After my son's 27-year-old Ford Ranger pickup coughed and wheezed for the last time, Sam pocketed $150 for scrap and we held a wake. We toasted his first car/truck and came up with a plan.
The budget for his next ride was capped at $3,000. The target: something affordable, reliable, functional and fuel efficient. Sam doesn't need a daily driver, just an occasional commuter for work, hockey, university and skiing.
He settled on a 2001 Honda CR-V crossover: steel grey, blue cloth interior, power windows, door locks, air conditioning and stereo. The asking was $3,600, the final $3,300. A steal.
His well-preserved CR-V says everything about ferociously independent Honda and the fanatical owners who love its cars. The upholstery is immaculate, the seat foam as firm as ever. All the bits and pieces work, no rust, no dashboard cracks, the engine fires at the twist of a key and, while the ride isn't luxurious, it's pleasant. Sam has cut his gas bill in half. If he hadn't bought it, I might have.
Honda is perpetually at the top of almost everyone's reliability and durability list. Resale values are spectacular. The core models – Civic, Accord, CR-V – have been runaway bestsellers forever. Honda owners are among the most loyal in the world for the same reasons Sam's CR-V is a 14-year-old gem: Hondas last; they're fuel efficient and safe. Consumer Reports says the Accord is one of the best new-car values over all.
Yet Honda is struggling. The company spent 2013 and 2014 dealing with safety issues. Late last year, Honda appointed a quality czar to fix vexing problems. Top executives took a three-month pay cut as penance.
In February, then-Honda Motor president Takanobu Ito announced plans to step down, apparently taking the fall. His replacement: an R&D executive with loads of international experience. Honda has promised to put a laser focus on quality. New products such as the coming HR-V small crossover – made in Mexico – won't be launched until ready.
Those things take Honda back to its roots. But doubling down on quality won't fix a more stubborn issue: non-core models that underperform or flop. The Ridgeline? Odd looking and not terribly useful. A new Ridgeline is coming, with Honda saying it has learned not to turn a car into a pickup.
The Accord Crosstour wagon? As UB40 sang in Homely Girl, it looks better in the dark. We heard last month that Honda is running up the white flag on the Crosstour.
The CR-Z and Insight hybrids? Both lame performers. The CR-Z was billed as the spiritual successor to the great CRX Si. It was sporty as a toothbrush. The Insight? Usain Bolt runs the 100 faster. The boxy, bare-bones Element was supposed to be a "youth" vehicle for surfers, but instead found a home with garden-happy pensioners. Honda Canada sold 100 CR-Zs last year, while the Insight and Element are gone.
Now Honda is about to launch a reinvented Pilot SUV. The hope is to almost double Canadian sales to 10,000 a year, from about 6,000 now. Should be possible. The intermediate SUV segment is worth about 130,000 vehicles in annual sales. Honda Canada operations vice-president Dave Gardner says engineers and stylists have nailed the formula. This time, on the third try.
Aside from durability, Honda has other strengths. Its vehicles are technologically advanced and robust in crash tests. Honda's Super Handling All-Wheel Drive is fantastic, its hybrid technology is among the best and new electronic nannies are effective and easy to operate.
Honda Canada also has a jobs story – more than seven million Hondas have been manufactured in Alliston, Ont. Workers at Honda's Canadian manufacturing operations are getting good wages and benefits for producing up to 390,000 Civic and CR-V models, and 260,000 four-cylinder engines annually – at a time when Mexico has replaced Canada as a car manufacturing hub.
Honda over many years has built a lot of goodwill making cars such as Sam's CR-V. The 2016 Pilot will tell us whether Honda has learned how to turn goodwill into big sales of something other than a Civic, CR-V and Accord.
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