So, the Honda press conference at the 2010 Detroit Auto Show last week triggered more than a bit of confusion – and even some disappointment. True, we journalists are used to seeing things watered down when an automaker moves from sketch to concept, and then from concept to production car. But the Civic Concept revealed in Detroit is no fantasy in chrome. If anything, in terms of design, it's only a moderately warmed-over version of the current compact sedan.
Which raises some serious questions about Honda's strategy at a time when the compact market is becoming more competitive than it has been in years. Until recently, Honda could assume that the only real competition for the Civic would be the Toyota Corolla. No longer.
The new Chevrolet Cruze has been generating quite a bit of buzz, as has the next-generation Ford Focus, a major step forward in that maker's global One Ford strategy. Then there's the new Hyundai Elantra, which is arguably an even more striking effort than the Korean carmaker's larger, more expensive Sonata.
The compact segment is about to get more competitive than it has been in memory, just as rising fuel prices get American motorists thinking about downsizing. It's reasonable to expect that the production version of the Civic Concept will be solidly reliable, fun to drive and well-equipped. But these days, that may not be enough.
And that underscores the problem that Honda is facing on a broader scale. The maker has traditionally charted its own course, delivering a long string of pleasant surprises, from the original CR-X to the Acura NSX sports car (above). Even its mainstream offerings have been standouts. "But lately," laments George Peterson, senior analyst with AutoPacific, Inc., that "innovative company (has) been missing the mark."
On the whole, the Japanese maker fared reasonably well for 2010, though it lagged a bit behind the U.S. market overall, with a 7.6% sales increase – volume for the year reaching 1.23 million. But getting a clear sense of what the numbers reveal requires a much closer look. The maker is largely being propped up by just a handful of core products, notably the Accord, Civic and Pilot on the Honda division side, and the MDX, TL and TSX on the Acura side.
With rare exception, most of the maker's new models are stuck in neutral. True, the Acura ZDX posted a seemingly solid 4,000% sales increase year-over-year, but for all of 2010 sales still totaled just 3,259. On the Honda side, the new Insight is going nowhere. Designed to challenge the iron-fisted grip of the Toyota Prius on the hybrid market, Honda sold just 20,962 of its dedicated gas-electric offering. And the Accord Crosstour was little more than a rounding error when you added up the figures for the overall Accord line at 28,851.
What's gone wrong? Analyst Joe Phillippi, of AutoTrends Consulting, points to the ZDX as a good example, suggesting, "Their styling has gotten totally off-track."
Perhaps such arguments encouraged Honda to take a more play-it-safe approach with the déjà vu design of the Civic Concept.
On the Acura side, Phillippi adds, the situation has been compounded by Honda's seeming inability to decide exactly what the brand is. Is it a luxury marque? A performance brand? Or does it have a clear identity at all? With total sales of barely 130,000 last year, barely half that of the leading high-line imports, that may be the problem.
For his part, Honda's national marketing director, Steve Center, insists the numbers don't really do justice to how well his company has been performing through the recession. "We don't go for the jugular," he contends, with heavy incentives designed to prop up low demand and weak models. "We run this place like a business," he adds, "not a runaway train."
Despite its conservative approach, Center expects the next Civic will "be at the right place at the right time," when the U.S. market recovers – and especially if fuel prices encourage a shift to smaller cars.
As to Acura, Center acknowledges the brand has lost focus, asserting a wave of new products coming "within the next two years... will address this." And don't be surprised to see some changes to the much-maligned, anime comic-style Acura grille, he hints.
It's good to hear the maker is aware it has problems. Acura, in particular, is a brand in desperate need of help. But the main Honda brand cannot afford to lose its once laser-like sense of focus.
Of course, that's an outsider's view. The market may prove to be much more receptive to an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, approach to the new Civic, which could deliver the sort of slam dunk success the model has scored before.
It better. Honda cannot afford to become just another competitor in a key market segment it long dominated.