Honda Civic Hybrid racer (foreground) and Accord diesel racer
Honda Civic Hybrid racer (foreground) and Accord diesel racer. Click image to enlarge

Article and photos by Laurance Yap

Photo Gallery: Honda’s Toy Box

Montegi, Japan – Honda’s the largest engine builder in the world. In North America, whether you’re talking about cars or lawnmowers, motorcycles or SUVs, its reputation is founded upon its excellent gasoline-powered internal-combustion engines which are powerful, smooth and economical. Honda’s still building great gas engines, but with increasing societal pressure to find solutions to reduce greenhouse gases and global warming, it has been exploring other ways of powering vehicles – from diesel to fuel cells, from plug-in electric to natural gas.

A couple of days before the start of the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show last month, the company let a few automotive journalists loose on its Twin Ring Montegi race-track with a handful of cars showcasing next-generation powertrain technology – as well as the current state of the art. Here are the most interesting of them:

Accord diesel endurance race car

Everything about this car feels racy but the engine. The brakes grab with a mere brush of the pedal, twitching the rear end out. Stones ping off the unlined wheel wells as you go around corners.

Honda Accord diesel racer
Honda Accord diesel racer
Honda Accord diesel racer. Click image to enlarge

You’re hemmed in by a roll cage, a net in the driver’s window and a driver’s seat which was clearly designed for someone about three sizes smaller. The ride is incredibly low and stiff, the body looks amazing in racing livery.

When you start it up, the thing clatters like a diesel – and on your run down to the first corner, the shift lights are winking at you way before you’re inclined to change gears, the engine revs so smoothly, silently, and cleanly. But you look at the speedometer and realize that, despite a modest 170-hp output, this engine’s torque, combined with a stripped-out interior and lightweight body, mean that it is indeed a race car, one built to compete in the Japanese endurance series.

The same guy that originally developed VTEC was behind Honda’s first diesel engine – and this race car proves that diesel and driver enjoyment are hardly exclusive terms.

Accord i-DTEC diesel

While the diesel in the current Japanese and European Accord (a body similar to our Acura TSX) is impressive, Honda’s next-generation diesel is even more powerful, cleaner and smoother. There’s very little clatter from start-up or at idle and it revs eagerly, like a gasoline engine.

Honda Accord i-DTEC diesel
Honda Accord i-DTEC diesel. Click image to enlarge

More importantly, i-DTEC achieves much lower emissions as well. Nitrous oxide emissions are cut 85% by improvements in the combustion process, while a new-generation catalytic converter traps 75% more particulate matter and cleans up exhaust emissions without the need for urea injection, like in Mercedes’ Bluetec. It’s thus simpler, more compact and less expensive to build than other diesels, as well as more fun to drive.

While it’s not required of diesel engines, Honda intends to meet California regulations for gasoline-engine emissions with this diesel – quite an engineering achievement given its elegant simplicity.

Civic hybrid race car

As diesels become a bigger part of Honda’s plan for its larger vehicles, the company intends to focus on hybrid technology for smaller cars.

Civic hybrid race car
Civic hybrid race car
Civic hybrid race car. Click image to enlarge

First introduced in 1999 with the Insight, Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist system has been on our market longer than anyone’s and the company promises a new global small hybrid vehicle by 2009 – one that meets the needs of growing families while being higher-performance and more affordable than current hybrids.

Meantime, it’s been developing its hybrid drive-trains by going endurance racing. This Civic Hybrid race car – which wears a body that looks like a cross between our Civic and the Acura CSX – has a stripped-out body shell, a roll cage and a five-speed manual transmission putting its power to the front wheels. The battery has been relocated to where the passenger seat used to be and the gasoline engine now produces 130 hp in addition to the electric motor’s 30 hp. The result, in such a light and manoeuvrable car, is astonishing. The hybrid system provides incredible torque out of corners and adds a distinct turbocharging effect at higher speeds.

Civic Type-R

At a press conference before our track session, another journalist asked Honda CEO Takeo Fukui how he reconciled the fact that Honda was pursuing environmentally-friendly technology and low emissions and fuel consumption at the same time as it produces high-performance machines.

Civic hybrid race car
Civic hybrid race car
Honda Civic Type-R. Click image to enlarge

Fukui’s answer was simple and to the point: both high-performance engines and low-consumption engines require high efficiency and the balance between the two is a matter of careful tuning.

The Civic Type-R is definitely at the extreme end of the performance scale. It’s like our Civic Si – which is now available in sedan form, remember – cranked up to 11. The 2.0-litre engine produces 28 more horsepower (up to 225 from 197) and the suspension is lower, stiffer and more responsive. Brembo four-piston brakes haul the car down from speed with authority, while a functional aerodynamic body kit (complete with carbon-fibre rear wing) keep it planted at high speeds.

Want proof of just how extreme, and just how wonderful, the Civic Type R is? It made the S2000’s Honda brought to the track feel slow and soft. That takes some doing.

FCX concept fuel cell vehicle

Honda FCX
Honda FCX
Honda FCX. Click image to enlarge

The FCX doesn’t merely look like the future of the automobile, but it feels like it too. Underneath that low, high-tailed styling sits Honda’s latest fuel cell electric powertrain, which lofted it easily up to and past the 120 km/h speed limit that the track marshals had suggested was prudent before we went out. Sounded like a spaceship too, with a high-tech whine and zero vibration from the drive-train.

For a concept car, the FCX drives like a remarkably complete machine, with nice steering, fine brakes and excellent ride quality. It’s also a heck of a lot faster than the current, boxy FCX which is being leased to a few select families and local governments in California. Space inside the swoopy interior is on par with the latest Accord, while the hatchback conceals a huge cargo area.

Honda will market a select few “new” FCXs starting next year, leasing them out to about a hundred families in the U.S. More importantly, Honda’s also at work on a home co-generation unit that, coupled with solar panels, will allow emissions-free production of hydrogen fuel at home – addressing the need for a hydrogen fuel infrastructure as well as a zero-emissions, hydrogen-powered car.

It’s very, very cool, the FCX. And it proves that an environmentally-friendly, zero-emissions automobile can still be fast, stylish and fun to drive.

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