A Little Japanese Sausage: 35 Years of Honda's Takes on Leading German Cars

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

How ’bout that new Civic sedan? I don’t know about you, but I think it’s the boldest mainstream design I’ve seen from a Japanese manufacturer since Honda got rid of the hidden headlamps on the Accord back in ’92. It’s got a ton of surface texture, a vicious fastback profile with a tiny trunk opening, and big wheel arches like a show car.

There’s only one problem; it’s a clear and present riff on the Audi A7. But as we’ll see, this is a game Honda has played before.

Readers of the decent automotive press in the late ’70s — that would be Car and Driver, Road & Track, and AutoWeek — knew there were two automakers who had cracked the code for quality, desirability, and durability: Mercedes-Benz and Honda. They were the choice of the cognoscenti, the men who wanted the best car money could buy. If you had fuck-you cash, you bought a Benz SEL. If you didn’t, you bought the Honda Accord.

To capitalize on the growing Stateside popularity of the Accord, Honda designed a four-door sedan variant. All of a sudden, the primary objection that anyone could have to Accord ownership — the two-door, short-wheelbase, hatchback form factor — was gone. Now all you had to do was suffer through the ministrations of your thoroughly corrupt and despicable local Honda dealer, which might well have performed felony bribery and collusion to get that particular unit of allocation and was determined to make you pay through the nose for its trouble.

The Accord sedan added extra chrome and luxury detailing to the existing platform. But it was the styling of the rear end that raised eyebrows. From the beginning, the taillights were an obvious nod to Mercedes-Benz, so much so that they were quickly revised to have a horizontal separator for the brake light instead of the early W123-style yellow/red/clear blocks.

There was certainly no mistaking an Accord for a 450SEL, whether up-close or at a distance. But the staid lines, the heavy chrome detailing, and the massive rectangular taillights — those were signals nobody could miss. The Accord sedan was a rip-roaring success. The rest is history.

In 1992, Honda gave the Civic its most dramatic single revision ever, abandoning the bread-van look of 1984 and 1988 for a sleek, aero style that cloaked a car that had gotten significantly larger and more powerful. But the talk of the town was the new Civic coupe. It was the first Civic in history to prioritize form over function, and it did that in a big way. It was hugely popular with young people and would eventually be integral (*wink*) in starting the fast-and-furious Honda movement four or five years later.

We adored the low nose, the high tail, the big wheels, and the open, low-windshield cockpit. But what most of us really liked was that it looked, from most angles, just like this:

The 1990s were the BMW Decade. The three-pointed star was suffering from consumer fatigue and the aging of its pre-Boomer core buyer base. The next generation of 30-somethings was choosing BMW as their preferred status signal. The E36 coupe was on the vanguard of that: sleek, futuristic, blindingly fast courtesy of its 189-horsepower inline-six. But if you couldn’t afford a Bimmer, Honda had a car that gave you the same kind of excitement and street cred, only in a smaller dose.

The new Civic is a step ahead for Honda, and it’s a bold attempt to once again add that mixture of durability and desirability to the Honda brand. It’s a very large car, and it’s not hugely space-efficient. Honda is leaving that to the Koreans as they start their inevitable march upmarket.

Since introducing the A4 in 1999, Audi has gathered momentum. Today, it’s the equivalent of Mercedes-Benz in 1978 or BMW in 1992; it’s the choice of young people with money and taste, and it’s become an aspirational acquisition for anybody who can sniff at that sixth figure on their W-2. Honda’s got the A7 firmly in its sights, but today they aren’t the only people willing to quick-bake some tribute styling. The Malibu has it, too, and there are more fastbacks coming.

What’s next? What star will rise to replace Audi, and what will the Hondas of 2030 look like? I suspect that Honda wishes its Acura division could offer that styling and prestige leadership — but I have my money on a resurgent Mercedes-Benz. Its new product is dynamite and the company has finally made a clear division between its A-class prole fodder and the rest of the lineup. So will the next Civic look like an S-Class, all Baroque curves and drooping trunk? Only time will tell.

[Images: BMW of Sarasota, American Honda, Daimler, BMW, © 2015 Mark Stevenson/The Truth About Cars, © 2012 Murilee Martin/The Truth About Cars]

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Islander800 Islander800 on Oct 11, 2016

    The best handling Honda I had was our '86 Accord four-door, once I replaced the original tires with Pirelli P6's. With the four-wheel upper/lower A-arm independent suspension and Pirelli's, and good rack and pinion steering, it drove like it was on rails. Response was fantastic. Most fun factor for the price I've ever had. Do they do four-wheel independent suspensions like that anymore? I recall that the original Datsun 240Z had the same arrangement. The only problem is, as they accumulate miles, the pivot bushings on the A-arms get sloppy and are apparently expensive to replace. But when fresh, with great tires, the '86 Accord was a hoot to drive.

  • DirtRoads DirtRoads on Oct 12, 2016

    Since I was a Fiat nut back in the day, I clearly recall one of Al Cosentino's rants in his catalogue about how Toyota (another Japanese mfg) had a full page ad saying they had made more twin cam engines than anyone else in the world. IIRC, they implied they practically invented it. And of course Fiat had that place in history, not Toyota. Al was pissed. The Japanese have made good money taking other peoples' ideas and copying them, then re-selling them to Joe Public. The cognoscenti see this easily, but those people are in the clear minority. It will continue, because it's successful. About the only innovation I saw Honda bring to the automotive world back then (we're talking the 1980s) was the CVCC combustion chamber. But if you worked on those, clearly there was an uncle in the family with a hose and tube factory, and they used them quite liberally. I worked on a lot of cars back then, and never could quite understand the Japanese engineering way of thinking. Their marketing, however, was completely transparent.

  • FreedMike Needs MOOAAARRR POWER.
  • Mgh57 I should just buy an old car where everything is analog.
  • FreedMike You mean, the "Hellcat all the things" plan failed?
  • Fred I've only had it for about 7 months and I like it. Mostly because I have a hard time seeing my phone screen. So even tho my Honda's screen is 6" it's a lot easier to see than my phone.
  • Cha65697928 I'm 48. Both our cars have it, I'm never going back. Being able to activate calls, messages, music, nav, opening/closing garage doors all via voice command is awesome. Now if Audi would just allow Google maps to mirror in the middle of the driver's display instead of only allowing the native nav...