Honda's bid to get mojo back
Recently at Honda Motor Company's Tochigi research and development centre in Japan, journalists were almost falling over themselves to have a go behind the wheel of a special car - a brand-new Civic Type-R.
The Honda people kept things under strict control, however, allowing the writers just one lap each in the prototype of this new hot hatch, and not allowing them to accelerate past 200kmh.
I'd got to that speed before I'd even exited the first turn of the high-speed oval at Tochigi. The left-hand drive Type-R had rocketed out of the entry lane under full turbocharge boost, shot around the first bend - and the Honda official in the passenger's seat then ordered me to slow down.
And I hadn't even got the Civic's six-speed manual into sixth gear. But at least I'd had a taste of what this talked-about Honda, which is powered by a newly-developed 2.0-litre turbocharged and direct injected four cylinder VTEC engine that develops at least 206 kilowatts of power and 400 newton metres of torque, is going to be about.
And that's about pace and performance. Honda has already been achieving great things with the Type-R prototype on Germany's famed Nurburgring, and the company now intends beating the lap record for front-driven hatchbacks, set in 2011 by RenaultSport with its Megane 365 Cup.
It's all very exciting, and it's the sort of high-performance engine development stuff that Honda used to be renowned for. But it hadn't been doing it so much in recent years.
Company executives admit that Honda was sufficiently stung by the effects of the global financial crisis, followed by the natural disasters in Japan and Thailand, to become quite conservative and introspective in its outlook.
In other words, as many observers have pointed out, Honda lost its mojo. But now it is seeking to get it back, and it is on the verge of launching a new lineup of performance cars including a new NSX, an S660 open-topped sportscar, and of course the Civic Type-R - all of them powered by small-capacity turbocharged engines.
It's all part of a grand plan to give the entire Honda vehicle fleet better sporting credentials.
At a media conference at the Tokyo Motor Show a couple of days later, Honda president and CEO Takanobu Ito said his company has completed its development programme for hybrid engine technology, and is now focusing on improving the efficiency of its internal combustion engines.
"The key is to downsize engine cubic capacity and to turbocharge it," said Mr Takanobu, an unabashed motorsports fan. "In recent years our focus has been on environmental technologies. Now we have the technological lead in that area, so we have now entered a stage where we can focus on creating vehicles that are sporting and fun to use.
"That will be the volume of our business - producing regular passenger vehicles with more sporting performance. That's why we are developing a series of turbocharged engines."
Honda Research and Development president and chief executive Yoshiharu Yamamoto confirmed the new plan. "We are in the process of transforming ourselves - we're shedding our skin so we can become faster than before," he told journalists at a briefing at Tochigi.
Crucial to all of this is development of a new range of high-performance direct injection turbocharged petrol engines. Honda has so far created three of them - 1.0-litre three cylinder, 1.5-litre four cylinder, and the 2.0-litre four cylinder unit - and the intention now is to make heavy use of all three engines through Honda's entire product range.
At Tochigi there was the opportunity to try all three.
The 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine was under the bonnet of a new-generation Jazz, and it immediately impressed as a little beauty that develops 95kW of power and 200Nm of torque - a 20 per cent improvement on the 1.5-litre engine that is likely to be powering the Jazz when it is launched in New Zealand next year.
Meanwhile the 1.5-litre engine, which powered a left-hand drive Civic sedan, develops 150kW and 260Nm which is 15-20 per cent more than the current 1.8-litre normally aspirated VTEC engine. It also impressed, not the least for the dollops of engine torque almost immediately available.
And then of course there was the 2.0-litre unit, which Honda officials hinted will potentially be installed into a number of vehicles in the future. What they wouldn't say was when this will all happen.
In an interview with Fairfax Media at Tochigi, Honda R&D chief engineer Ayumu Matsuo said his personal ambition was to see widescale introduction of the engines as soon as possible. They were high-performance smaller cubic-capacity engines with potential application throughout the Honda vehicle fleet, he added.
Not only that, but the engines are more environmentally acceptable. Already the high-performance 2.0-litre turbo complies with the Euro 6 emissions standard which will become effective next year, and the others are likely to achieve the same.
For example, the 1.0-litre engine is claimed to have an average fuel consumption of just 4.2 litres per 100 kilometres and emissions of 99g/km of CO2.
Development of this triumvirate of turbocharged engines isn't the only significant performance-oriented project nearing completion at Honda. Improved and more responsive CVT automatic transmissions, a new eight-speed dual-clutch auto with torque converter, and new hybrid powertrains including all-wheel drive are all in their late stages of development.
One vehicle project that is nowhere near commercialisation, but which was made available to drive, is a CR-Z hatch made of carbon fibre over an alloy space frame. Weighing in at just 800kg which is about 300kg less than a standard CR-Z, it has a 40 per cent better acceleration performance but a 20 per cent lower fuel consumption.
Asked when the carbon fibre Honda might go into production, one senior Honda executive said the challenge was cost.
"At the moment the car is very expensive, and carbon fibre bodies are difficult to make," he said.
"Therefore it is difficult to give a timeline for this project. But we can assure you we will continue to work hard to commercialise such a vehicle as soon as possible."