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Honda’s Descent Into Hell

Since it returned to Formula 1 in 1999, Honda has stumbled.

Since it returned to Formula 1 in 1999, Honda has stumbled. Former company CEO Nobuhiko Kawamoto backed an all-Honda F1 team before he was ousted in a power struggle. Current CEO Hiroyuki Yoshino—under pressure from American Honda which, it’s claimed, didn’t want the expense of a full-fledged effort stealing development money from new vehicle projects—scaled this back to an engine-only program, and signed on with newcomer BAR. Both BAR and Honda have yet to win a race. A far cry from 1988, when the McLaren-Hondas of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost took 15 of 16 grands prix. Toyota, meanwhile, established a full F1 team, and consistently outperforms BAR.

After a particularly ham-handed altercation with CART management over turbo boost levels—wherein CART suggested both Honda and Toyota were cheating—Honda made its feelings public, and stomped off for the IRL. Toyota kept its corporate mouth shut, and was the first non-GM winner of the Indy 500 since 1997. Honda ran third. The competition will increase this year as GM runs a variant of the engine (ironically designed by Cosworth Racing, a subsidiary of Ford) that reversed its flagging fortunes late last year. Unfortunately, Honda’s troubles don’t end on the race track.

Honda once owned the sport compact market with its easy to modify Civic. Then it introduced the current model in the 2000 model year. Nicknamed “Jennifer” for the fictitious young woman for whom it was supposedly designed, the Civic fell short in many areas. The styling was safe. No, make that boring. It appealed to older buyers (Jennifer’s parents and grandparents) looking for an economical addition to the stable. The three-door was hurriedly sourced from England, but proved short on performance compared to icons like the Subaru Impreza WRX and Mitsubishi Evo—or even Ford’s SVT Focus.

Instead of resurrecting the much-loved CRX, Honda built a small two-seater from aluminum sheet and Civic parts, added batteries and an integrated motor/alternator, and had the nerve to call it “Insight.” It was as impractical as a sports car, as small as a sports car, and lacked the power and charisma of a sports car. Oh, and it hasn’t gotten half the attention as Toyota’s Prius. Some insight.

The S2000, on the other hand, got the attention, the accolades, and the looks. But during hard runs in warm weather it has proven to be hot and temperamental; it’s powered by a 109 hp/liter engine with a power band more suited to a motorcycle. There is no connection—other than the maker’s name—between it and Acura’s aged NSX. And that car is about to be replaced by a stylistically constipated Ferrari Enzo knock-off more suited to the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy set. Harsh? You bet, but not undeserved.

A company’s upmarket offerings should reflect its goals and aspirations, but—judging from Acura’s history—that extends no farther than maximizing plant efficiency. The TSX and TL are handsome and—finally—set a design direction for the brand. However, the former is the European Accord, and the latter needs rear-drive. And both still need more soul. Plus, the decrepit RL is as stylish as a Moskovitch, lacks V8 power and rear drive, and can’t compete in its segment. It’s a Japanese Buick.

Honda, however, is strong in SUVs and vans, and has shown a quasi-pickup concept. But will trucks be enough to save its soul? No.

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