Honda headquarters is hot for delayed model launch

June 15, 2011 - 11:44 PM

TOKYO (AP) — Honda headquarters is sweltering, executives are without ties and reporters are fanning themselves in a scene illustrative of Japan's struggles to conserve electricity after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami sent a nuclear plant into meltdown.

Honda Motor Co. launched the Fit Shuttle station wagon, which includes hybrid versions, for the Japanese market Thursday, three months later than the initial plan — another sign of the disaster's devastation.

The 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami destroyed Honda's parts suppliers, dealers and design facility in northeastern Japan.

Still, President Takanobu Ito was relieved the company had come this far.

"It was a real tough three months for us," he told reporters, wearing a casual beige jacket but no tie, instead of his usual dark suits.

The annual practice of allowing less formal attire for the office called "Cool Biz" is being backed by the Japan in a big way after the disaster — now dubbed "Super Cool Biz," even encouraging Aloha shirts and shorts.

Although no Honda executive was in shorts and their shirts were relatively staid, the nuclear crisis hung like a cloud over the event.

Tokyo-based Honda's invitation to the event — one of the first auto launches after March 11 — had warned the thermostats will be set at 28 degrees Celsius (82 Fahrenheit), and the executives will be in "Cool Biz" clothing.

In addition to the problems at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, which are expected to take years to resolve, another nuclear plant has been shut down over safety fears.

And so Japanese companies and consumers alike are being urged to cut back on power use.

Automakers, a pillar of this nation's economy, are under great pressure to reduce electricity use by 15 percent.

Auto workers are producing cars on weekends and taking Thursday and Friday off for three months starting next month to reduce the load and avoid blackouts during peak demand periods.

Honda has said vehicle production in Japan will return to pre-disaster levels by the end of this month, and global production in August or September.

All orders for the Fit Shuttle will be delivered in two months time, said Sho Minekawa, the executive in charge of Japan sales. There are no plans to offer the model overseas so far.

"We are finally able to introduce this product," he said. "We apologize to all those who have been waiting."

The Fit Shuttle, which comes as a hybrid, starting at 1.81 million yen ($22,000), and with a gasoline engine, starting at 1.61 million yen ($20,000), delivers the same mileage as the smaller Fit hatchback, according to Honda.

The hybrid version delivers 30 kilometers (18.64 miles) per liter, or about 70 miles a gallon, under Japanese test conditions, it said.

Honda is expecting its profit for the fiscal year through March 2012 to plunge 63.5 percent to 195 billion yen ($2.4 billion) from the previous year because of parts shortages and other disaster woes.

The maker of the Civic sedan and Odyssey minivan was battered by the cost of fixing damaged property and equipment, higher raw material costs, the strong yen and research expenses related to future products such as environmental technology. Honda's global vehicle sales for the current fiscal year is projected to drop 6 percent on year to 3.3 million vehicles.

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Yuri Kageyama can be reached at http://twitter.com/yurikageyama