After sampling prototype vehicles and touring Honda's crash-testing facility, we had a chance to sit down with a group of American journalists and ask Honda Motor Co. President and CEO Takanobu Ito about his company's future product plans. Here are five key things we learned.
1. Honda wants more sporty cars… eventually
"I want!" Ito exclaimed in a rare burst of English when a reporter asks whether Honda will build more sports cars in the vein of the old Integra, Prelude, and S2000. Sadly, that's as close as we got to a confirmation that Honda will keep building fun cars. Ito said he knew that Honda should make attractive, appealing, and interesting cars, but wouldn't speak to the actual possibility of more sports cars. But he said direct-injection and turbocharged engines would help with those goals. Honda has already committed to making the next-generation Civic Type R the fastest front-wheel-drive car to ever lap the Nürburgring.
Asked about the possibility of a new dedicated sports car like the S2000, Honda managing officer Toshihiko Nonaka said, "We don't really have a concrete plan yet."
2. Honda will use both dual-clutch and continuously variable transmissions
Honda has long used CVTs in fuel efficient vehicles and hybrids, and even in the new 2013 Honda Accord four-cylinder, yet the tech briefing showed several prototype hybrids with dual-clutch transmissions. So which transmission option will Honda use going forward? Both.
Honda maintains that CVTs are generally the better solution for all-out fuel economy, but recognizes that dual-clutch transmissions are much more fun to drive and sporty. Cars that are designed only with fuel economy in mind will continue to use CVTs, but premium and sportier vehicles will get dual-clutch setups.
"DCT is intended for sporty experience for vehicles," Nonaka explained. "[It's] not just for hybrids, and can be combined with regular sportier gasoline engines."
3. The driver is still in charge
Despite the large number of active-safety systems on display here, Ito maintains that the driver is always in charge of Honda vehicles. He related the story of naming Honda's electronic stability control system several years ago: while German supplier Bosch preferred the name end in "control," Ito wanted to call it "Vehicle Stability Assist" to point out that the system helps, rather than takes over from, the driver. In much the same way, Ito says that active safety systems should protect against crashes without overriding the driver's intentions and making driving boring.
"The driver should be responsible for having fun while driving, at the same time he should be responsible for safe driving," Ito said. "We would like to respect the driver's will as much as possible… At the same time, we would like to provide [technology] to provide the safest driving."
4. Downsized turbocharged engines are on the way
Honda has already confirmed that the next Civic Type R will use a 2.0-liter turbo-four engine based on that of the Civic WTCC race car. After that, Honda will begin offering more downsized turbocharged engines in future products. The move comes a fair bit after most other automakers switched from V-6 engines to turbo four-cylinders, due to the fact that Honda is only just starting to tinker with direct fuel injection.
"First of all, the main key is that we are successful in developing direct injection engines," said Ito. "By adopting turbocharging systems, we get can have an engine with better fuel efficiency as well as better performance.
Nonaka says that Honda will show a downsized turbo gasoline engine at the next Honda Meeting -- which will probably be in fall 2013.
5. Honda wants to appeal to younger buyers
Automakers all around the world are struggling as young people eschew buying cars in favor of public transportation and buying fancy smartphones and tablet computers. Ito appeared troubled by this trend and says he believes that this is partly because there are no exciting cars that appeal to young people.
"For young people to buy cars, they need to find automobiles in general interesting," Ito said. "Maybe the car manufacturers, including ourselves, may be a little complacent in our efforts to build real fun and excitement, and making cars interesting and attractive to young people."
He also said that many young people simply can't afford new cars -- not only because of the purchase price, but also because the cost of car ownership (mainly fuel costs) keep increasing. Ito thinks that improving Honda vehicle fuel economy will help make the company's new cars more accessible to younger customers.