2009 Man of the Year: Takeo Fukui

Martin Richardson

Unlike so many other car companies, Honda has not treated the small-car arena as a low-margin backwater. Every generation of Civic moves the bar of excellence still further, and the introduction to the United States of the even-smaller Fit, in 2006, proved to be a deft move indeed. Honda blew through its 50,000-unit projected annual sales estimate for that car by some 30,000 units in 2007, and at this writing is on track to sell even more for 2008, when the model has been effectively sold out for months and a redesigned version was introduced.

Diesel engines are off the radar in Honda's home market of Japan, but Fukui and his team recognized their importance to Europe, leading Honda to develop an advanced 2.2-liter turbo-diesel four-cylinder for that market. Like so many Honda engines, it's been winning rave reviews and will come to the United States later this year in the Acura TSX.

Looking ahead to future technologies, Fukui continues to lead the company outside the mainstream. The upcoming new Insight hybrid, for instance, was engineered with an emphasis on cutting the weight and the cost of the hybrid powertrain, rather than maximizing fuel economy. The Insight is expected to undercut the benchmark Toyota Prius by several thousand dollars while still achieving 40/45 mpg. Continued effort in this direction will allow Honda to add a hybrid Fit in a few years.

Fukui also has expressed skepticism of lithium-ion batteries, which he considers not ready for prime time-although Honda does use them in its FCX Clarity fuel cell car-and, as a result, is cool to the prospects of plug-in hybrids and battery-electrics. Instead, the company is forging ahead with the development of fuel cell cars-where Honda is the only manufacturer to put fuel cells into the hands of paying customers, albeit in small numbers. Will Fukui's independent course put Honda behind the pace, or is he steering around another costly diversion? It's too early to know, but one thing is certain: Honda's strong internal compass has kept it moving forward with a kind of plodding certainty that so many of today's naked swimmers can only envy.

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