In the decades since I first got into cars, much has changed about the auto industry. Back then, two-door coupes were commonplace and in fact were among the best selling cars on the market thanks to nameplates like Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and Ford Thunderbird. No mainstream car-line was complete without two-door, four-door and station wagon variants. Today, aside from performance models, there is but one midsize two-door coupe left, the Honda Accord.
It’s been more than three decades since I took driver’s ed in a 1981 Honda Civic hatchback. In the intervening years, every segment of the car market has grown progressively larger, heavier and more powerful in response to tougher safety regulations and expanding customers. Last fall, Honda launched the ninth-generation Civic on an all-new global platform that was deemed worthy of being awarded the 2016 North American Car of the Year. After a short but impressive drive last fall, I recently got to spend a longer period of time living with the new Civic.
In recent years, many critics have accused Honda of losing its way. The lightweight, fun-to-drive cars that helped build the Honda reputation from the 1970s through the early 1990s had given way to increasingly bland cars devoid of character. Chief of among the models that seemed to suffer was the Civic. First launched in 1973, the Civic wasn’t Honda’s first American model, but it really gave the brand momentum that picked up significantly a few years later with the debut of the Accord. The most recent Civic which debuted in 2011 seemed to epitomize everything wrong with the brand. Honda heard the complaints and tried to address them for generation 10 that goes on sale in November. However, hearing complaints and adequately resolving them are two different things and only time behind the wheel would tell us if Honda has been successful.
For most companies that make and sell products there is often one particular product that is most important to its image and its bottom line. For Apple, it’s the iPhone, at Ford it’s the F-150 pickup. For Honda, that product is the Civic, its top-selling product globally with 800,000 annual sales and also its longest running continuous model after 43 years on the road. At events in Detroit and Los Angeles today, Honda revealed the all-new 10th generation Civic in the four-sedan form that will launch later this fall. The new Civic sedan is the first of several body styles that will arrive on our shores in the next two years including for the first time, a Civic Type-R.
When I was in my high school auto mechanics class learning how to rebuild carburetors, grind valve seats and set the valve clearances on a Triumph TR7, I was already dreaming about being an engineer in the industry and developing new cars. One of the most important lessons I learned from those years in the garage was that any engineer should be required to assemble and service a product before it goes into production. It’s become apparent to me over the past 35 years that few if any engineers have ever picked up a wrench. Fortunately, Honda seems to have heard that message and implemented it in the design of the 2016 Pilot crossover.
Crossover utility vehicles are rapidly taking over the American automobile market. Even as the market as a whole grows, sales of cars are actually in decline. Meanwhile trucks including pickups, SUVs and CUVs are growing. The biggest growth is coming at smallest end of the market with subcompact crossovers going from nonexistent just a few years ago to more than 110,000 in 2014 and 107,000 in the first six months of this year. Several new and very promising small crossovers have just arrived at dealers in the last month or two and are expected to push the numbers way up by the end of the year. Among the new entries are the Jeep Renegade, Fiat 500x, Mazda CX-3 and Honda’s entry into the segment, the HR-V which I just spent a week with.
Like most automakers today, Honda has an R&D outpost in the heart of Silicon Valley to work on all kinds of advanced technology. Since new driving technology lies at the heart of the updates to the 2016 Accord, the Mountain View, Calif. lab was deemed a fitting location to reveal the refreshed midsizer.
Yet another automotive proving ground opened in Ann Arbor, Mich. today, but the Mobility Transformation Center (MTC) is quite different from existing tracks. There is no shortage of automotive test tracks scattered around southeast Michigan mostly operated by automakers and larger suppliers that do everything from salt baths to high-speed stability to running over pounding potholes. These facilities tend to be highly secured facilities where outsiders are rarely welcome. Ford engineers don’t get to hang out at GM’s Milford Proving Ground and GM people are persona non-grata in Dearborn. At MTC Mcity course, all of these engineers will have a place where they can come together and collaborate along with researchers from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).
Given my work in the auto industry over the years, I frequently get asked for car buying advice. If I determine that the person asking the question is need of a new small car, my goto response for the past half dozen years has consistently been to get a Honda Fit. Last year, Honda introduced an all-new third-generation Fit and I just spent a week driving one and unsurprisingly, it will continue to be the small car I’m most likely to recommend.
When my daughter was in the market for her first new car seven years ago, she checked out all of the small cars available and quickly dismissed the Chevy Aveo, Toyota Echo and Scion xA and xB. At the time, the Fit was a revelation in the segment. A few years earlier MINI had demonstrated that Americans would pay a premium price for a well-built, fun-to-drive small car. As fun as the MINI was, it’s back seat was too tight to be useful and it was a bit pricey. The first-gen Fit on the other hand, could be had starting at just over $14,000 and even a loaded Fit Sport was less than $18,000.