Honda Has to Rethink Its Core Offerings to Rescue it From the Doldrums
It’s been years since Honda has produced a car aimed at bringing both budget-minded and affluent automotive enthusiasts to the brand, and with increased competition both foreign (Hyundai, Kia, Volkswagen) and domestic (Ford, Chevrolet), the company has to examine its product line or risk losing the buyers that once made Honda the sporty Japanese automaker. The S2000 is gone, the Civic Si is a shadow of its former self, the CR-Z isn’t worthy of the name, and the Acura NSX is God knows how far away from coming to the market. All of Honda’s rivals offer something in the way of performance, so how is it that the automaker that gave us the CRX Si has so completely lost its way?
Until maybe five years ago, I always considered Honda as the sporty alternative to Toyota. Both entered the American marketplace at roughly the same time, and although Toyota has a line of cars with names like Supra, MR2, and Celica, Honda had decent models that appealed to young car buyers whose parents didn’t want high insurance premiums but also didn’t want their kid hating the set of wheels they just inherited. Civic over the bland, feminine Corolla any day of the week. Accord over Camry. Tundra over Ridgeline, though, because nobody likes a truck with a grille that looks like a grill. The S2000’s sharklike profile hid a four cylinder boasted a whopping 107hp/L, while the MR2 looked like a squashed bug driven by a slightly modified Corolla engine. And speaking about the Corolla, don’t even wonder aloud about the S version, it’s a badge job and nothing else. Those spoilers don’t make the car faster.
Now, though, there are alternatives to those Japanese giants that nobody would have considered cool during my formative years. Ford makes a hot version of the entry level Fiesta, which costs as much as a Civic Si but looks a hell of a lot better and is more powerful. Plus, available Recaros. Hyundai has the Veloster Turbo, Mazda has the Mazdaspeed 3, Volkswagen has the GTI and Jetta GLI, Dodge has Dart GT, and Toyota finally wised up to the existence of the low-end enthusiast market to create the lustworthy Scion FR-S. Honda’s one semi-exciting car is outclassed by virtually everything else in its its price bracket.
Even in the lineup of standard automobiles, Honda falters. The Insight was DOA, the Crosstour is hideous, the Ridgeline is somehow still being sold, 0.2 CR-Z was sold per dealership in the U.S. last month, and the FCX Clarity experiment has yet to pay off. The company took a gamble on the 2012 Civic by banking on the idea that recession-pounded Americans would buy cheaper automobiles if a new car purchase was needed. All other manufacturers increased prices slightly as is the norm, but also increased the value of those cars by adding in more standard features. To its credit, Honda realized its mistake after critics panned the car and immediately rushed though a midcycle refresh only one year after the Civic’s debut. But an MCR still didn’t address the Civic’s amoebic styling, which is now dowdy compared to a Corolla. How the mighty have fallen.
Credit must be given where it is due, and the current Accord is vastly superior to the Camry, Altima, and most other midsize sedans in its price range. It is the only one that can be optioned with a manual transmission, something that Ford, Dodge, Chrysler, Kia, Hyundai, and the rest don’t offer. That should be cause for celebration on its own. Although the two-pedal versions have now switched to a CVT rather than a conventional automatic, Honda admirably still ships a row-your-own tranny. And I can attest that the stick is satisfying despite the annoyingly high armrest that makes shifting slightly awkward.
Like Toyota, Honda seems content resting on its laurels, basking in the reputation of reliable transportation that it has built over the last four decades, but Honda’s complacency is creating opportunities for hungrier automakers. Gone are the days of shoddily built American econocars and cheap Korean subcompacts with more plastic than all of the inhabitants of Beverly Hills. Honda needs to do something to keep its market share from sliding. Since the days of the Mustang, it has been clear that car buying Americans (especially young people) love cheap power, and in today’s climate, that means a car that also doesn’t hurt too much at the pump. Other manufacturers, especially Ford, have recently mastered this combination in their compact and subcompact offerings. It’s time the original perfecter of that reliable, fuel efficient speed rises from the ashes of its slide into mediocrity and takes back the throne.
Photo courtesy of Honda