Editor’s letter

TEN YEARS AGO I DROVE THE HONDA CIVIC TYPE R ON THE BONNIE SCOTTISH HILLS AROUND EDINBURGH. THREE THINGS FROM THAT TRIP HAVE STUCK WITH ME: A TASTE FOR PEATY SINGLE MALTS, A TENDENCY TO OVERUSE THE WORD ‘BONNIE’ AND A DEEP ADMIRATION FOR HONDA’S ENGINEERING PROWESS.

GLENN BUTLER

This 148kW, $40K hot hatch was underpowered and unrefined, overpriced and overhyped but it was also a cracking car to drive on the right road; raw, raucous and mind-blowingly quick.

Unfortunately for the Civic Type R, its timing was terrible. Smart turbocharging was becoming an effective way to achieve performance and economy, with a low-rpm torque surge that made the Type R’s naturally aspirated engine feel flat by comparison.

But most fatal to its sales potential was Honda Oz’s impending plummet off the sales cliff.

In 2007 Honda sold 60,000 cars in Australia. The company’s boss at the time, Lindsay Smalley, told me Honda would hit 100,000 sales and 10 percent market share by the end of 2010 – perhaps he was seduced by the synergy. Two years later the company managed a paltry 41,000, and worse was still to come.

During the 2008 GFC, many carmakers drastically cut spending on R&D and product development.

Honda pulled its horns in more than most, clearly thinking frugal corporate governance was the way to weather the storm.

The ramifications of this overly conservative strategy manifested as a dearth of new models, leaving uncompetitive product fighting for scraps against newer rivals. Sales fell to just 30,000 in 2011 – less than half its high watermark of only four years earlier. Civic was two-thirds down, CR-V was also down 60-plus percent, Accord and Accord Euro were running at half their 2007 volume and Jazz had fallen 20 percent. Honda had no winners.

Last month Honda invited Wheels to a meeting and showed us the new Civic due for launch in June.

The executive team also laid out plans to rejuvenate the brand in Australia, built primarily around this new Civic.

Honda certainly needs a good plan because right now it’s a brand lost at sea in a country flooded with brands. The company’s reputation for innovation and engineering is not embodied by the current range.

There are glimmers – Jazz’s innovative magic seats, for example – but glimmers aren’t enough.

Honda has been to Hell; now it’s determined to come back. This adversity presents an almost clean-sheet opportunity to reposition the brand.

What does Honda stand for? What should it stand for? How does it want Australians to perceive it?

Lambast Mazda’s cheesy Zoom Zoom and Audi’s Vorsprung Durch Technik and HSV’s I Just Want One all you like, but they position their brands strongly with consumers. Just as importantly, the product backs up those messages.

One thing is certain: Honda no longer owns the innovation or engineering high ground.

Honda certainly needs a good plan because it is lost at sea in a country fl ooded with brands

Engi-nearing

Honda’s 21st century NSX will fi nally get to Australia late this year, almost ten years after then Honda CEO Tetsuo Iwamura fi rst approved the ‘V10 supercar’ project in December 2007. The GFC killed that one, but we’ve still had a long wait since the fi rst concept debuted in 2012.

In fact, this new-generation hybrid supercar has been so long in public development that I quietly fear it will feel outdated by the time we fi nally get to meet.