What happened to Honda?

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Words: Arnold Difflock
10 May 2019

The big news from Honda recently has been the announcement that the Swindon factory in the UK is to close. Also, Civic production is to end at the Turkey plant, coinciding with the end of the current model cycle in 2021. Citing a major realignment of production facilities in conjunction with new technologies and a changing international trading environment, Honda has carefully avoided blaming Brexit for the move, but clearly all has not been well at the European home of the big H for some time.

Swindon has been a one-model plant since CR-V production ended there in 2017, following the withdrawal of Jazz production when the model changed in 2014. So clearly the plant’s future has been in jeopardy for some time.

Honda has never been a big player in Europe. Their share of the European market peaked at about two per cent in the late eighties, but recently it’s been under one per cent. Not the sort of share that can support a dedicated factory even if it’s recently been the sole supplier of the Civic Hatchback to the world.

The Honda story has been an interesting one. Late to the volume carmaking party in the mid-1970s, initially the only way was up. The company’s heyday was from the late eighties to the mid-nineties, when its cars combined up-to-the-minute styling with sporty driving characteristics at a time when Ayrton Senna was powering his way to the top in Formula One with Honda engines.

Here in New Zealand, Honda reached about 12 per cent of the passenger car market, behind only Toyota and Ford. Accords from 1986 to 1997 were classy-looking cars for their day, well proportioned and nicely appointed, they appealed to buyers with a sense of style. Even the humble Civic (in its 1992-95 iteration at least) set the style benchmark for the class in which it competed. Then there was the Prelude. The 1983-90 version of the popular sporty coupe was remarkable for its incredibly low bonnet line, and the 1991-95 edition set a new standard of sleekness for a Japanese car, even if it wasn’t very practical.

It was the American market that sent Honda on a different global trajectory. As the products became more and more Americanised in deference to the importance of that market and the huge investment Honda had there, the products became less relevant to the rest of the world, especially Europe. Recent Honda styling might be acceptable to Americans, but to those with different tastes many of their models come across as goofy-looking, not helped by the vast swathes of chrome on the front, clashing swage lines on the flanks and overdone taillights.

But let’s not be too hard on Honda here, as they don’t have the styling problem on their own. For example, the new Subaru Forester might be a cracker of a car, but it certainly qualifies as unfortunate in the styling department, and then there is the Toyota CH-R. Ouch! Sorry Toyota, but even Honda’s nerdish HR-V can kick that one into touch.

Funnily enough, the least dopey looking Honda is their perennial top seller, the Jazz. It might be a Japanese thing, because the other big Asian carmaking country, Korea, has been upping its styling game by leaps and bounds in recent years and there can be no doubt that it’s styling that is a major reason for Hyundai and Kia increasing their market share at the expense of the Japanese.

They might not be any better to drive than Hondas or Toyotas, but when buyers are captivated by the way a car looks, that’s the end of the story. But hang on a minute, there’s an exception to the rule.

Mazda was a bit player in NZ in the nineties when Honda was at its peak. Now, they sell double Honda’s volume in this country, and the Ford dealers who were able to take Mazda on when the companies were briefly tied up are very happy that they dodged a bullet. This is the same Mazda that struggles to get any real traction in the USA despite their cars being top of the class in driving dynamics and interior presentation.

What’s that all about? Styling. Mazdas are great looking cars and the forthcoming CX-30 is another stunner. Hondas? Not so much. They have a lot of work to do to attract the level of customer support in this part of the world that they had 30 years ago. A new styling direction will take many years to have an effect, so the time to start is now.

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NZ Autocar

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