Shoji Matsui, who is quick with a laugh and joke, first cut his teeth as a Honda engineer by tackling a tough problem: designing the fuel filler door on the 1986 Honda Accord. His boss at the time was a fellow engineer named Takanobu Ito.
Ito always offered advice and direction with the “greatest of kindness,” says Matsui at the introduction of the entirely new 2013 Honda Accord. He then proceeds to illustrate “kindness” with motions that suggests him being taken in a headlock and repeatedly punched in the head.
This draws a burst of laughter from both Matsui and his audience. Perhaps because there might be just a little bit of truth here. As The Honda Way notes, founder Soichiro Honda was famously known for physically slapping insubordinate, ineffective or incompetent engineers. Honda, the founder, died of liver failure in 1991 and officially retired from the company in 1973. But in between, as the always useful Wikipedia notes, People magazine named him one of the 25 Most Intriguing People of the Year – Japan’s Henry Ford – and in 1983 Honda was appointed “supreme advisor” to the company he founded out of the rubble of post-Second World War Japan. Supreme advisor has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
I’m telling you this because the spirit (or ghost) of the “supreme advisor” can be felt as Honda prepares to press the reset button on what many will argue has been not just a few years lost to earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and that pesky financial crisis. fail in late 2008. No, Honda, company insiders will confess, is also at least a partial author of its own misfortunes. The company made some embarrassing product missteps that were entirely of its own doing, not least of which is the widely criticized 2012 Honda Civic. Equal venom has been directed at the Honda Insight hybrid and CR-Z sporty hybrid.
Now the time has come to press the “reset” button in earnest and the embodiment of that is the 2013 Honda Accord mid-size car. Matsui, the old fuel-filler-door designer himself, is this latest Accord’s chief engineer and his boss is none other than the always “kind” Ito, now president of Honda Motor Co.
“Once again, he very kindly told me what to do,” says Matsui, laughing and making that same headlock/punching motion. Ito’s marching orders boiled down to this: make this much more than just the best Accord ever; make it the best car in the mid-size class – no small feat, that – and make it the car that restores Honda’s somewhat-tarnished reputation for innovation, quality, fuel economy, “10-year” styling and, above all, value.
Dave Gardner, Honda Canada’s vice-president of sales and marketing, moves the story along just a little further. “Let’s be honest,” he says. “The last few years have been a challenge.”
Gardner is a master of understatement. Since 2008, Honda brand sales in Canada have basically been in free fall: sales peaked in 2008 at 151,974, then slid to 122,918 in 2009 and 107,849 in 2011. It’s a similar story at Honda’ upscale brand, Acura. Gardner is quick to say Honda is tracking for sales of about 130,000 this year in Canada. The worst, he says, is over.
How so? Consider the latest and ongoing results for the reinvented CR-V compact SUV. Up, up, up. Then Gardner pivots to discuss sales for the Civic, which have at least stabilized. Unless something crazy happens – earthquake, tsunami, flood, financial crisis, depression? – the Civic will be Canada’s best-selling car for a 15th straight year in 2012. That said, he concedes that some of the negatives about the Civic were “deserved” and that more improvements are coming within the year.
The CR-V and Civic are two legs of the three-legged stool that amounts to Honda’s business in Canada. Leg No. 3, the one causing perhaps the most wobbling at headquarters, is the Accord. Last year, Accord sales plunged a stunning 37.4 per cent in Canada from 2010 levels – to a paltry 7,818. Accord sales peaked in 2008 at a hugely healthy 22,623.
So from nearly 23,000 in 2008 to not even 8,000 last year. From No. 2 among all intermediate cars (behind only the Toyota Camry) to No. 7 in 2011. Hyundai sold more than twice the number of Sonatas last year. That contrasts with 2008 when Hyundai sold less than half the number of Accords. Disastrous and embarrassing.
Not so troubling, though, is a recent list of awards for Honda. The Honda brand has been named No. 1 among mass-market brands in the 2012 J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study. So the quality piece of the story remains strong. And Honda’s resale values have held, based on awards from ALG and Canadian Black Book in Canada, as well as Edmonds.com and Kelley Blue Book in the United States. Honda/Acura can also boast of no less than 13 Top Safety Picks based on testing by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety – the Civic, Accord and CR-V among them.
The Accord, however, has not been just a sales leader for Honda, but also an image-maker which lately has been trying to avoid the ditch. Honda may have sold three to four times as many Civics during the best years in Canada, but the Accord was at one time the best-selling car in the United States, and thus by extension in North America. The Accord traditionally has been an innovative car, one that holds its value, doesn’t break and comes with just enough luxury and technology to give owners a sense of being a cut above the neighbours in rival midsizers.
Until recently, that is. It’s fair to say Hyundai has rocked this segment with the latest Sonata, a sedan with sexy styling and a powertrain lineup that scrapped V-6 engines in favour of four-cylinders and hybrids. With direct fuel injection, turbocharging and gasoline-electric hybrid technology, Hyundai has boosted its reputation for innovation. Hyundai’s lineup is more fuel-efficient overall than Honda’s, too. And other rivals, from Ford to General Motors, from Kia to Volkswagen to Toyota, have been hammering away at Honda and the Accord, too. The body blows have hurt.
But the ninth-generation Accord, say both Gardner and Matsui, will trump the competition by being good – arguably great – in all the ways buyers judge mid-size cars – fuel economy, styling, durability, reliability, technology, passenger and cargo room.
“Few of the cars in this segment excel at a high level in all areas,” says Gardner, adding that the 2013 Accord does.
The takeaway message: after a quite a few years wandering in the wilderness, Honda is back as a force to be reckoned with.