Insight: After Civic bruising, Honda fights for its soul

Fri Mar 2, 2012 9:41am EST
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By Chang-Ran Kim and Ben Klayman

TOKYO/DETROIT (Reuters) - The future of Honda Motor Co may rest with a pair of contrarian Japanese car engineers working from a drab Tokyo suburb with a hotline to the boardroom. Their mission: just say no.

Honda's creative directors Toshinobu Minami and Yoshinori Asahi are out to kill any mediocre car designs rumbling down the pipeline. In short, they have been told to stop anything like the 2012 Civic, a cheapened redesign that prompted critics, consumers and rivals to wonder how Honda had so badly lost its way.

Inside Honda, in both Japan and the United States, that same question has also been asked with urgency. Honda, many say, slipped into designing cars by committee in recent years and drifted away from the iconoclastic ambitions of its founder. Honda had become boring.

"Somewhere along the way, we lost the ability to express ourselves more freely," Asahi told Reuters. "We have a lot of designers here, and when we ask ourselves, 'Which Honda car would we want to buy?' Sometimes, some of us draw a blank."

That's a startling admission at a company long praised for the quality and durability of its vehicles -- a company that caught U.S. automakers flat-footed in the 1970s with inexpensive, fuel-efficient cars like the original Civic.

Touted four decades ago for its CVCC engine that boasted cleaner tailpipe emissions -- as well as inspiring the Civic name -- Honda has trailed with advances such as six-speed transmissions and direct fuel-injection systems.

In recent years, Honda's "car guys," the engineers that built the automotive upstart into a powerhouse, were overshadowed by the "bean counters," financial executives more willing to cut corners on vehicle content to shore up margins, insiders say.

That approach looks good on a spreadsheet, but it also carries the risk of a backlash. Consumers can turn on a debased version of a popular car and the resulting publicity can burn a brand -- a lesson GM, Ford and Chrysler all learned the hard way in the slide to crisis in 2008.   Continued...

A 2012 Honda Civic Si is seen on display at the New York International Auto Show in New York City, April 20, 2011.         REUTERS/Mike Segar