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TOKYO - Honda Motor Co. has developed a vehicle body-structure architecture that improves the ability of small cars to survive a collision with a larger vehicle.

The system, called Advanced Compatibility Engineering, or ACE, will be installed on all Honda vehicles as they are replaced in the next six or seven years, Honda CEO Takeo Fukui told reporters here at a demonstration of the system last month.

"This body design improves safety in collisions between vehicles of differing size and weight," he said.

The new system reduces the concentrated energy of collision impact by dispersing it over a larger area. Protective frames under the hood also prevent engines from ramming forward into another vehicle's cabin during a head-on collision.

In a recent test at Honda's Tochigi test center near Tokyo, engineers propelled a 660cc, 1,870-pound Honda Life minicar and a 3.5-liter, 3,898-pound Acura RL sedan into each other at 31 mph. In the head-on collision, the short nose of the minicar was crushed and the windshield cracked. But even though the smaller vehicle was lifted off the ground by the force of the impact, the integrity of its cabin was not affected.

In a frontal crash with up to a 4,000-pound passenger vehicle, Honda says the collision energy absorption of the Life's engine compartment is improved by 50 percent over the previous model.

The structure is based on three main elements - a highly efficient energy-absorbing main frame, a bulkhead that absorbs the upper part of the collision energy and a lower member.

The lower member has the most crucial role. The steel girder prevents lateral and vertical misalignment of the frames of vehicles in a head-on crash.

The next generation of the Odyssey minivan and the Acura RL, both of which are due in fall 2004, will be the first North American vehicles to incorporate the new system.

The new architecture adds weight and cost to a vehicle and will make Honda's slightly less fuel efficient, but Honda is committed to it, says Charlie Baker, American Honda's vice president of r&d.

"The cost is not insignificant," Baker said at a related Honda safety event in Ohio last week. "It adds several kilograms of weight. It's a challenge. Adding structure to the front of the vehicle does take weight. But the idea would be we have to make up for that in other areas of the vehicle."

But the new architecture could provide an important marketing advantage for Honda in the U.S. market, where Civics and Accords jostle for highway space with growing numbers of much larger SUVs and pickups.
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