Honda Motor has begun making its unconventionally designed small passenger jet in the United States, aiming to create a "Civic of the Sky" that could make it a major competitor among the world's aircraft manufacturers.
Honda said on Wednesday that its US-based passenger aircraft unit was building the tiny five-passenger jet, noted for its two engines mounted over the wings, in Greensboro, North Carolina.
"US federal certification for the jet's engine should come before the end of this year and for the aircraft overall next year," said Fumika Ishioka, a Tokyo-based Honda spokeswoman.
Some executives are counting on the project, which analysts say is behind schedule, to rekindle the spirit of innovation that many inside and outside Honda believe the company has lost.
Ishioka said well over 100 customers had placed orders for the HondaJet. The company is aiming to beef up production capacity at the US unit, Honda Aircraft, to be able to produce 100 jets a year within two to three years, she said.
But Honda faces steep obstacles to entry in the market, especially with its unusual design and lack of a proven track record in service and maintenance.
"All this newness scares a lot of people," said Jeffrey Lowe, analyst at Hong Kong-based consulting firm Asian Sky Group. "Some people may take a wait-and-see attitude."
He noted the program was running about two years late, with certification originally expected in August of last year, but doubted this would be a disadvantage since the general aviation market has slowed globally.
The project began in the late 1980s and at the time appeared unrealistic: transforming Honda from simply one of nearly a dozen Japanese carmakers into one of the first successful Japanese aircraft manufacturers since World War II.
Honda officials have said they hope the HondaJet will shake up the corporate jet business with the same fuel efficiency, clever design and low price that allowed the first-generation Honda Civic to rattle Detroit's auto giants three decades ago.
The USD$4.5 million jet's odd-looking engine-over-the-wing design is part of the reason for its greater space and fuel efficiency, according to its chief engineer Michimasa Fujino, now president of Honda's Greensboro-based aircraft units.
Compared with roughly similar business jets now available, the HondaJet is designed to cruise about 10 percent faster and can take off and land on shorter runways, said Honda's Ishioka.
It is also much more economical, using about 20 percent less fuel and offering about 20 percent more cabin space, and with cargo space "big enough for Paris Hilton", Fujino once remarked. Aircraft similar to the HondaJet include Embraer's Phenom 100 and the Cessna Citation CJ1+.
The Honda aircraft, which will initially target the North American and European markets, also offers what some tiny planes don't: a full-size lavatory.
Fujino has told reporters that early on, many of his bosses were skeptical about his unorthodox design for the aircraft. He said he kept his project alive over the years by nurturing ties to senior executives and by linking his risk-taking to Honda's broader efforts to revive its daring, risk-taking spirit.