One of the most enduring narratives in the past few years has been the idea that somehow, Honda has lost it’s way. The maker of affordable, high-quality and fun to drive cars had suddenly become a purveyor of bland appliances that were the furthest thing from what they built their name on.
I’d argue that those who only focus on the loss of the Integra Type-R, the S2000 and the double wishbone suspension are taking a short-sighted view of Honda as a company. If anything, they are carrying on in exactly the same manner as they always have – it’s just that they haven’t adapted to the unprecedented shifts that have occurred in the post-bailout car market.
To understand Honda, you have to look outside the enthusiast lore of Soichiro Honda, VTEC engines and Formula 1. Honda is, above and beyond everything else, the iconoclast in the Japanese market, the small company with an international mindshare belying that size. Soichiro Honda, the legendary namesake founder, was something of a rebel, having little time for the stifling conformity of post-WWII Japan. The Japanese government attempted to merge Honda with a number of smaller auto makers and stop them from exporting their cars to the states – a move Soichiro successfully fought, that led to the company being given permission to export their wares to America. Ever since, Soichiro’s unconventional views have defined the company.
Key among these is an unshakable conviction – some would say bordering on arrogance – that whatever Honda does is the right way, the only way to do things. View things through this lens, and a lot of their decisions begin to make sense. Why introduce a V6 Accord when the 4-cylinder model was selling in huge volumes and offered a superior driving experience? Why give Acura a V8 engine when Honda’s V6 was just as powerful and more efficient to boot? Why introduce a minivan when the Accord wagon was sufficient? And when we do, why not give it conventionally hinged doors and a 4-cylinder engine? This philosophy is summed up perfectly by Soichiro himself: “We do not make something because the demand, the market is there. With our technology, we can create the demand, we can create the market.”
From 1973 until the turn of the millennium Honda’s convictions served them well. They rode wave after wave of success in America, selling every single car they could make, winning accolade after accolade, avoiding the recalls and scandals that plagued their competitors. If one subscribes to the narrative popular with us gearheads, then the mid-2000s are the start of Honda’s decline into beigeland. But this is a narrow-minded view that has little grounding in reality. Sales of Honda’s core products – the Accord, CR-V and Civic – have been exceptionally strong on a consistent basis. The CR-V, a vehicle so boring that even my own mother admitted that it was a dull drive, is the best example of how Honda’s ingenuity is far from dead. The little features, like the knee-high cargo floor, the multi-angle backup camera and the one-touch rear folding seats, are what the other 99.9 percent of buyers care about. Honda knows what side their bread is buttered on. But these days, Honda’s innovation and engineering skill manifest themselves in the Fit’s Magic Seat rather than the Prelude’s 4WS system.
So what about us? What about the people who yearn for something that’s exciting to drive and look at? Here, Honda’s legendary adherence to their convictions starts to border on arrogance. Having long believed in environmental stewardship before it was trendy (think 4-cylinder engines, light weight and the S2000 having LEV certification), Honda foisted upon us cars like the CR-Z. Substantial tax breaks on hybrid cars in Japan created a situation where the rest of the world was forced to accept this oddball product. The fact that nobody wanted the car was immaterial. Honda felt that was the right thing to do, and that they could create a market for it.
This strategy may have worked in previous eras, but Honda wasn’t prepared for a fundamental shift in the car market – they no longer had a monopoly on good cars. Pick up a car magazine from a decade ago, and there was a clear stratification in commodity segments like the compact and mid-size segments. Back then, mentioning the Kia Optima and the Honda Accord in the same breath would have been a farcical notion. Ditto the Cavalier and the Civic. Now, one could make the case that the Optima and the Cruze are equal to their Honda counterparts, something that would have been previously unthinkable. The democratization of quality wiped out much of Honda’s competitive advantage.
Ironically, the 2012 Civic might be our best hope for a change in Honda’s attitude. Despite being a perennial whipping boy among the enthusiast press, the Civic sold in astonishing volumes. Even though it took substantial incentives and lease deals to move units, the Civic destroyed the competition, outselling the Toyota Corolla/Matrix (for sales ranking purposes, they count as one) by nearly 27,000 units. With 317,909 Civics sold in 2012, Honda beat Mazda’s entire sales total with one model alone.
If this were any other era Honda -the Honda of old, the one that retained CVCC long after catalytic converters had become old tech, the one that built a brand new factory for its all-aluminum, hand-built supercar – would have given the press a giant middle finger and continued to pump these cars out. But they didn’t, because things are different now. They re-grouped, admitted they made a bad bet and tweaked the car after just over a year on the market. In the conservative, risk-averse culture of Honda that prizes saving face above all else, this is tantamount to an admission of gross incompetence. It may not be what we were hoping for, but the first step to fixing things is admitting that you have a problem.