COLUMNS: Is Honda Coming Back to Us?

By Jean Jennings, President and Editor in Chief - April 2, 2013
Honda Accord Front Left Sisde View
You would think Honda has been quietly seething about the trash talk the enthusiast press has been heaping on its bland lineup of perfect cars for the past decade. You know, like: We want a CR-Z like that 1990 CRX. Could the Accord be any more boring? Why can't Honda bake a little excitement into the Civic along with all that reliability and ridiculous resale value? Even Consumer Reports went off on Honda's brand-new 2012 Civic, calling the interior "dismal" and pulling its coveted "Recommended" rating. Whoa.
We don't like boring cars at Automobile Magazine. But here's a shot of reality: Times have been tough. Honda saw a recession coming and pulled in the reins on frivolity when it designed the subdued 2012 Civic. "We thought the market would be more value driven," explains American Honda executive VP John Mendel. "It has been, but not at the cost of content."
HPD CR Z Concept Front Left Side View
Well, of course not! We're Americans, for heaven's sake. But was the 2012 Civic really a mistake? Honda had a jazzy redesign in the works soon after its introduction. Before it could act, Consumer Reports struck. Yet Honda sold 317,909 "dismal" Civics in 2012, making it the third-best-selling car in the U.S. The Accord (you know, the previous stodgy one) was the second-best seller at 331,872. The CR-V was the best-selling SUV/crossover at 281,652. We should know in our hearts that when times are tough, Americans buy Hondas.
Says Mendel: "Here's the conundrum for any mass-market brand building three vehicles that each sell 300,000 examples a year. You have to be edgy yet not offensive. It's like a red suit; you say, 'Wow! But it's not for me.' The number-one ice cream sold in the world is still vanilla. It's horrible to say, I suppose, but you can't be so polarizing. It's a nightmare for designers and engineers. We want to be fun, yet we want to be safe, but we also want to be out there.
"It tweaks me when I read that Honda has lost its way. No one sweats what the customer thinks more than we do. An old friend at Ford used to say that at the end of the day, you have to pass the pub test. You throw your keys on the bar. When you do and people see them, you don't have to explain yourself. Honda has always passed that test."
Still, the 1990s were the end of hot Hondas as we knew them. That's when chief engineer Nobuhiko Kawamoto, the brilliant father of the world's first aluminum production car, the 1991 Acura NSX, became president and, sadly, transferred control from the wild-eyed engineers to the responsible manufacturing and marketing guys. Although he had been a racing mechanic himself, he pulled Honda out of Formula 1. By doing so, Kawamoto saved his company from the serious threat of a takeover by Mitsubishi Motors (imagine that). Honda then got down to the business of building sensible Civics and Accords with a vengeance. Mister Kawamoto retired in 1998, and we still miss talking with him.
Fortunately, the racing heads in the company did not go away. In 1993 they became Honda Performance Development, keeping the pilot light burning as a subsidiary of American Honda. Now, on the eve of the Acura NSX's return to production, it is fitting that the HPD guys might be building the successor to the CRX of our dreams -- a hot CR-Z very much like the HPD concept we spied at the 2012 SEMA show in Las Vegas. The concept has a 185-hp, supercharged four-cylinder engine, a sport suspension, a trick exhaust, big brakes, and eighteen-inch wheels. These HPD guys have pretty good credentials: since 2006, some ninety-eight IndyCar drivers have done business with HPD-prepared racing engines and have completed more than a million miles of practice, qualifying, and racing with only six in-race engine failures.
You may want to begin a letter-writing campaign to Honda and put the hot CR-Z on your wish list. Meanwhile, there might be another Honda you can fall in love with. We have driven the new 2013 Honda Accord, and it is magnificent. Two weeks ago, most of the staff abandoned the office for a unique, bracketed, head-to-head test of eight mid-size cars, arguably the finest group of family sedans ever on the market at one time. Go to automobilemag.com or download our May iPad issue to read the report. I will tell you one thing: the 2013 Honda Accord blew everyone away. It's been a long time coming.

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