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Driving it home

Honda goes native in North America Add to ...

Honda seems to have awoken from a slumber or emerged from the bunker. Call it what you like, but the once-innovative Japanese car company looks to have found a new seriousness about the design, technology, packaging and overall engineering of its vehicles.

It’s about time. In the last half-dozen years, Honda has ceded the fleet-wide fuel economy crown in North America to Hyundai, the fast-rising South Korean car company.

In the last decade, Honda abandoned its hybrid advantage to Toyota, too. Remember, the Honda Insight was the first North American hybrid, not the Toyota Prius. But it’s Toyota you and I think about when hybrids enter the discussion.

Engine performance? Hyundai and its corporate sibling, Kia, have been aggressively pushing direct injection engines. Ford has branded its EcoBoost direct injection/turbocharged engines, too. Honda? The fuel economy gains in the latest Civic have been all about aerodynamics and tire technology, not powertrain innovation.

Design? Well, Honda has never been overwhelmed with plaudits for its designs, but lately we’ve seen some truly awful work here. Take the Acura ZDX. Ugh.

Speaking of Acura, Honda all but abandoned its premium brand starting in 2008 with the onset of the big financial crisis and global near-depression. Now Honda is resetting the Acura story with new models, including the ILX compact car and the IDX compact utility – both of which I have just driven at a product preview here in the desert.

Both the ILX and IDX look like they are going to at least start to put Acura back in the game, chasing upscale buyers who are also sophisticated. What’s more, the ILX will be sold with three powertrain choices: base 2.0-litre four-banger (150 hp), 2.4-litre four (201 hp) and hybrid. The starting price for a pretty well loaded ILX will be less than $30,000, giving this new Acura a price advantage over rivals such as the Mercedes-Benz C250 and Audi A3.

I think the bunker analogy may be the most apt to describe where Honda has been the last few years. But it seems the hunkering down may be at an end.

Indeed, the Detroit News is reporting that Honda has appointed more American locals to executive positions in order to reconnect with its biggest market. Honda has promoted North American COO Tetsuo Iwamura to the position of executive vice-president and, as of April 1, he’ll be working in the U.S., not in Honda’s Tokyo headquarters.

You may ask why Iwamura was in Tokyo managing North America production, planning and sales. Why wasn’t he making decisions for North America from North America? Good question. I suppose the Tokyo bunker felt safer.

“Honda quite literally has become a North American car company headquartered in Tokyo, and that's a horrible combination,” Jim Hall, principal of 2953 Analytics, an auto consultancy, told the paper.

“When your headquarters isn't in your most important and biggest-volume market, you become disconnected. [The move]is to reconnect headquarters with their most important market.”

As the Detroit News reports, Honda is going to put more emphasis on developing vehicles for North America, in North America. According to Iwamura, the best way to boost sales in the U.S. is to have U.S. engineers make product decisions for the local market.

Seems simple enough. Maybe it wasn’t quite as obvious from inside the bunker, though.

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