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Still Fond of Honda, But Someone Please Call the Bullpen

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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 (Flickr Photo: Rick Chung)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 (Flickr Photo: Darshan67)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.

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 1984, 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.

1984 Honda Civic HatchbackBut then Honda 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.

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.

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.

2012 Honda Pilot (Image by Honda)
2012 Honda Ridgeline (Image by Honda)
2012 Honda Crosstour (Image by Honda)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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