Saturday, March 31, 2012

We Miss You, Honda

The slide started with the seventh generation Civic.

Honda told us not to worry, they told us that the exclusion of a double wishbone suspension wasn't cost-cutting, but that it was for packaging reasons.  They told us that their struts were different and that the sophisticated ride and handling characteristics of previous Civics wouldn't be lost - and besides, look at that rear floor, it's flat!

the aptly named "refrigerator white" 7th gen Civic
It was a slippery slope.  The Integra/RSX and S2000 both disappeared soon thereafter, then, literally weeks away from its official public reveal, the NSX replacement was cancelled.  There was a bit of hope for a time in the shape of the 8th gen Civic Si, which may not have been equipped with double wishbones, but which was endowed with some fantastic handling nonetheless - not to mention one of the world's all-time great four cylinder engines, the fantastic K20.

Fast forward a few years to the 9th generation Civic, all new for the 2012 model year.  Any spark of creative design or engineering has finally been completely extinguished with the new model, and it's not only enthusiasts who have noticed.  Citing decreased ride quality, longer stopping distances, vague steering and other points, Consumer Reports, about as objective and dispassionate a group of non-robotic journalists as imaginable, rated the 2012 at 61 points - a 17 point drop from the previous car and a slip from "very good" to "mediocre" points categories.

6th gen, EK chassis Civic front double wishbone layout
And while we are all holding out hope for the new Si, they went and specced it with a relatively gigantic 2.4 liter that has a 1200 RPM lower redline than the previous car's.  Despite a 20% increase in displacement, output remains unchanged at 200 HP.  When Honda gives up on small-displacement, high-revving and high specific output engines, they have truly ceased to be Honda.

And yet chasing Toyota probably makes great business sense.  To paraphrase Mencken; "no one ever went broke underestimating the American public's perception of steering feel and materials quality".  It has inarguably worked very well for Toyota.

But Honda isn't Toyota.  Honda is a company founded by one of the single greatest engineers of all-time, not a guy who got his start making sewing machines.  Honda is a company who's first car was a Formula One racer, who's first production model was a roadster powered by a diminutive and jewel-like, quad-carb, DOHC four cylinder equipped with a roller bearing crankshaft that allowed it to rev to nearly 10,000 RPM.  A company who before building an oval-pistoned, eight valve per cylinder street motorcycle, revolutionized the market with efficient, reliable, advanced, affordable and high-performance bikes - nearly single-handedly putting most European manufacturers out of business forever.  Do I even need to mention the GP bikes or the NSX?

Honda is known for engineering, they are known for steering feel, handling, advanced engine technology, for their accurate, buttery shifting transmissions, for precise tolerances and high redlines.  These are all things that, for the most part, are not actual characteristics of any car currently made by Honda - how long will that positive image and the good will that goes with it remain?

Let Toyota be Toyota. 

It's better to have a unique identity and a smaller niche of the market than to be a second-tier appliance manufacturer.  It's better to have customers who are passionate about your brand than to have them by default, their only attraction to your products being that they are inoffensive and easily forgotten.

Ironically, the first exciting new Toyota in years, the GT 86, is much more in line with classic Honda thinking than it is with their own.  With any luck, it will be a screaming success, and ample encouragement for Honda to again enthusiastically build cars for enthusiastic drivers.

1999 Zanardi Edition NSX
fairingless 1966 RC166 - 250cc, 24V DOHC six exposed
Honda's first production car, the awesome S500

6 comments:

  1. I've been in love with Hondas for a long time; my family loved them for a long time, and I'm sure my family will keep buying them. Personally? You couldn't threaten me into buying any of them made after about 2008, and even that's being generous.

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  2. Awesome. For me, Honda died when we ceased to get a proper Si or hot Integra/RSX here. The death of a proper NSX and S2000 only added fuel to the fire.

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  3. I maintain a standing search on Auto Trader for "S2000 - any". You know, just to remind myself how much I used to love Hondas.

    Regarding this post's original premise, I would actually argue that the loss of the nimble Prelude in favor of the fatter, softer Accord Coupe was probably the last gasp of Honda as a company truly invested in great engineering. But in 2001, a time during which I eagerly drove an '89 Civic (easily one of the best of its type ever made), I recall viewing the then-new Gen-7 Civic as a real letdown. So I can certainly follow your logic.

    And I'm going to hope that the current Insight is the company's nadir. The Insight is a car that theoretically ticks all the right boxes, but succeeds only in being a slapdash copy of the Gen-2 Prius. Further, my dad has a 2007 Element, which is a supremely functional and reliable (never mind unique) vehicle but not exactly a dynamic masterpiece - much like the CR-V that spawned it.

    Where have you gone, Soichiro?

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  4. IMO Toyota started this madness when they killed the Celica XX (Supra) For some reason the felt the need to built only boring mundane commuter cars. Oh but wait, here comes the Lexus LFA if you have $500K! Hope the new FRS is sign of good times to come. Hurry up Toyota and Honda.

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  5. The slide began with the secondgen Odyssey, when once proudly engineering-led Honda bragged, BRAGGED, for the first time about a focus-group-driven design process. They asked people what they wanted (a Chrysler minivan made by someone other than Chrysler), and gave them exactly that right down to the red rear turn signals and fixed second-row windows.

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  6. I currently drive a 1988 Honda Accord LX-i (canadian, so EX-i) sedan. I would not trade it for /anything/. It is currently in storage for the winter, even though it drives like there isnt any snow, even when the bumper is acting as a plow.. but, the salt here would make it disintegrate.. There are cars from 05 with nothing left of them here.
    But, when i drive it in the summer... the drive is just spectacular. The variable-assist power steering, the double-wishbones on all four 14" wheels, giving it a smooth ride, but nimble handling, its damn near silent on the highway, but if you gun it you get to hear that A20A3 roar to life. All in all, even though this one is automatic, i still love to drive it, and this is coming from someone who cant handle automatics. i literily will never forget how to drive stick, but put me in an automatic after driving stick and i dont know what to do anymore..
    Also, steering feedback is something the new civic has absolutely none of. Felt more about the road through my seat than the wheel, the exact opposite of my 88.

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