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Reuters speculates this morning that a hybrid price war is about to break out between Honda and Toyota. The initial skirmish, the bureau says, will come in Japan. But if a discount battle were to start, it's hard to imagine it being contained in the Japanese domestic market. Then again, we've heard all of this before.

Japan's Nekkei Business Daily reports that an upcoming hybrid edition of the Honda Fit will be the trigger. Honda has announced pricing for the Fit hybrid. The new car will begin at 1.5 million yen (about $16,570) when it goes on sale this fall. That undercuts the Toyota Prius significantly -- in Japan, Reuters reports, Prius prices start at 2.1 million yen ($23,500).

But then, analysts predicted the same price war when Honda first launched the Insight hybrid. Coming in at 1.9 million yet ($21,300), the Insight is currently the least-expensive hybrid car on the market in Japan. Many had predicted that the Insight's appearance on U.S. shores would lead Toyota to introduce a stripped-down Prius for under $20k, but despite early chatter out of Toyota, the cheap Prius I never showed up in American showrooms.

Prius prices stayed high for many years because Toyota needed to recoup research and development costs for the first largely successful hybrid, but analysts tell Reuters that issue is no longer relevant, for either Toyota or Honda. Kazaka Securities analyst Yoshihiko Tabei told Reuters "Toyota has finally begun enjoying profits on the Prius and Honda is barely making profits on the Insight." Lowering prices wouldn't be easy, but it's at least realistic for the first time.

In the meantime, we're just hoping for some news about the Fit hybrid on our own shores. According to Reuters, it will combine the practical body of the Fit with the surprisingly zippy powertrain of the Insight. If that reaches U.S. showrooms with a low pricetag, Honda may have a hit on its hands.
 

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Price


Honda Motor Co. plans to sell a hybrid version of its popular Fit compact car at around 1.59 million yen ($18,600), making it the cheapest hybrid in Japan when it goes on sale in October, the Tokyo Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun newspapers reported today.

Thanks to Japanese subsidies on green-car purchases, hybrid cars have become popular in the market for new passenger cars in the past months.

But the subsidies are scheduled to end next month, a move that could trigger a price war with rival hybrid car maker Toyota Motor Corp.

Honda's Hybrid Fit will cost about 300,000 yen less than Insight, Japan's No.2 auto maker's other hybrid offering and currently the cheapest. It will be priced at about 400,000 yen more than Fit's gasoline-powered version, the Shimbun daily said.
 

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Review


This is the final piece in the Fit puzzle we've been waiting for -- the Honda Fit Hybrid. It's the 3rd hybrid from Honda in as many years, after the Insight and CR-Z. According to chief engineer Kohei Hitomi, Honda wanted to test the hybrid waters before launching a gas-electric version of its hugely popular Fit. Consider them tested.

But according to Honda America, the Fit Hybrid, which just recently debuted in Europe (where it's known as the Jazz) isn't destined for U.S. shores. That's a shame, because it's an engineering marvel, the best of the recent Honda hybrid trio. The Fit Hybrid's 1.3-liter powerplant and IMA system sit snugly inside the tiny engine bay, and, more to the point, the battery pack and IPU (Intelligent Power Unit) "fit" cleanly under the rear floor section without sacrificing luggage space.

You have to look closely to see the exterior modifications, but multiple subtle changes were made in an effort to improve the car's aerodynamics. Hitomi and his team added a slightly edgier look to the body by touching up the headlights and taillight clusters, as well as the front bumper and wheel arch surrounds. Different underbody panels were also employed. A revised spring-operated front brake pad design that reduces unwanted friction and special eco tires were added to the mix.

The Fit Hybrid employs the Insight's 1.3-liter 4-cylinder IMA powertrain with CVT that develops roughly 98 horsepower combined. It's said to be about a second faster from 0-60 mph than the Insight, and delivers the power in a more elegant manner. While no U.S. spec mileage figures are available, we expect the Fit Hybrid will match or beat the Insight's roughly 40/43 city/highway mpg numbers.

"Customers paying a higher price for the Fit Hybrid will naturally expect a quieter, more comfortable ride than that of the Insight or current Fit, so we had to reduce NVH levels substantially," admits Hitomi. "We used a substantial amount of lightweight, sound-absorbing fiberglass wool inside the body panels to reduce engine and CVT whine reaching the cabin."

The result is surprising. The Fit hybrid is significantly quieter at speed than the base Fit. Pushed hard, the CVT still whines at high revs, but the sound-deadening material works superbly.

The CVT delivers the best mileage, insists Honda. In fact, it is so confident, it says the Fit Hybrid is not only more fuel efficient in low-speed city driving (up to 28 mph) than a Polo 1.2 BlueMotion, but that its 0.37 lb/mile carbon emissions figure is on a par with that of the VW. Hitomi also focused on revising the Fit's steering, which has come under fire for its waffle. By fitting an additional performance rod and thickening stabilizers, the Fit's steering now delivers better weight and feedback while generating less understeer.

Honda has also added a start-stop system to the Fit Hybrid and says it can travel slightly longer than the Insight on electric power alone. It's a pity, though, that the 15-inch Dunlop eco tires, which Honda says offer class-leading rolling resistance, tend to squirm in tight corners. They could do with additional rigidity in the sidewalls. Oh, and for the record, Honda is not offering the CR-Z's 6-speed manual -- at least not now.

If you've been looking for a Japanese hatch that can take the mileage, emissions, and handling battle to the diesel dynasties of Europe, this is your machine. The Fit Hybrid offers a great ride, and at last employs sharper, more responsive handling, too. But more than that, according to Hitomi, it is the first Japanese hybrid to offer a competitive, well-packaged, small hatch alternative to B-segment diesel hatchbacks in terms of mileage and emissions.

It's unfortunate that Honda America has decided not to import the Fit Hybrid. Cost has been mentioned as an issue, as have the U.S. market's more stringent crash test regulations. The Fit would need reinforced bumpers, as the Japanese-spec ones don't quite cut the mustard. C'mon, guys. This is the best Fit yet. There must be something you can do?
Honda Fit Hybrid Gauge

PHP:
2011 Honda Fit Hybrid
Base price 	$19,600 (est)
Vehicle layout 	Front-engine, front-drive, 5-pass, 4-door hatchback
Engine 	1.3L/88-hp/88 lb-ft SOHC 8-valve I-4; 13-hp/58 lb-ft motor; 98 comb hp
Transmission 	Cont variable auto
Wheelbase 	98.4 in
Length x width x height 	161.6 x 66.7 x 60.0 in
0-60 mph 	9.2 sec (est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 	N/A
CO2 emissions 	0.37 lb/mile (mfr est)
On sale in U.S. 	Never

 

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#1


TOKYO (AP) -- Honda's Fit subcompact overtook Toyota's Prius gasoline-electric hybrid as Japan's top-selling car in January, its 1st return to that spot in nearly 2 years.

The figures released Friday by the Japan Automobile Dealers Association show how the end of government subsidies for green cars have hurt sales of the Prius after holding the top spot in Japan for 20 straight months. It remains the world's top-selling hybrid.

Fit sales in January surged nearly 14% from a year earlier to 14,873 vehicles, about half of them hybrids, the Tokyo-based maker of the Odyssey minivan, Accord sedan and Asimo robot said.

The last time the Fit was a top-seller was in March 2009.

"It's better to be No. 1," said Honda Motor Co. President Takanobu Ito after also playing down its importance.

"My priority is that all our models record solid sales,"
he told reporters.

Government-backed incentives for green cars mostly ended in September, hurting sales of the Prius, which fell 38% in January to 13,711 cars.

Fit sales didn't suffer as much because it is cheaper and it went through remodeling relatively recently -- going on sale in October in Japan, including gas-electric hybrid versions as well as regular gas-engine models. It goes on sale this year in Europe as the Jazz model, but the new hybrid Fit is not set to go on sale in North America.

The Fit from Honda, Japan's No. 3 automaker, is the cheapest hybrid at 1.59 million yen ($19,000), making it an attractive buy for many, especially with additional dealer discounts.

The latest Prius, which went on sale in May 2009, starts at about 2 million yen ($25,000).

Toyota said it will continue to do its best to woo customers to its models, including the Prius.

"We are grateful to our customers for having made the Prius the top-selling model for 20 consecutive months," the world's biggest automaker said in a statement.

The end of such incentives is hurting overall Japanese car sales, including Honda models. Worries are growing about a further plunge in auto demand in coming months.

While the special incentives have ended, tax breaks for green cars continue until April 2012.

Toyota Motor Corp., which also makes Lexus luxury models and Camry sedans, sold 315,669 Prius cars in its home market last year, up 51% from 2009 -- and a record in Japan's auto history for a nameplate.

Toyota's reputation in Japan has held up relatively well despite the massive recalls that have dented its image in North America.

Earlier this week, Honda reported a nearly 40% drop in quarterly profit, hit by a strong yen and fading sales in Japan.

But it was upbeat about the full fiscal year through March and raised its profit forecast, crediting cost cuts and better model offerings.

Toyota reports earnings Feb. 8.
 
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