DETROIT--Honda Motor Co. is poised to become the first auto maker to market a gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle in the U.S., with the introduction next year of a low-emission coupe designed to get
70 miles to the gallon, the company announced Monday.
     Honda, known for its engine prowess, is beating larger Japanese rival Toyota Motor Co. to the U.S. market with a hybrid. Toyota, which already sells the hybrid Prius sedan in Japan, plans to introduce the vehicle here in late 2000.
     "It's certainly good news to demonstrate in the near term, using current technology, [that] a vehicle can get improved gas mileage and lower emissions," said Jason Mark, transportation analyst with the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists. "It's the direction we would like to see the rest of the auto industry go."
     The world's major automakers are working on hybrid vehicles as well as pure electric and fuel-cell-powered autos. But to date, only Honda and Toyota have announced production plans.
     The as-yet-unnamed Honda hybrid is a lightweight two-seat, two-door sports car. A Honda spokesman said, "in addition to being environmentally friendly, it is very sporty, very aerodynamic."
     The vehicle's structural elements are aluminum, and its body panels are made of aluminum or plastic. It weighs just 1,740 pounds, compared with about 2,500 for a Civic subcompact. Lower weight helps the vehicle far exceed the fuel economy of the best vehicles now on the market. It can go more than 600 miles between fuel stops, Honda estimates.
     Developed under the code name V, the Honda hybrid is based on the J-VX concept car that the automaker first displayed at the Tokyo Auto Show in 1997. A prototype of the hybrid will be unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit early next month.
     Tom Elliott, executive vice president of American Honda, said the hybrid is an example of the advanced technologies being developed by the automaker and its commitment to "bringing environmentally responsible vehicles to market ahead of the competition."
     The hybrid uses Honda's so-called integrated motor-assist propulsion system. It employs a 1-liter, three-cylinder, lean-burn engine that provides most of the driving power. The gasoline-powered power plant is assisted by an electric motor that can provide a boost during acceleration from power stored in a nickel-metal-hydride battery. The battery is, in turn, rechargedby a generator that recovers energy from braking.
     Honda said the hybrid system, coupled with a five-speed manual transmission, can match the performance of a typical 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine. The company said the hybrid vehicle would meet California's ultra-low-emission vehicle standard, currently the most stringent emissions standard in the world.
     The coupe will be built in Japan at the same plant that makes the EV Plus electric vehicle, which is now sold in California and New York, and the aluminum-bodied Acura NSX sports coupe.   Honda will introduce the hybrid next fall as a 2000 model in the United States, Japan and Europe. Retail price and production volumes were not released.     "It will be a low-volume vehicle," Honda spokesman Andy Boyd said.     ;  Price is a major concern, because the combination of two power systems and the use of exotic, lightweight materials tend to drive up production costs. Toyota is selling the Corolla-sized Prius for about $17,000 in Japan, though at a high subsidy, given analyst estimates that it costs twice that much to build. 

NOTE: Electrifying Times surfers: We will try to get a photo of this sporty hybrid ASAP. Keep checking back. 

Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved