DETROIT – Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s new Accord hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) will be profitable, vows President and CEO Takeo Fukui, who hints a hybrid light truck could be in the company’s future.

Fukui made his remarks here at a press conference following a Detroit Economic Club luncheon. (See related story: Honda Launching Hybrid Accord)

Honda Accord Hybrid

The HEV version of Honda’s top-selling passenger car is scheduled to launch this fall in the U.S., joining the Civic and Insight hybrids. (See related story: Accord Latest in Honda Hybrid Stable)

Although the Civic Hybrid, which has been on sale for more than two years, has failed to match the hype and sales performance of the rival Toyota Prius HEV, Fukui says he expects the car will be profitable long term. Honda said earlier this year sales of the Civic Hybrid were running about 20,000 units annually.

Fukui cautions that, compared with sales of the non-hybrid Civic and Accord models, “the profit margin on Honda’s HEVs might not be as great. We are looking more at long term. When the oil price goes up as much as we have seen lately, the hybrid will naturally become among the top choices of the consumers.”

Meanwhile, Fukui says he is well aware of upcoming HEV truck offerings for the U.S. market, such as Ford Motor Co.’s Escape and Toyota Motor Corp.’s Highlander and Lexus 400h models, and does not rule out a hybrid light truck from Honda.

“Down the road, hybrid could expand into light trucks. Honda is not totally unaware of that possibility,” says Fukui, admitting the auto maker’s current hybrid system is better matched with smaller-size vehicles.

“But for heavier trucks, there’s a question whether the hybrid is better or the environmental (clean) diesel,” he says. “That is the customers’ decision. We don’t have any specific plans yet, but our R&D (research and development) team is considering all kinds of possibilities.”

Fukui says Honda is committed to building “high fuel-economy vehicles,” whether they are hybrid or not. He concedes oil prices likely will drop in the near term, but says they will continue to rise in the long term. “So fuel-efficient vehicles will be more rational.”

Honda’s hybrid offerings currently are HEVs, and Fukui predicts fuel-cell technology will take at least 20 years to be commercialized.

“The primary purpose of going to fuel-cell technology is to reduce the emission of CO2 (carbon dioxide),” he says. “To that end, it is necessary to produce pure hydrogen fuel without generating CO2.

“Where we are today is we are making the fuel from natural gas or oil, and in the process a large volume of CO2 gets generated. So unless an infrastructure can be developed where, say, solar panels are used and no CO2 is emitted, there is no sense (for Honda to produce fuel-cell vehicles).”

Honda has said its Accord HEV, with a V-6 engine and Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist hybrid system, will achieve the same fuel economy as the 4-cyl. Civic Hybrid model (30-38 mpg) [7.8-6.1 L/100km]) and exceed the 240 hp of the gasoline-powered Accord.

Fukui says another fuel-efficient alternative is the ’05 Odyssey minivan equipped with a new V-6 engine that includes cylinder deactivation technology.