To say that both the automotive and mainstream press have been pretty rough on Honda lately is an understatement. The fact this is a story worth talking about gives pause to wonder if there is, in fact, more than just smoke here. The latest public relations nightmare came from Consumer Reports, who announced the new 2012 Honda Civic no longer held that magazine’s coveted ‘Recommended’ status. For generations of Civics, it was practically a given it would get CR’s ultimate seal of approval. For sure, that’s a blow to the ego for Honda, but is that really all that is going on here?
Clearly not. Trouble for the Civic surfaced last year when word got out the new Civic would be delayed while Honda engineers went back to the drawing boards-hugely uncharacteristic of the company. The Garage reviewed the new Civic and found it to be a good, competent car with little to complain about, but after living with the car for a week, I could not figure out why it took Honda extra time to give us a car that is nearly the same as the model it replaced. Yes, gas mileage is improved a bit, but the average Joe won’t be able to tell the new Civic apart from the old one. Parked beside the new Hyundai Elantra, the Civic is a wallflower. While cars like the Elantra and Ford Focus are pushing the compact car segment forward, it makes the Civic look like it is stuck in neutral.
Honda has received some criticism for not offering as diverse a line of vehicles as Toyota or Nissan in the past. To their credit, Honda has added new lines over the years to fill out their portfolio, yet Honda seems at times distracted with niche cars that hardly seem worth the effort. The Crosstour’s appearance has polarized consumers before the car even went on sale. As a jacked-up Accord with all-wheel drive with a hump back rear-end, the Crosstour left many wondering ‘Why?”. The Ridgeline, a four door pickup meant to offer more refinement than typical trucks has been a slow seller for Honda. Which is sad, because the Ridgeline is good. But here in America, I must confess, you will not command the same respect at your local bar when you mention the new Ridgeline parked out front than if it were a Silverado or F-150. Fair? Maybe not. True? Yep.
Honda also lacks a ‘Halo Car’. For the unwashed, a halo car is typically a low-volume, high performance car, but grabs headlines, gets heaps of press and buzz, and adds an air of prestige and excitement to a brand. For example, from Toyota you have the Lexus IS-F sport sedan and LFA exotic, and Nissan’s iconic 370Z and GTR. The lack of such a car in Honda’s line is made worse by the fact that the company used to offer such cars in the the Honda/Acura NSX and Honda S2000. People who thought the CR-Z was the second coming of the CR-X would be disappointed in the pretty car, but those heavy batteries just carry too much weight. Before former President Bill Clinton walks in to remind me “It’s the economy, stupid”, I realize that, and Honda dropped any immediate plans to replace their halo cars. But it did not stop Toyota and Nissan, and for that matter, Mazda with it’s MX-5 and RX-8.
So, is the sky falling at Honda? No. The Accord is slipping a bit, but remains a strong contender in the mid-size sedan market. As for Japanese 2+2 coupes like the Accord, Solara and Altima, I’d take an Accord EX with a 6-speed over the competition in a second. The Pilot is faring well, and the CR-V is an absolute juggernaut. In my opinion, Honda builds the best minivan, period, and it looks like several other automotive writers agree with me. In other words, it is not time to panic.
Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. Honda needed a more dynamic Civic replacement, but we did not get that car. And yes, the car we did get will be sold in mass quantities. But I know Honda was capable of leading the competition, and not duplicating the existing car, and that is where the frustration in the press lies. We know Honda can do better, but chose not to, and offer what everyone was already comfortable with. Honda went conservative, but this may not be the time for that. Nothing Honda has done is irreversible. As a kid growing up in the 1980’s, reading so much about Honda, a company that could virtually do no wrong, I never could have imagined as an adult I’d be writing about cracks in the pavement. Honda, I’ve no doubt the ability is there to fix small mistakes, but by all means do not let arrogance keep you from seeing the cracks, please.