In a year when the U.S. auto market has been knocked out cold by the one-two punch of spiking fuel prices and the financial meltdown, it’s not easy finding a hero in the car business. Now that the tide of easy credit and cheap gasoline has gone out, we see that a lot of car companies have been swimming naked. But not Honda. Honda’s steadfast refusal to follow the herd once looked stubborn but now appears prescient. In an era when platinum-paid executives rarely deviate from the orthodoxy of the crowd, Honda’s Takeo Fukui has successfully avoided faddish trends and instead stayed true to the founding principles of Soichiro Honda and his successors. For that, Honda president and CEO Takeo Fukui is the 2009 AUTOMOBILE MAGAZINE Man of the Year.
Fukui’s long path to the presidency at Honda has seen him move through many of the arenas that are so key to the company’s DNA: R&D, motorsports, and manufacturing. An engineer by trade-funny how so many of the best auto executives are-Fukui joined Honda in 1969 and started work on the project that would lead to the Honda CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) engine, a unique approach to meeting emissions regulations and an early indicator of the nascent automaker’s engineering prowess and commitment to the environment.
Honda often goes its own way, whether it’s being the first Japanese auto manufacturer to set up a U.S. assembly plant (a move many others followed), avoiding the merger mania that swept the industry (most of which have since been undone), or refusing to follow the herd with its model mix.
Honda kept to the sidelines when Nissan and Toyota went scurrying after the U.S. automakers in the full-size pickup, and attendant big SUV, markets-both of which are now in a free fall. Resources not spent developing trucks have been directed instead to cars, such as the Accord, enabling Honda to keep them at the top of their game.
Unlike so many other car companies, Honda has not treated the small-car arena as a low-margin backwater. Every generation of Civic moves the bar of excellence still further, and the introduction to the United States of the even-smaller Fit, in 2006, proved to be a deft move indeed. Honda blew through its 50,000-unit projected annual sales estimate for that car by some 30,000 units in 2007, and at this writing is on track to sell even more for 2008, when the model has been effectively sold out for months and a redesigned version was introduced.
Diesel engines are off the radar in Honda’s home market of Japan, but Fukui and his team recognized their importance to Europe, leading Honda to develop an advanced 2.2-liter turbo-diesel four-cylinder for that market. Like so many Honda engines, it’s been winning rave reviews and will come to the United States later this year in the Acura TSX.
Looking ahead to future technologies, Fukui continues to lead the company outside the mainstream. The upcoming new Insight hybrid, for instance, was engineered with an emphasis on cutting the weight and the cost of the hybrid powertrain, rather than maximizing fuel economy. The Insight is expected to undercut the benchmark by several thousand dollars while still achieving 40/45 mpg. Continued effort in this direction will allow Honda to add a hybrid Fit in a few years.
Fukui also has expressed skepticism of lithium-ion batteries, which he considers not ready for prime time-although Honda does use them in its FCX Clarity fuel cell car-and, as a result, is cool to the prospects of plug-in hybrids and battery-electrics. Instead, the company is forging ahead with the development of fuel cell cars-where Honda is the only manufacturer to put fuel cells into the hands of paying customers, albeit in small numbers. Will Fukui’s independent course put Honda behind the pace, or is he steering around another costly diversion? It’s too early to know, but one thing is certain: Honda’s strong internal compass has kept it moving forward with a kind of plodding certainty that so many of today’s naked swimmers can only envy.