The Living Enemy That’s Dead Inside

December 5, 2012

Today, I want to take a moment and salute the passing of a spirit whose body still roams this Earth: Honda Motor Company.

Some may be confused by this, as Honda is still very much alive, selling Civics and Accords quite briskly, and the latter model has made yet another appearance on Car and Driver’s “10 Best” List…a list that seemingly saves a spot for the Accord each year. Any of us can easily visit our local Honda dealer, and see the usual complement of cars, minivans, and that awful attempt at a truck, the Ridgeline. Thus, it may seem that my toast is somewhat confusing.

To me, however, a Honda dealer is almost like witnessing an automotive version of some zombie apocalypse: the cars come in, the cars go out, but their souls have been missing for some years, now. The Honda I grew up knowing is seemingly dead, even as the company rolls on. The loss hits me strangely, as I always saw Honda as an opponent.

I’m admittedly nationalistic, a “buy American!” kind of guy that has been a fan of Ford Motor Company essentially my entire life. I loved cars from the get-go, and could identify makes and models of many vehicles even as I learned to read. I had my favorites, but was (and still am) curious about almost all of them…which means that I’ve spent untold hours reading magazines, books, and web content about the vehicles and the companies behind them. I’m a big fan of motorsport, as likely to be watching a NASCAR event as a Formula 1 race. I love the whole world of the automobile, and even the stories of brands competing with my favorite are interesting to me. I try to take it all in, to drive everything I can, and to pursue the bits of information all over the internet concerning my four-wheeled curiosities.

Honda was a delightfully scary opponent as I grew into my driving years. An ex-girlfriend of mine had a first-generation Honda Accord with a manual transmission not long after I got my first drivers’ license, and she didn’t really enjoy driving…so I did most of it. The car was almost a decade old and not well cared for, but it still was extremely fun to drive despite my love for big-engined American iron. I couldn’t deny the joy in flicking through the gears, feeling how agile the car was, and almost feeling guilt over much I looked forward to driving it. Shortly afterward, another romantic interest would lead to me driving her family’s brand-new (in the late 80’s) Accord, this one with pop-up headlights and improvements in every respect from the previous one I’d driven. Once again, I marveled at how GOOD it was, all around, and wished my beloved Ford Motor Company would build a “family car” with this kind of character. This trend would continue for some time.

Around the time I started driving, motor racing was increasingly televised and I could finally watch Formula 1 with consistency. In the mix with Ferrari, Renault, Lamborghini, Alfa-Romeo, and legendary Ford-Cosworth powerplants…there was Honda. In fact, in that time of 1000 horsepower turbocharged entries, Honda was quickly becoming seemingly mandatory for any hope of wins. In one year, the McLaren-Honda team won 15 of 16 races, crushing the opposition more brutally than anything I’d ever seen in motorsport. The same company that made front-wheel-drive grocery-getters fun to drive was also capable of bitch-slapping the motor racing world at the highest level. I wondered if Honda was going to do the same to the regular car market, as they obviously existed on a plane all their own, at least in terms of engineering.

I was right to be concerned. In the following decade, Detroit would be savaged in terms of quality and engineering compared to offerings from Japan and Germany. The luxury car market essentially moved up and away from American offerings, and the quality of Japanese cars/trucks was so well known that the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry would be the top-selling cars in the country…trends that continue to this day. The Camry has been the car sales champ for years, the Accord usually not far behind, and the smaller offerings like the Civic and the Corolla were similarly dominant in their classes. Toyota became a juggernaut on its (somewhat questionable, it turns out) reputation for quality, while Honda was seen in similar light but with much more personality. The American press rarely recommended much else in its automotive columns, and Detroit retreated behind a wall of trucks and SUVs while trying to find a way to build cars to compete with “Cam-Cords”.

Fast-forward to today, and things have changed. The Camry is still the sales leader and the Accord usually close behind, but both Toyota and Honda have had staggering recalls in recent years while upstarts Hyundai and Kia have surged into the fight. Ford and General Motors have raised their respective games and truly offer competitive cars now, with (largely FIAT-owned) Chrysler in hot pursuit. Honda and Toyota are both out of Formula 1, and Toyota has worked with Subaru to bring forth a genuinely exciting pair of sports cars…giving Toyota (or at least its “youth brand”, Scion) a soul it has lacked for years. Mazda has become the face of “fun Japanese cars” with its “Zoom Zoom” mantra and cars like the MX-5 carrying it forward. In these wickedly competitive times, where is Honda?

Quietly selling well, but nothing like it was.

No Formula 1, much less presence in motorsport overall, and the vehicle line-up has seemingly been designed by Vulcans: brilliantly packaged, very capable, but with nothing like the previous feeling of fun that existed in the lineup. The Accord grew into a larger vehicle, technically becoming a full-size (rather than mid-size) car. The Civic sells well, but hasn’t been truly competitive in years. The Odyssey minivan is great for the boring life its built for, but does nothing to go beyond that. The Fit is possibly the single “spunky” car in the lineup, as the SUVs are good but forgettable and the horrifyingly ugly Ridgeline truck-type-vehicle carries its awful profile into light-duty mediocrity.

The Honda luxury brand, Acura, has similarly languished, essentially becoming a lineup of Accord-derived cars and SUVs that do little to separate themselves from their more modest roots.

There are strong rumors that Acura will soon have another NSX, a supercar with cutting-edge technology and performance that will breathe some life back into the lineup…but it can’t do the job alone. Honda was at its best when everything it made seemed to have a capacity for mischief, to be as utilitarian as anything in the market while bringing a grin when pushed on the right bit of twisty road.

So, I raise a glass to a fantastic opponent, one that lives but whose spirit hasn’t been seen for some time, now. Maybe it’ll find its way back into its body someday…but for now, Honda dealerships will look like an automotive realm of the undead to me. As much as I worried about them taking over, I miss the fun of the old enemy now that it’s seemingly gone.


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