Association, Inc.

Issue No. 3, 2009

Japan's New Hybrids

Honda InsightA small piece of history was made in Japan this April when the Honda Insight was named Japan's best-selling car.

The Insight, Honda's small, 1.3-litre petrol-electric hybrid, might once have been thought of as an eco niche model, but there it was riding high in the charts, the first time a hybrid has ever gone number-one in Japan.

Toyota PriusIf that was headline news, another, different hybrid took over as the nation's favourite the following month.  This was the new, third-generation 1.8-litre Toyota Prius, which raced to the top in May.

As the eco movement takes hold, so hybrids clearly now have come of age, moving from the specialised end of the market to become mainstream players.  One obvious attraction for buyers is the hybrids' outstanding fuel economy and low emissions.

With costs having come down, they're also keenly priced, and the fact that they qualify for the Japanese government's eco-car tax incentives adds another string to their bow.

It helps too, of course, that hybrids are seen as 'smart', clean and hi-tech, and are as seamless, practical and easy to drive now as any conventional car.

Meanwhile, as you'd expect in a highly competitive auto arena such as Japan's, other manufacturers are not just sitting idly by.

Infinity EssenceNissan, for example, will unveil in 2010 a new, rear-drive hybrid model using its own unique technology.  While there have already been tests with Skyline-based prototypes, at the Geneva Show this March Nissan went further with the Infiniti Essence, a spectacular twin-turbo hybrid concept which demonstrated Nissan's belief that hybrids can be about performance and excitement as well as eco-friendliness.

Mazda PremacyMazda, in turn, has come up with a fascinating version of its Premacy (or Mazda5) minivan, complete with hydrogen-powered rotary engine and hybrid system.  The first one was delivered to the Iwatani Corporation, an energy development company in Japan, on a lease contract basis this May.

In Japan's commercial vehicle sector, Hino and Isuzu now offer hybrid-powered truck and bus models—proof that hybrids can work in all parts of the market.

So hybrids are now on the move, and while the Japanese government has set a target of eco-vehicles making up 50 per cent of the market by 2020, hybrids—along with electric vehicles, no doubt—are likely to offer the most promising near-future solution to making the Japanese driving environment a greener place.