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Honda Changes Direction -- Will Launch Electric Car, Plug-in Hybrids in 2012

Will launch a compact electric car and mid and large-sized plug-in hybrids capable of up to 140 miles per gallon.

Honda said on July 20 that it would roll out an electric car and plug-in hybrids in Japan and the United States in 2012 as it tries to catch up in the race to make clean, battery-powered cars.

Japan's number-two carmaker had previously been sceptical of plug-in hybrids but now plans to launch a compact electric car and mid and large-sized plug-in hybrids capable of up to 140 miles per gallon.

The plug-ins have been a pet project of Takanobu Ito, who headed Honda's research and development section before becoming chief executive in June last year.

"The next 10 years will be very critical for Honda to survive in the midst of major changes, at a time of increased environmental awareness and changes in the global economic structure," Ito said at a press conference.

Details of the cars will be released at the end of the year.

But the announcement that Honda will embrace the technology signals a turnaround in the company's vision. In 2007, then-president Takeo Fukui said that plug-in hybrids offered too few environmental benefits to be worth pursuing.

"Mr Fukui did not like batteries, but I am different," Ito said. "Now, as president, I have accelerated this process."

Plug-in hybrids share technology with standard hybrids -- of which Honda already produces several models, including a version of its Civic -- but can be recharged using a household power point.

Honda said it planned to start producing a high-output lithium-ion battery this year through a joint venture with GS Yuasa and would also harness technology from its prototype fuel-cell car to develop its all-electric car.

The company will also start operation in 2013 of a new plant at Yorii in the Tokyo suburbs that was put on hold due to the global financial crisis. The plant will develop new technologies for low-emission cars, Ito said.

The launch of the green vehicles is timed to meet tough regulations, including a new rule in California that will require three percent of a car maker's sales in the state to be zero-emission vehicles from 2012.

Honda will also expand its line-up of standard hybrid models next year, Ito said. The company will introduce the Fit hybrid in Japan this year and the next-generation Civic hybrid in 2012.

The Japanese government aims by 2020 to raise the share of hybrids in the country from 10% now to 20%-30%, and to have plug-in hybrids and electric cars account for up to 20% of sales.

Toyota's Prius hybrid, helped by government subsidies, has been the best-selling car in Japan for over a year. Toyota sold more than 270,000 Prius vehicles in the fiscal year 2009. Honda sold 100,000 of its petrol-engine Insights.

Nissan, Japan's third-largest automaker, is set to take the lead in mass-producing fully electric cars with lithium-ion batteries when it releases its Leaf later this year in Japan, the United States and Europe.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2010

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