Honda is making a big push with its new Fit sub-compact to get out of being the perennial also-ran of hybrid cars to Japanese rival Toyota, the maker of the Prius.
It's a challenge hinged on making the technology affordable. Hybrids deliver fuel efficiency by switching between a petrol engine and an electric motor, depending on driving conditions but cost more than petrol cars. Honda's answer: Lean production.
At the sparkling clean Yorii factory, which opened earlier this year in Saitama Prefecture just north of Tokyo, Honda makes the Fit with faster stamping time, fewer robots and reduced paint coats. That reduces energy consumption, making for lower costs and greener production.
Honda Motor gave reporters a tour of the Yorii plant this week, ahead of the Tokyo Motor Show, a biannual exhibition of vehicles including the new Fit. The show opens to the media Wednesday. It runs for the public from Saturday through December 1 at Tokyo Big Sight convention hall.
Honda president and chief executive Takanobu Ito said the key to hybrid success is to sell in numbers, which works to lower the price, but stressed that green models must increasingly be tailored to regional needs.
“With the hybrid system, you can reach fuel efficiency levels that are impossible with the internal combustion engine,” he told reporters, referring to regular petrol engines. “It's a big step, but hybrids are going to win great acceptance. By 10 or 20 years, there will more and more of them.”
The Yorii plant will serve as a model for Honda production around the world, such as plants in Mexico, Brazil and Thailand, according to the Tokyo-based automaker.
“The Yorii factory is the first step for Honda in making the Fit more of a global hit, especially in emerging markets — and doing that while maintaining profit,” said Issei Takahashi, auto analyst at Credit Suisse Securities in Tokyo. “It's an important beginning.”
The plant, Honda's eighth in Japan, employs 2,200 workers and has an annual capacity of 250,000 vehicles. It's the first Honda plant to open in Japan since 1990.