporting versions of the new car.

    The Fit’s greatest strength is the fact the car is physically very small externally (great for parking and urban driving!), while the interior offers as much space for four passengers as the 2001-2005 Civic sedans, thanks to careful overall design of the car that increases interior space with such tricks as low-profile torsion-beam suspension in the rear and locating the fuel tank below the front passenger area. Also, the Fit is a smartly designed cargo carrier, with rear seat tops that fold flat for a large open cargo area and rear seat bottoms that fold up for roomy “middle of car” cargo area (perfect for holding grocery bags).

    Indeed, I am seriously looking at buying one to replace my current Honda Civic HX CVT coupé, mostly because I now have more passenger and cargo-carrying needs than my current car.

  10. Talking of the Honda Jazz, I have bought a Mitsubishi Colt after selling my Ford Escape. The Milage is about 45mpg(UK). I always convert back from Liters. That is city driving I haven’t been on a long country trip yet, but I am sure I could easily get 50 MPG. The COLT has a 1.5 litre VVT engine coupled to a CVT(constant variable transmission). It won’t do wheelies, but it sure gets up and goes, plus it is a quiet car due to the sound deading. It is Mitsubishi’s answer to the Jazz. Same size car, comes from influences of Mercedes Benz’s A160. I enjoy the COLT and is about AU$4000 cheaper than the Jazz in Australia.

  11. I guess it took $3 gallon to get high milage cars that are everywhere else to start coming to USA. Its maddening, a ongoing war for oil and all we can do is drag our feet!
    On the topic of Hybrids..has anyone computed how much fuel is wasted in just LA freeway system by cars sitting nearly still, idling?? A hybrid that can run pure electric and self start wins a lot of milage and pollution points in LA traffic conditions.
    Also there is a japanese made Hybrid car prototype I saw on the web , 660 cc motor & super light , claims it got over 140miles to the gallon. Try that with a standard ICE car.

  12. Hi allhope the jazz comes to the us with the diesel i have a civic hx that gets about 39 combined milage great car but not a hatchback i also have a vw bug with a diesel gets 45 combined milage the vw is tons of touble hate to say junk but compaired to the honda it is junk and a LOT more money vw needs to get their act together no more vw

  13. Carl(above)is significantly mistaken when he says Hybrids were introduced by automakers to “reduce emissions”. Hybrids ARE all about Fuel Economy. Emissions is not the goal. Proof? Honda SULEV Accord, Gasoline. Not hybrid, same tailpipe standard. This is well proven by the sheer number of other non-hybrid SULEV’s now out. The emission reduction from Hybridization is CO2, an important one, resulting DIRECTLY from fuel economy improvement. Of course Hybrids are also clean, it it expected. Good points by many recognizing how any Fuel Economy ICE gains will only benefit Hybrids too, keeping a gap. Remember though, only oil alternatives, not Hybrids, can push the oil dependence growth needle down.

  14. Im looking to pick up a Fit hopefully soon to help battle gas prices and my long commute. The Fit so far fits in price…styling isn’t bad, and I can deal with it.
    Before learning about the Fit I was leaning towards a VW, but have since changed my views.
    All you Jazz/Fit people can check us out at:

  15. Im looking to pick up a Fit hopefully soon to help battle gas prices and my long commute. The Fit so far fits in price…styling isn’t bad, and I can deal with it.
    Before learning about the Fit I was leaning towards a VW, but have since changed my views.
    All you Jazz/Fit people can check us out at:

  16. Is the waiting period long on a current Fit in the U.S. as compared to Canada? I had to wait one month for delivery, initially. Then my dealer informed me I had to wait an additional 2 weeks, making it close to or after the July 1st/July 4th long weekends. Why such a wait? I have ordered the Sport Model of the Fit with Automatic transmission.

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