By Jay Traugott, Managing Editor
There was a time when Honda was nearly untouchable. Not only did they build reliable and fun cars, but they understood the value of participating in motorsports. Their Formula 1 program, which first began in 1964 (with a couple of multi-year breaks throughout), not only gave them prestige, but also vital experience and knowledge on how to build better engines and improve engineering. Elements of these advances found their way into production cars. Dropping out of F1 again in 2009, Honda lost some of that prestige.
Still, it was not enough to put them in their current embarrassing situation. Before I get to that, it's important to remember the many things Honda has done well. For a long time, they were doing what Toyota wasn't: building affordable and reliable family cars that were also fun to drive. When comparing the Civic and Accord against the Corolla and Camry, the differences were apparent the moment you got behind the wheel. Honda understood the importance of driver enthusiasm with, for example, their wonderful manual transmissions and VTEC engines, which culminated with the launch of the S2000 roadster in 1999.
But this technology also found its way into bread and butter models such as the Civic. Compared to the Corolla, it was always a bit of chocolate sauce added to some plain vanilla. When the eighth generation Civic debuted in 2006, it was such a huge leap forward in terms of styling and engineering that it forced competitors to go back to the drawing boards. Instead of playing it safe, Honda went for a radical redesign that shocked the industry. Unfortunately, things began to go sour from here. When the current Accord was launched in 2008, many were surprised by not only how much larger it was, but also how bland it looked.
Toyota Camry-like bland, in fact. Not that it's a bad car, but when compared to the model it replaced, it was apparent that Honda became too distracted by making it large enough simply to one-up the Camry. In other words, they decided to go mainstream instead of their typical offbeat alternative. And it didn't stop there. The CR-Z hybrid, which could have been the ideal spiritual successor to the '80s favorite, the CR-X, also turned out to be a disappointment. It lacked the handling and sophistication so often associated with the brand. And with the S2000 out of production, the only sports car Honda now offers is the Civic Si.
Ah yes, the Civic once again. When the ninth generation was revealed last summer, it was immediately apparent that it wouldn't surpass the revolutionary design of its predecessor. Everything from its Goodyear blimp-like exterior to its unimpressive interior was surpassed by the latest Hyundai Elantra; Hyundai beat Honda at its own game by also building a reliable, more stylish subcompact. Does Hyundai have Honda's engine and transmission knowledge? Not yet, but they have effectively taken Honda's position as that quirky and fun Asian brand.
And then it happened: Consumer Reports did not recommend the 2012 Civic in their annual car survey and placed it at the bottom of its class because of "excessive road noise and poor interior quality." Exsqueeze me? A baking powder? For Honda, automotive hell had just frozen over. But there is still hope. CEO Takanobu Ito has taken responsibility for the Civic's problems and has promised the necessary fixes are coming soon. His company can still bring itself back with the Accord Coupe concept coming to Detroit next month and hopefully more performance versions of the CR-Z and Civic.
There was also the stunning EV-STER concept roadster that just premiered at Tokyo. It only needs a solid gasoline engine and we're sold. If Honda wants to reclaim its past success, it needs to admit to somewhat losing their way and fix the Civic and Accord, then perhaps build a proper S2000 replacement. All would soon be forgiven.