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Old 10-17-2011, 06:20 AM   #1
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Arrow Still Fond of Honda, But Someone Please Call the Bullpen

Man, Honda has had a tough year. The Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami limited production and choked supply of its redesigned Civic, just when the company needed a hit new model. And then, adding insult to all that earthquake injury, the new Civic finally arrived only to be met by an extraordinarily lukewarm reception. But the sadder truth is, Honda was in trouble before the quake happened.

Like watching an aging superstar pitcher who?s gradually losing his velocity rudely rejoin the ranks of mere mortals who tend to get pasted by opposing batters, observing the sputtering decline of Honda ? once not just a fine carmaker but also one of the greatest and most adventurous automotive engineering enterprises the world had ever seen ? has brought much sadness to fans, including this one. Honda still builds good automobiles. But greatness, it seems, does not last forever.

Like in the game of baseball, where acres of statistics accrue to tell the tale of skills eroding over time, individual moments also stand out like signposts along the way on the greatest players? career descents. Similarly, we see in Honda a broad downward trend that?s been detectible for decades, as well as some specific calls they?ve blown, pitches they?ve located poorly or thrown away, all of it tied, I would submit, to their gradual adoption of a different approach to the game they once excelled at. Where Honda once dared to lead by going its own way, its expanded size and cost structure seemingly coaxed it into playing the role of follower. Instead of giving the customer what it thought he or she needed, Honda started copying other market leaders and listening to its new breed of customers, sheep themselves, who told them they wanted their cars bigger, heavier, faster, all in all, more like the cars the other manufacturers were offering.

2012 Honda Civic (Photo by Rick Chung, via Flickr)

Though Honda spokespeople play it down, the most grievous blow to corporate egos has been the rating of its new Civic by Consumer Reports (CR) as a car it could not recommend; this surprising result stung Honda to the quick, coming as it did from a scrupulously impartial test body that in years past almost single-handedly made the company a mainstream American brand by highlighting for its value-conscious readers the reliability and excellence of Honda?s automotive propositions. As with Toyota?s Camry, one can draw a straight line from the success of Civic and Accord to Consumer Reports? vocal support.

The harsh welcome for the new Civic ? and it?s hard to argue with CR?s critique ?cites dumbed-down suspensions, uninspired handling, poor ride quality and shoddier materials than found in previous Hondas and its increasingly excellent competition, particularly that from Korea. Honda and some of its supporters have accused the magazine of treating them unfairly. And it is surely ironic that a publication traditionally accused by the American industry of being pocket-protected weirdos ? folks who hate cars and wouldn?t know a good one if they tripped over it ? actually cares about them so much that it?s called out Honda?s downwardly mobile engineering brief and increasingly lackluster dynamics as key causes for the ratings decline. Credit a tech staff that knows cars and driving better than most, and cares far more about fun-to-drive than they get credit for. Bravo for those who would point out that the emperor?s garments have grown threadbare.

1973 Honda Civic Advertisement (Image by Darshan67, via Flickr)

While its sales have grown considerably over time (partial credit to several North American factories), Honda?s diminishing focus has been coming into focus for years. Who of a certain age can forget how plucky Honda ? which in the 1960s made its living building humble motor scooters ? managed to shame the entire American industry when it showed up in Washington, DC, in the 1970s, with its new CVCC motor, which handily met all the emissions regulations Detroit was simultaneously testifying would, with all the money in the world, be impossible to meet? Boy they schooled them big boys good. And who won?t recall the first Honda Accord, or the many successful generations that followed, each one addressing in its own modest, but forthright way, the motorist who wanted a good, reliable, efficient car? Year after year, decade after decade, popular transport was provided with a technical sophistication and conceptual elegance no one expected, at a price most could afford.

1984 Honda Civic Hatchback

1984 Honda Civic Sedan advertisement

1984 Honda Civic Wagon (Photo by Craig Black, via Flickr)

Credit too for Honda?s success was a design clarity that?s long since left the building. Cast a glance back at the perfectly formed Civic lineup, circa 1982, when the Civic hatchback, sedan and wagon all looked like members of the same harmonious family, just that bit smaller than the Accord, which was there for those who wanted something bigger and a little more luxurious. With high-revving, four-cylinder engines and sophisticated road manners, courtesy of suspension designs found in much more expensive cars, they blew away the lazy and fusty competition. Spending more on hardware to make their cars better, Honda seemed to know exactly where it was headed.

Honda fans, what do you think? Tell us below!

But then it went chasing volume eternal. Big sales weren?t enough; they had to be bigger. Honda no longer created a market; it followed one. And then it was as if it had lost its confidence, no longer coming at batters with hard strikes, but rather nibbling around the edges of the plate.

2012 Honda Pilot (Image by Honda)

2012 Honda Ridgeline (Image by Honda)

Designs became less innovative and crisp, more wobbly and me-too familiar. Then in the 90s, after steadfastly resisting the genre on solid principle, came Honda?s first SUVs, then, it?s first six-cylinder engines, large minivans and even pickups. While the concept of 15-mpg Hondas entered our consciousness, memories of 45-mpg Civics grew more distant as its cars grew ever larger, to the point where they?re bigger today than old Accords ever were. And Accords themselves grew concomitantly more bloated through the years, with increasingly bland designs meant to make them seem more mainstream. Excepting, of course, today?s rarest of Accord variants, the oddball Crosstour.

2012 Honda Crosstour (Image by Honda)

An embarrassing, jacked up 4-wheel-drive fastback model that can only have drawn inspiration from BMW?s abominable X6 sports activity coupe; the Crosstour weighs almost 4000 pounds, has limited rear seat room and the nimble cornering responses of Chris Christie riding a wounded sperm whale. I refuse to believe that Sochiro Honda, the company?s brilliant founder, would have signed off on this car. Indeed, it might have forced him to commit hari-kari.

Listening to the conventional wisdom and that fiendishly misleading siren of industry, market research, Honda has canned Civic and (non-Crosstour) Accord hatchbacks and wagons for the American market while endlessly beefing up its crossover offerings. Though the hatchback Fit slots in approximately where the old Civic rode, it came late to the party, does not lead its class in fuel economy the way Hondas once did, and it is not particularly engaging to drive. Besides, the Fit is only one model among many. Possibly too many.

Honda Civic Hybrid (Photo by Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz)

After building the world?s first commercially available hybrid, the two-seat Insight of 1999, Honda failed to follow it up in a timely fashion, belatedly launching a less than awe-inspiring four-door Insight whose most notable feature is its styling similarity to Toyota?s vastly more successful Prius. Had it the courage of its convictions, Honda could?ve owned the hybrid realm. Instead it plays catch up. (BTW, Consumer Reports doesn?t much care for the slow-selling Civic Hybrid, which it also declined to recommend.)

Capping its 2011 woes to date, Honda recently reported a fourth straight month of double digit sales losses. You can blame tragic events in Japan, but the truth is Honda sales had already been falling in the year that preceded the earthquake. Credit the competition, from rising stars like Hyundai and Kia, to established major league hitters like Nissan, Volkswagen, Ford and GM. But don?t forget to blame Honda. For longer than we?d care to remember, it?s been throwing, not pitching. Good managers ought to know, it?s time to try something else.


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Old 10-17-2011, 10:31 AM   #2
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Re: Still Fond of Honda, But Someone Please Call the Bullpen

Agreed. They've lost their technological edge that made them special. Where is the direct injection? What happened to their promised diesel Accord? Where are the 6-speed transmissions in the 4-cylinder Accord and non-Si Civic? What happened to the manual transmission option in the CRV? What the heck is the CrossTour? Whose idea was the Ridgeline (I vomit a little in my mouth whenever I think of one)? Why were the most recent generations of the Accord and Civic so conservative?

There's nothing wrong with the company that yanking a few product planners couldn't fix. The proof? The Fit is still top of its class. Even though its mpg ratings are not as high as most others in the class, it beats them in real-world driving. Furthermore, it has tight suspension and a shifter that doesn't feel like like it's operated by a plastic spoon attached to a rubber band. It's cargo carrying capacity is outstanding. The future of Honda lies in more products like the Fit. The downside? Honda does not make much money on each fit it builds. Think of the difference in gross margin between a Fit and an Odyssey or Pilot.

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Old 10-17-2011, 11:37 AM   #3
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Re: Still Fond of Honda, But Someone Please Call the Bullpen

One big problem is that their founder is no longer around. He kept them on the right path.

But even back in the '70s I can sure fault Honda for putting out grievously deficient product- I'm thinking of the astonishingly inept front suspension on the Big Red ATV, and their unwillingness to stand behind it. So AFAIC, they've had a big stain on their rep for decades.
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Old 10-17-2011, 01:05 PM   #4
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Re: Still Fond of Honda, But Someone Please Call the Bullpen

I never owned a Honda, but I always had two impressions about them:

1) Hondas were made just a little lighter than the others, giving them great mileage and handling.

2) Because Hondas were lighter, they rusted out sooner and the engine rings, etc. gave out sooner.

Now that all cars have to be built like tanks to get good crash test scores, and because Americans have gotten fatter and want more room, Hondas have gotten as heavy as the rest.
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Old 10-17-2011, 07:21 PM   #5
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Re: Still Fond of Honda, But Someone Please Call the Bullpen

My Hondas and their weight:
1988 Accord LX 4DR MT: ~2500 lb
1995 del Sol S MT: 2301 lb
1995 Civic VX: 2048 lb
1999 Civic Si: 2584 lb
2005 Civic Si: 2740 lb
2008 Civic Si 4DR: 2945 lb
2010 Honda Fit Sport MT: 2520 lb

My 1988 Accord weighed about as much as my 1999 Civic Si, which weighed about the same as my 2010 Fit. It seems as though a given car weighs about as much as the next size class up did 10 years ago.

Of course, in 1988, we didn't have 8 airbags, side impact beams, etc. At least the new Civics are lighter than the 2006-2011 models. That's one step forward. The Fits only gained about 60 pounds in 2009, despite a 4- or 6-inch length increase. That's not too bad. But the Accord. WOOF! The beefy CrossTour, Odyssey, and Pilot are as heavy or heavier than the competition. And the CR-V keeps getting bigger and bigger. I like the 2002-2006 generation the best, personally.
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Old 10-17-2011, 09:39 PM   #6
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Re: Still Fond of Honda, But Someone Please Call the Bullpen

I've had two Honda Civics in my lifetime. First one was a second generation 1980 Hatchback that got 47 miles to the gallon. Second Honda is a 1992 VX hatchback that gets roughly 47 mpg. If they can do it right once or twice, they can do it right again.

There's something about Honda. Once you're a Honda guy, you always are. They'll wow us again soon enough.
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Old 10-18-2011, 06:48 AM   #7
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Re: Still Fond of Honda, But Someone Please Call the Bullpen

This morning a Crosstour passed me on the highway and, at a certain angle, I was struck by its similarity to the AMC Eagle.

So, apparently, was someone else:

I just went to and compared the 1984 Eagle to the 2012 Crosstour. It's kinda funny.
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Old 10-18-2011, 08:14 AM   #8
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Re: Still Fond of Honda, But Someone Please Call the Bullpen

After building the world’s first commercially available hybrid
The Insight was only first in North America. The Prius beat it in Japan.

I liked the '90s Accords and Civics, but when I went to look in 2000, Honda had pulled the hatchbacks. Then my brother had a 2000 Accord with the faulty transmission. My father just got a Crosstour. It's nice but far from what Honda was.

I'm thinking of the astonishingly inept front suspension on the Big Red ATV, and their unwillingness to stand behind it.
That seems to be the story with the battery pack in early Insights and hybrid Civics. The software was less protective of the battery chemistry than Toyota's, and I believe a less capable on board charger. This lead to early cell death. Which reduced fuel efficiency and performance. That was compounded by wiring the cells into larger packs, since one bad cell took out the entire pack.

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