Honda consistently makes wonderfully reliable, highly refined, decently fuel-efficient, extremely safe and generally over-priced vehicles.
Yes, over-priced. A Honda, as a rule, will cost notably more than Rival B. That's bad.
Worse, more than a few of Honda's models are visually dull and less than thrilling to drive. No one with a brain would say Honda makes bad vehicles. What Honda does not do is make vehicles deserving of a significant price premium over its direct competitors.
That's a recipe for trouble and it is the hard truth Honda faces today. Honda brand sales are off 10 per cent on the year in Canada and plummeted nearly 20 per cent in June.
A big part of the current problem is supply. The March earthquake and tsunami in Japan drastically curtailed production of various high-volume Honda models - the new 2012 Civic in particular, but CR-V crossovers and others in general, too. Honda dealers can't sell what they don't have.
That said, Honda's full lineup is dotted with too many models that cannot and will not sell no matter how rich the supply, not matter how strong the market. Why buy an undersized and marginally capable Honda Ridgeline pickup when you can buy a vastly more capable Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado or Dodge Ram for the same or less money?
Worse, Honda and its dealers have had an easy ride moving the metal over the last several decades. I am left with the impression of a Honda pregnant with complacency and tinged with the arrogance born of decades of uninterrupted success.
In a nutshell, Honda seems to have settled into a place where consumers have been allowed to buy high-demand Hondas at a price premium. When the competition was offering unreliable, ungainly and thirsty junk, Honda stood out.
But Honda now finds itself competing head to head on price, performance, styling, fuel efficiency, safety and all the other things buyers consider important. And in an alarming number of instances, Honda is falling short.
Today, Honda and its dealers find themselves battling retrenched and very hungry car companies with strong lineups and lower prices. In particular, the Detroit auto makers and those from South Korea collectively stand out.
The new cut-throat environment - where the all-new 2012 Hyundai Elantra has better fuel economy than the reengineered and restyled 2012 Honda Civic - seems actually to have caught Honda by surprise. In many measurable ways, Hyundai, Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Kia and some others seem to have caught up and in some cases passed Honda. At least that's my impression.
This brings us to the Honda Accord Crosstour. Here we have an extremely well made, incredibly safe wagon. The truth is, this is a Honda Accord station wagon that, at a starting price of $34,900, is simply too expensive for the mainstream Canadian family buyer. Thus, Honda can barely give away Crosstours, even with a $1,000 factory incentive available.
Honda's most basic front-drive Crosstour ($34,900) costs $4,000 more than the base Toyota Venza FWD ($30,760) and that's not including the $2,000 cash incentive on the Toyota table. Ford's front-drive Edge is an even better deal with an Employee Price less than $27,000 plus at least a $1,000 sales sweetener in the mix. Hyundai Santa Fe? The starter version goes for $23,999, not including any deals you can make.
Honda will argue that the Crosstour is better in any number of ways. It is, for sure, a delightful wagon - quiet, powerful (271 horsepower V-6 compared to the four-cylinders in some cheaper competitors), reliable and well-built, with top-notch materials. Honda has class-leading safety and the resale values are through the roof. The Crosstour was recently named best in its class in the 2011 J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study, too.
But even with all that to offer, the Crosstour does have issues. Aside from the pricing, Honda was late to this crossover segment, which has allowed the Edges and Santa Fes and Venzas of the world to establish a loyal and usually satisfied following.
However, the Crosstour is overloaded with luxury features: leather seats, power everything, an excellent sound system, a lovely carpeted cargo area with nifty little hatches and cubbies all over. All-wheel-drive is available, too.
For the record, the Crosstour is similar in width and height to the likes of the Venza, Nissan Murano and Subaru Outback, though the Honda, with 2,871 litres of cargo space when the 60/40 split rear seats are folded, has more space than a Venza and Outback. The rear seats fold completely flat, too - with an easy pull of handles that are a snap to reach.
Moreover, Honda put the spare tire under the car and it has a plastic cover down there to keep it clean. With the spare out of the way, there is additional storage space below the rear floor in the cargo hold. A deep and hidden removable utility box provides storage, while on each side there are two recessed areas providing some hidden space, also.
Up front, ahead of the back seats, everything is essentially an Accord. The design here is clean and completely sensible, the materials durable looking and nicely put together. You will not find yourself looking for a knob or a control.
The cabin's soft-touch plastic material looks and feels fairly expensive and the steering wheel is meaty, fitting nicely into your hands. The dials are big and thoroughly legible. With Honda, function trumps art. Ride quality is almost identical to the Accord, also.
The story here, then, is of a well-built wagon with an inflated price tag versus the alternatives. The Crosstour - which by the way does have a controversial exterior design - is a delightful bit of engineering and execution, though it will never be a big seller because it simply costs too much.
Honda should take this lesson to heart.
2011 Honda Accord Crosstour EX-L 4x4
Type: Five-door, mid-size crossover
Price: $36,900 ($1,550 freight)
Engine: 3.5-litre V-6, SOHC
Horsepower/ torque: 271 hp/254 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.8 city/7.8 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Ford Edge, Subaru Outback, Toyota Venza, Nissan Murano, Mazda CX-7, Hyundai Santa Fe