Honda rubbishes Insight similarity to Prius

WAKO: A Honda design executive Thursday rejected claims his company's Insight was a copycat of Toyota's Prius, the world's best-selling hybrid car.

"We don't think it looks like the Prius at all," said Nobuki Ebisawa, managing director at Honda R&D Co., Honda Motor Co.'s research unit. "There may be some similarities in the roof line, but it is clearly different." Ebisawa's remarks were in response to the observation frequently made in the Japanese and overseas media that Honda's new Insight gas-electric hybrid bears a resemblance to Japanese rival Toyota's remodeled Prius.

Both went on sale at about the same time earlier this year. They are both selling well, especially the Prius in Japan, where it has been the top-selling model for three straight months - the first time a hybrid has taken that spot.

In July, Toyota sold 27,712 Prius cars in Japan while Honda sold 10,210 of the Insight.

Healthy hybrid sales have been a bright spot in the dismal auto industry, slammed by the global financial crisis. Government cash-for-clunkers incentives have helped lift their sales in Japan and abroad.

Ebisawa acknowledged considerations for maximising aerodynamics and placing the hybrid system of electric motor and gas engine may make for similar styling in hybrids.

But he said the design approach at Japan's No. 2 automaker has roots in the origins of his company in 1960, which he called "design DNA." Tokyo-based Honda has always tried to balance the desire for a dynamic look with a vehicle's uses, said Ebisawa, arguing there was continuity in Honda designs, including the Insight.

The same way of thinking and framework for design can be seen in Honda's Clarity fuel-cell vehicle, now available in limited numbers through leasing, as well as more common gas-engine models like the Civic and Odyssey, Ebisawa said, showing a clay model of the Insight to drive home his points.

Any similarities between the Prius and Insight are coincidence, he said at the Honda design facility in this Tokyo suburb.

Toyota Motor Corp.'s hybrid system is more complex than Honda's so it needs a higher roof, and that makes for a distinguishing feature that should be easy to spot out, he told reporters.

Ebisawa also said not all design proposals have to be expensive, and some simple ideas can offer fun for drivers to help make products more attractive.

He gave as an example the image of a leaf-shaped bud that pops up on the dashboard of the Insight, which grows bigger if one drives the hybrid to maximise mileage.

A hybrid switches between a gas engine and an electric motor, and is greener than regular cars.

"Our idea is that the person comes first," Ebisawa said.

"Design and concept are there to connect the human being with technology and styling."