|Once the Q&A session concluded, we once again piled into our motorcoach and set off for Honda's motorsports playground, Twin Ring Motegi. Of course, I've had this date circled on my calendar for many months now, as I would finally get my first crack at driving one of Honda's best Type Rs to date, and the first true Type R sedan since the DC2 Integra Type R from 10 years ago. But our visit to Twin Ring Motegi was divided into two track sessions, and my seat time in the Type R would have to wait until the latter session. The first session was over on Motegi's tri-oval, where the Japan Indy is hosted each year. Here, Honda had a smattering of vehicles to choose from, including the slick new fuel-cell FCX Concept, the previous generation FCX, Honda's 7-passenger Crossroad mini-ute, the recently updated Elysion Prestige, Honda's little Zest Sport turbocharged kei car, and two current-model Euro Accords: one with the existing i-CTDI diesel engine (and a 6MT), and the other with a prototype of Honda's next generation i-DTEC diesel engine (coupled to a 5AT).
The Car of Tomorrow, Todayi-DTEC Diesels headed to the USA
All of these vehicles were quite interesting to drive, particularly the FCX Concept. For a concept car, this FCX really has excellent build quality and a fantastic interior. The fuel cell stack buzzes, hums, and whistles a fair amount, but it's only noticeable because of the conspicuous absense of sounds that you'd normally associate with a combustion engine propelling a car at triple digit speeds. Acceleration from the 100kW (roughly 134hp) electric motor is quite good, though not mind bending. It's plenty adequate for most anybody's typical commuting and cruising needs, though. What further impressed me was the FCX's chassis - the steering was responsive and the FCX felt very confident, planted, and well balanced when pushing it through the turns on the oval, with a set of brakes that inspired confidence, if not curiousity. The brakes felt a little bit robotic on this car, but keep in mind that in addition to the arresting force of the traditional calipers, there is a lot of regenerative braking being employed as well. The interior itself is quite roomy and comfortable, and very stylish to boot. The main sound you hear while underway is a whirring/whining sound from the drivetrain as the car accelerates, and as the speeds increase, you can hear wind rushing over the windshield header, but this is really the only reminder that you're behind the wheel of a priceless prototype. Honda's really done a great job building such a forward thinking car.
It's no secret that Honda will be sending diesels our way to the USA by 2009, so it was good to have another opportunity to sample Honda's highly acclaimed i-CTDi diesel, and even better to have a chance to try out the motor that will replace it, their new 2000-bar common rail i-DTEC diesel. First, I tried the i-CTDi diesel that's currently on the market in Europe. The last time I tried a vehicle with this motor was 4 years ago when I visited HGT and was afforded the opportunity to drive a German-market Accord Tourer i-CTDi with a 5-speed manual transmission. Since then, a 6th cog has been added to the gearbox, so this was my first opportunity to try this configuration. It was much as I remembered, with a solid wallop of torque but a limited rev capacity. Acceleration is decent but the thrust is divided into brief bursts due to the narrowish operating rev range and close gear ratios. For whatever reason, this version of the i-CTDI seemed a bit more clattery and diesel-like than I had remembered, but it ran with no trace of the typical diesel odor nor any visible emissions. Next up was the i-DTEC, and the improvements in power and torque were quite noticeable. Frankly, normally I'm not a guy that really cares for automatic transmissions, and there's nothing really special about this particular 5AT (which is based loosely upon the 4-shaft 5AT that's currently fitted to J-series V6 motors), but this seemed like a better match to the characteristics of the diesel motor, with its abbreviated rev range and somewhat narrow torque band. Overall, I find the diesel experience to be most satisfying in terms of the efficiency gains that are possible. From behind the wheel, it's a bit anticlimatic and not as satisfying as driving the same car with a similarly sized petrol motor, but this will be a good option for those who are most interested in fuel economy and/or driving something "different".
I'm not sure what was going on in the planning meeting for this "Elysion Prestige", but apparently in Japan "Prestige" means you take a strikingly elegant minivan and festoon it with a cartoonish level of bling (just check out the acreage of "taillight" on this baby). Out on the track it was actually quite good for a people hauler - it felt a lot like a lighter and smaller USDM Odyssey. Within the selection of vehicles we had at the oval, the Elysion's engine felt rather potent. Apparently, while lesser Elysion models make do with a 3.0L SOHC V6, the Prestige benefits from a full 3.5L SOHC V6, and in this application the J35 feels quite happy. The Elysion had no problem pulling itself up to triple digit velocities and the chassis was nice and stable at these speeds, though the spring and damper rates felt like they were tuned more for the septogenerian set. I wouldn't mind seeing an Elysion in US showrooms as long as it's not the "Prestige" trim level. This vehicle could make sense for those who are seeking the luxury 7-passenger trappings of the US-market Odyssey, but in a tidier and lighter package.
Meet Me at the Crossroad
Honda seems interested in hearing what we think about Honda's latest Hummer knockoff, and though I've grown weary of trucks, crossovers, SUVs, and trucklets in general, I actually enjoyed driving the Crossroad. Since the Crossroad is fitted with an R20 (a 2.0L version of the R18 that's fitted to US Civic models), I was keen on seeing how well this powertrain would work. Color me impressed - while the R18 feels a little lazy to me, this R20 actually felt somewhat zingy. I was told that the vehicle I drove weighed around 1500kg (~3300lbs) - a figure that was a bit surprising considering the zest with which the R20 managed to motivate the Crossroad. I figured it would be even more of a low revving "torquer" than the R18, and it definitely has decent low end torque, but the R20 pulled rather nicely on up into the upper reaches of the rev counter, with little of the thrashing I was anticipating from this seriously undersquare motor. From a chassis perspective, this felt pretty typical for a Honda mini-ute, which means solid and composed, and in possession of light, accurate, and responsive steering. Cabin noise is acceptable though the 2.0 can certainly be heard at WOT. Inside the Crossroad, Honda's packaging wizards have apparently waved their wands double-time, because once again the interior seems impossibly roomy considering the diminutive exterior dimensions. As a TOV reader, you may recall from the launch that the Crossroad is actually a 7-passenger vehicle. I figured the 3rd row of seats would be next to useless, but I sat in them and they actually seemed to be about on par with, and possibly even slightly roomier than the 3rd row in a Honda Pilot. These could definitely come in handy for short trips. The catch is that once these seats are deployed, there is virtually zero cargo space left behind them. This vehicle is positioned just below a CR-V, and I feel it could serve as a good, more affordable alternative for the young family than the CR-V, though I imagine it would cannibalize some of the CR-V's sales. It seems that the marketplace is suddenly souring on "rugged" styled SUV's, though, so the Crossroad's styling could possibly work against it in the USA.
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