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New breed of engine

Honda's under-hood engineering is about to get a major overhaul

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TOCHIGI, JAPAN -- Honda has suddenly awoken from the slumber that has seen several of its recent product launches arrive with what was essentially a carryover powertrain.

Having introduced three new hybrid systems, Honda's under-hood engineering is about to get a major overhaul. The activity will see a new range of engines, each of which will now feature direct injection along with Honda's iVTEC system and variable cam phasing.

The first of the new breed is the base engine in the recently released Honda Accord -- a 2.4-litre four with 185 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque. The lineup will grow in the coming years to include a 1.0L three-cylinder engine, 1.5L, 1.8L and 2.0L four-cylinder engines and a range-topping 3.5L V6.

More intriguing is that all, with the exception of the V6, will be offered with turbocharging.

While the horsepower and torque numbers of the three- and four-cylinder engines will not be made available until closer to launch time, there was a hint: When I asked an engineer about the potency of the 1.0L turbocharged engine, he played coy, but he could not resist smiling broadly and nodding when I suggested it would make in excess of 120 hp.

I drove a Honda Fit equipped with the new 1.5L engine and CVT transmission. While I am still not overly enamoured with the transmission, the engine proved to be just fine. The tip-in response is crisper than the current engine and it has a noticeably stronger pull through the mid-range (a claimed 15-per-cent improvement in acceleration performance).

It's also more fuel-efficient -- more than 10 per cent. Expect this combination to debut when the current Fit is overhauled. This will likely happen when Honda's new assembly plant in Mexico comes on line in 2014.

There is more known about the 3.5L V6. Along with the direct injection and iVTEC with cam phasing, it will earn cylinder deactivation. Under light loads, it shuts down three of its six cylinders and uses active noise cancelling to mask the change in the engine's tonal quality.

It also boasts plenty of power. The preliminary numbers say 310 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque. This represents a five-per-cent increase in torque and a 10-per-cent boost in fuel economy compared with the current 3.5L V6.

Another of the pleasant surprises, and one that would work very nicely in the CR-V, is a totally new 1.6L turbodiesel. While it only produces 120 hp, it twists out 221 lb-ft of torque -- the CR-V's gas engine makes 185 hp and 163 lb-ft.

This means there would be little change in performance (I suspect it might actually improve at the low end), but there would be a huge step forward in fuel economy. The CR-V and its gas engine is rated at 6.4 litres per 100 kilometres on the highway; the turbodiesel is rated at 3.6 L/100 km.

The engine that truly shocked me was under the hood of the overtly funky N-One. This tiny car has surprising roominess along with the right features and flexibility -- it would be a great addition to Honda Canada's portfolio and the perfect foil for the likes of the Fiat 500, Mini and Smart fortwo. Alas, this is not likely to happen any time soon.

What surprised me was its engine. Displacing a mere 660 cubic centimetres (yes, 0.66L), I was not expecting much as I headed out on to the high-banked oval that rings Honda's R&D facility. Cranking it to life saw it produce the grumbly sound engines with an odd number of cylinders tend to make.

In short, as I pulled out on to the oval, I was prepared to be less than impressed.

Standing on the gas, however, saw this retro-styled box pick up its side sills and romp off toward the first corner. While this diminutive mill only puts out 63 hp and 77 lb-ft of torque at 2,600 rpm, it's enough to deliver impressive performance in this application.

Firing its power through a broad-ratio CVT, the N-One scooted to 100 kilometres an hour as quickly as any self-respecting car with a naturally aspirated 1.3L engine under the hood. Hitting the back straightaway saw the speedometer needle sweep past its 140-km/h maximum and point straight down. Here was a tiny ride scooting along at 150 km/h or so and feeling entirely comfortable in the process.

At the end of the lap, I pulled into the pit lane mightily impressed. Not only did it have surprising alacrity in posting a speed I didn't expect to see, it delivers a claimed average fuel economy of 5.4 L/100 km in the process.

The smile-inducing ride proved to be a race-prepared CR-Z -- a racing suspension, a roll cage and deep-dish front seats with five-point harnesses. While the engine was stock, meaning 122 hp and 123 lb-ft of torque at 1,000 rpm, it had a very neat feature -- a lone paddle shifter on the right side of the steering wheel. Rather than altering the CVT's ratios, it offered a pull-to-pass function.

Running down the long straight of the banked oval at 130 km/h, I pulled said paddle and the electric motor kicked in to give the CR-Z the benefit of its ponies. In the normal CR-Z, the computer determines when and how the electric motor assists.

True, the ability to tinker with the hybrid's operational characteristics runs contrary to the green theme of this sporty runabout, but it would be a very welcome addition to the road-going version.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2013 F2

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