Honda R&D behind-the-scenes experience: Testing the brand’s future powertrains and tech

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With the hydrogen-powered Honda Clarity fuel cell vehicle at one end of its Tokyo motor show stage and the twin-turbo V6 plus three-electric-motor Honda NSX hybrid supercar at the other, there could be no confusion about the company’s charge towards a future line-up filled with alternative energy cars. As we discovered last week at Honda’s research and development headquarters in Tochigi, Japan, the brand with a reputation for innovation is casting its net as wide as possible when it comes to both fuel and drivetrain alternatives and the steady advancement of autonomous driving technology. In addition to hydrogen fuel cell and multi-motor hybrid systems, Honda is investing in turbocharged petrol and diesel engines, and plug-in and pure electric propulsion systems with the long-term goal of zero CO2 tailpipe emissions. It’s working just as hard on technologies intended to make travelling in its vehicles safer, easier and more practical for all people. CarAdvice was invited to go behind the scenes to get hands on with its latest creations that are earmarked to reach global showrooms between now and 2020, including one that will go on sale in Australia around the middle of next year. Honda CR-Z four-motor electric vehicle The Tesla Model S is the current darling of the automotive industry, astonishing in equal measures for its emissions-free and ‘ludicrous’ performance. Honda is no stranger to EV technology, however, having topped the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb exhibition class earlier this year with an electrified version of its CR-Z sports coupe. The racer has an electric motor at each wheel, employing Honda’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) and Precision All-Wheel Steer (P-AWS) systems to deliver unique dynamic performance. We jumped behind the wheel of a milder prototype with about half the power of the Pikes Peak champion – though you wouldn’t know it with the throttle pedal flat to the floor. The acceleration is phenomenal both off the mark and gunning out of bends, reacting immediately and mind-bendingly to your inputs. The electric motors combine to deliver approximately 180kW, as well as tonnes of torque that’s delivered from zero rpm. The output of each motor changes continuously for the ideal mix of power and balance. The steering is just as sharp, feeling pointy and reactive to even the slightest adjustments off centre, and grip is impressive as you cut through corners. The prototype is a long way from showroom ready, however. The electric powertrain buzzes loudly, and many of the production CR-Z’s panels have been traded for flared and lightweight carbonfibre bits, and in the case of the cabin, stripped out completely. Honda’s four-motor EV technology may be the furthest from becoming a production reality, but the CR-Z prototype signals an exciting future for the brand’s sports cars. Next-generation Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid Honda’s second-generation plug-in hybrid drivetrain promises to take big leaps over the original system fitted to the Accord Plug-In Hybrid currently sold in Japan and recently discontinued from the US. The carmaker claims the new petrol-electric powertrain (comprising a naturally aspirated four-cylinder petro engine, two electric motors and a lithium-ion battery pack) will deliver three times the electric driving ability of it predecessor, boosting its zero-emissions range to approximately 64km. The system can also operate in pure EV mode up to the vehicle’s top speed. While a short runway didn’t allow us to get the next-gen Accord Plug-In Hybrid prototype to its zenith, a brisk jaunt to 100km/h proved the powertrain is happy to accelerate to highway speeds in near silence, not needing to rouse its supporting petrol engine. The first vehicles equipped with Honda’s next-gen plug-in system are expected to enter production from 2017. 1.0- and 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engines Honda may be at the cutting edge with its fuel cell and electric drivetrains, but it’s been very slow in jumping on the downsizing and turbocharging bandwagon. Australia will get its first taste of Honda’s new 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine midway through next year when it debuts in the new-generation Civic sedan. While entry versions are set to retain the current Civic’s 1.8-litre naturally aspirated petrol motor, the turbo engine will power mid- and high-grade sedan variants, before being deployed using the same strategy in the new Civic hatch around the end of 2016. The engine promises significantly better performance than the 1.8. That engine makes 104kW and 174Nm, while the 1.5 turbo could boast as much as 150kW and 260Nm. The boost will make the Civic more competitive with the likes of the Ford Focus (132kW/240Nm 1.5-litre turbo) and the Volkswagen Golf (110kW/250Nm 1.4-litre turbo). We tested the engine in a Honda Jade: a compact MPV sold in China and Japan that’s bigger and heavier than the Civic. The engine’s performance in the Jade was decent, though it will no doubt feel spritelier in the leaner Civic. It impressed most for its refinement, being near silent at idle and remaining quiet towards its redline, while the cabin was also well insulated from any vibrations. We also tested the brand’s new 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol in a Civic hatch. This engine seems to have further to go in terms of its development, as the prototype we tested lacked Honda’s trademark refinement. Its raspy tune isn’t unexpected from a three-pot, though it’s more pervasive than most similar rival units. Its performance in the Civic is adequate, though in the lighter Jazz, in which it’s set to be deployed in Australia, it should deliver even more impressive punch. The engine’s peak outputs are currently rated at 90kW and 200Nm, making it one of the most powerful engines of its kind. We’ll have to wait a little longer for this engine to arrive in Australia, however, as it’s unlikely to appear until the all-new Jazz launches here closer to the end of the decade. Honda Legend with 10-speed automatic transmission Honda claims its new 10-speed planetary automatic transmission is the first in the world developed for front-engined, front-wheel-drive vehicles. Replacing the brand’s existing six-speed auto, Honda says the 10-speed unit cuts gearshift times by 30 per cent, reduces engine cruising speeds by 26 per cent, improves overtaking acceleration time by 14 per cent, and cuts fuel consumption by at least 6 per cent. The transmission has initially being developed for the Honda’s largest sedans and SUVs powered by the brand’s 3.5-litre V6, though future development could see it paired with smaller engines and vehicles. From seventh and 10th gears, the transmission has the ability to skip three ratios instantly, dropping to third and sixth respectively. In those and all other gears from above second it can also skip a single gear on downshifts (i.e. from ninth to seventh). Though the transmission in our Legend prototype clunked on some downshifts, its movements were lightning fast. At highway speeds, it shifts from 10th to sixth to fourth almost instantaneously as you flatten the throttle to overtake. It picks up top gear as early as 90km/h, and cruises effortlessly at 1500rpm at the highway limit. Far from just a fuel miser, the transmission is also happy to hold gears to the redline under hard acceleration when pushed to its optional Sport mode. Automated driving Beyond powertrains, Honda is also working on automated driving technology designed to free up drivers from monotonous trips behind the wheel, increase mobility for people who may otherwise not be able to drive, and boost safety for all road users and pedestrians. Heading to new Hondas soon is Traffic Jam Assist (TJA). An evolution of adaptive cruise control, it incorporates forward vehicle detection and lane marker detection using forward-facing cameras and radars to take complete control of accelerating, braking and steering. The system works so long as it has clearly marked lanes to follow, and moderates its speed if there is a car in front. TJA is engaged by nudging the cruise control toggle up twice, though as some testers noted a separate button to switch it on could make it more intuitive. Honda claims its system will be better than any other at keeping the vehicle in the middle of its lane, and in our brief time behind the self-turning wheel of another Legend prototype it showed itself to be very capable at this without too much fidgeting and correcting. TJA operates at all vehicle speeds and unlike some rival traffic navigating systems – including Tesla’s recently updated Auto Pilot function for the Model S – doesn’t require drivers to manually indicate in order to change lanes. We also got a taste of Honda’s more advanced automated highway driving technology from the passenger seat of an Accord Hybrid prototype. In this demonstration, the car had been pre-programmed to complete a circuit by perfectly recreating the laps finished by one of Honda’s engineers. Taking the racing line through the tight and twisty track, the Accord didn’t put a foot wrong, accelerating, braking and cornering smoothly and precisely. While programming a car to function like Asimo the robot may not seem particularly relevant to driving in the real world, its ability to navigation based on global positioning data from satellites previews a future where you can tell your car where you want to go and it will take you there. Early versions of automated driving that are likely to work from freeway on-ramp to off-ramp are intended to reach Honda’s production cars by 2020, while the brand’s leading autonomous engineers believe it will be at least 2030 until Honda and other brands can launch vehicles that can take you from door to door without any driver input. MORE: Honda news, reviews, pricing and specs