A scan of recent Honda headlines shows a corporate entity that you'd think few people, and even fewer CEOs, would complain about: in spite of the odd recall, Honda sales are up, it tops an ALG survey on perceived quality, has excellent relations with suppliers, was granted the right to alter its struggling IndyCar engine and then powered the car that won the Indy 500, and its intergalactically popular CR-V beat the new Mazda CX-5 in a Consumer Reports test. And it is the only major automaker to never record an annual loss. Ever.
Yet those who look closer know more: the current Honda isn't the same company that got us to love the brand in the first place. The automaker has been saying for a while now that it is determined to be the alchemist it once was, committing to building smartly engineered, fun-to-drive cars. For the first time in its history it has promoted an American, Erik Berkman, to the position of North American Research and Development chief to do just that. According to Automotive News, Tetsuo Iwamura, Executive Vice President of Honda North American says "What we expect him [Berkman] to do is, through this good knowledge and experience, fulfill his dream of making North America strong." Obviously, there's no pressure at all.
There are two other lines in the Automotive News story that give an indication of the tough road Berkman has before him. One was this: "He's planning changes in styling, materials, driving dynamics and technology across the Honda and Acura model lines." That doesn't represent merely building a fun car; that statement would more closely equate to a change in corporate philosophy for a company that keeps an eye on costs with an intensity that would make a wolf spider jealous.
But Berkman, an engineer, has a 30-year history with the company and major successes on his record: he worked on the 1999 Honda Odyssey and 2001 Acura CL, his team designed the multiple-Indy 500-winning engine, and he led the development of the 2004 Acura TL sport sedan – a car he had to fight for, and whose sales repaid his commitment and the company coffers.
Berkman didn't go into details about what he's planning, but we know it will involve more racing, including tracked-out versions of the NSX, and, taking the 2013 Accord as a guide, making incremental improvements and adding features everywhere. In Berkman's own words, the second crucial line in the story is what he feels is his mission: "We want everybody to fall over and go: There it is again. There's that Honda we used to praise." Carry on, sir – we'll be watching.