Honda pushes founder's energy, green hybrids

Honda faces intense competition in the hybrid market from Toyota Motor Corp., the world's biggest automaker.

Honda's new president has promised to draw inspiration from the legacy of the company's founder to ride out hard times while pushing an aggressive strategy built around hybrid green technology. "A company must increasingly have individual character to stand out," Takanobu Ito said Monday in his first news conference as Honda Motor Co. president. "Honda had very strong energy at its founding, and we want to use that energy for the future of Honda." He said the automaker must pride itself on its "human" qualities, exemplified in founder Soichiro Honda, who was well-known for his exuberant love of cars and boyish bubbly personality. Honda died in 1991. Ito said Honda, Japan's No. 2 automaker, would speed up its hybrid-vehicle plans to offer a CR-Z sporty hybrid model in Japan in February 2010, and a hybrid version of the Fit subcompact before the end of 2010. Overseas plans are in the works, but details are undecided, with the CR-Z planned for both North American and European markets, according to Ito. Honda faces intense competition in the hybrid market from Toyota Motor Corp., the world's biggest automaker. Toyota's remodeled Toyota Prius has been a hit, topping sales in Japan for two months straight, surpassing Honda's hybrid offering, the Insight, which had been in top place before Prius's arrival. Ito, 55, who became president after a shareholders' meeting in June, is not from the founding family, as Soichiro Honda, who established the automaker in 1948, did not believe in passing managerial power down the family. Ito said hybrids are so crucial in the industry these days that every model, including those from other automakers, will be a hybrid over the next 20 years. "There are some issues left to overcome on battery and motor technology, so it won't happen overnight," he said, sitting next to a blue Insight in a Tokyo showroom. "Our theme is hybrids." But when asked whether he was aiming for Honda to be a bigger or a smaller company, Ito said he was after quickness, not scale. "It's not about size. I want to be a speedy Honda," he said. "I want my company to be able to act decisively while being filled with a creative sensibility." Honda has fared relatively better than Toyota and has stayed in the black for the fiscal year ended March 31, partly because Honda did not have as many bigger models in its lineup, and it also has a motorcycle unit, which wasn't as hard hit, especially in emerging markets. In contrast, Toyota sunk to its worst ever loss and is expecting more red ink for the fiscal year through March 2010. Hybrids shot to popularity when oil prices surged in recent years. But even after gas prices settled, environmental concerns have helped make hybrids the car of choice for many consumers. With emissions standards getting tight around the world, including the key North American market, under President Barack Obama's green initiative, hybrid technology is increasingly being seen as critical, said Ito, who drives an Insight. Honda has sold 38,700 Insight vehicles worldwide since it went on sale in February. Toyota has not disclosed a global sales tally for the new Prius, but has said it has received orders topping 200,000 in Japan. Ito, who shyly acknowledged his personality strength as a cheerful optimism, stressed that Honda must remember its founder's human traits. Honda was sensitive and considerate, noticed details others may overlook and cared about people, Ito recalled. "Soichiro Honda was really a nice guy," he said.