Honda plans to start limited production next year of a hydrogen fuel-cell sedan for sale in Japan and the US and also will offer a unique mass-market hybrid in the US and Europe within two years, priced under the current $US25,000 Civic hybrid sedan.

According to national newspaper USA Today, Honda announced the new vehicles on Thursday at a demonstration in Washington of prototypes of the FCX fuel-cell sedans it will offer in the US next year.

The paper noted that domestic rival General Motors also has promised to hand over to individuals some time this year 100 Chevrolet Equinox SUVs modified to run on fuel-cell power.

“The consumer focus is where we need to put more attention,” Honda fuel-cell marketing manager Steve Ellis told USA Today. “We started with fleets, added a few consumers, now we’re going to swing the pendulum.”

The paper noted, however, that only about 12 of the 50 US states have hydrogen fueling stations, and only California [traditionally a leader on automotive environment issues] has more than a few. Even if big oil companies are slow to add hydrogen to their forecourt offerings, industrial-gas suppliers such as Praxair and Air Products could step in, USA Today suggested.

“A market too small to attract the bigs could be plenty big enough to attract the merchant hydrogen companies,” Robert Rose, executive director of the US Fuel Cell Council, told the paper.

The report said Honda declined to say how many 2008 FCXs it would offer but only two current-generation FCXs are being used by individuals, who lease them for $US500 a month.

USA Today said Honda expects the 2008 model will get the petrol equivalent of 68 miles per [US] gallon in the federal city-highway combined-driving cycle. Hydrogen with the same amount of energy as a gallon of petrol sells for $3 to $6 and, because fuel-cell cars are much more efficient, the cost per mile is much less than with petrol, the paper noted.

The report said the automaker claims a top speed of 100mph (160km/h) and the paper found that prototypes were easily able to hit 75 (130km/h) miles per hour before running out of room on a test course set up in a parking lot in Washington.

Next year’s fuel cell car will have a revised and smaller fuel cell stack, USA Today said. Instead of taking up almost the entire floor space of the vehicle, it is mounted along the centre tunnel, under the armrest between the driver and passenger. A lithium-ion battery pack is mounted behind the rear seat, taking up a small amount of boot space.

Honda UK environment manager John KINGSTON told just-auto the new fuel cell car would initially be marketed only in the US and Japan, mainly because those two countries have some established hydrogen distribution infrastructure so refuelling could be assured. There are no plans for European introduction at this stage.

USA Today said that the cheaper petrol-electric hybrid that Honda announced wasn’t on display in Washington but it won’t look like other Hondas and would supplement, not replace, the Civic hybrid, which has lagged behind sales of Toyota‘s Prius hybrid, at least partly because it doesn’t look different from the petrol-powered Civic.

The Prius has a completely unique appearance and cabin notably different from regular Toyotas.

Honda UK’s Kingston said the new car – as yet unnamed but referred to internally as the Global Hybrid – was expected in Europe after production commences in 2009. He confirmed the car would be smaller and cheaper than the current Civic Hybrid (which is more distinctive here in the UK as it is a sedan while all other Civics sold here are hatchbacks).

“The new car will be designed around the hybrid technology,” he said.

He added that UK and European customers were divided on appearance – some would prefer a more distinctive look to show off their environment-friendly choice while others liked the “no compromise” look of the current Civic Hybrid sedan.