Cadillac -The Standard of the World. Built Ford Tough. Mercedes-Benz -The Best or Nothing. BMW – The Ultimate Driving Machine. Audi – Truth in Engineering. Well maybe not so much on that last one, but you get my point. Successful automotive brands have an image associated with them that may or may not be entirely accurate, but that’s what marketing is all about. Honda’s premium Acura brand has always struggled with trying to determine what it’s image should be, no matter how good its products have been and they have typically been very good. The latest stab at remaking the brand image image is the 2017 MDX SUV which I just spent a week with.
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.
American Honda EVP John Mendel reveals the 2016 Civic sedan
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.
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.
After what seems like about 63 concept versions of a second-generation NSX since 2007, Acura will finally reveal the definitive production model at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on January 12, 2015. The following day, at the Honda press conference, the company will show the final concept version of the new fuel cell car that will go on sale in early 2016. American Honda executive vice president John Mendel declared that 2015 would be the “Year of Honda.”
Over the next 12 months, Honda will launch the new NSX, begin deliveries of the HondaJet executive jet, return to Formula One racing with McLaren and start production of a new downsized turbocharged engine at the Anna, Ohio engine plant. This winter, Honda will also launch the new subcompact crossover HR-V followed by an all-new Pilot in the spring.
The first production HondaJet achieved its first flight on Friday, June 27, 2014. The flight marks another milestone toward aircraft certification and entry into service in 2015.
For enthusiasts, the big news is the production NSX with an all-new engine and a three-motor hybrid system. The three motor layout was announced at the 2013 Detroit show with two motors on the front axle for all-wheel-drive and a third motor integrated with the new V6 engine at the back. In a teaser video to be released by Honda today, we get our first hint of what the NSX will sound like and it’s clear that this is no Prius.
Honda hasn’t yet revealed details about the displacement or configuration of the new Ohio-built engine or which cars it will be installed in. It will be part of the first turbocharged member of the Earth Dreams family of direct-injected engines and will of course use Honda’s VTEC variable valve timing system.
At the 2014 Paris Motor Show this week, Honda and Nvidia come together to announce that the automaker’s new industry-first Android-based Honda Connect infotainment system would be powered by the Tegra 3 system-on-a-chip. While Honda is not actually the first automaker to announce an infotainment system that runs on Android, they should be the first company to actually bring such a system to market.
At the Geneva Motor Show back in March 2011, Saab showed off a concept car called the Phoenix with an Android-based system dubbed iQon.Unfortunately for Saab fans that was followed soon after by another period of insolvency and the car and iQon were never seen again.
Honda on the other hand doesn’t appear likely to go away anytime soon, so its new Connect system should arrive in early 2015 on updated European versions of the Civic, Civic Tourer and CR-V. There’s no word yet on when or if the new system will come to North American models.
“Nvidia has been providing processors for automotive applications for 10 years now and Honda is the 19th automotive brand to adopt our automotive-grade chips,” said Danny Shapiro, senior director, automotive at Nvidia. “The Tegra 3 SoC used by Honda is based on the same architecture previously used on smartphones and tablets but optimized for the automotive environment including temperature and shock resistance.”
Among the first applications for the Tegra 3 were the original 2012 Google Nexus 7 and the Tesla Model S which uses two of Nvidia’s chips, one for the massive 17-inch center console display and a second for the instrument cluster. Other Nvidia automotive customers include Audi and BMW.
Nvidia’s powerful graphics chips have been popular with video gamers for two decades and automakers are increasingly dependent on that kind of power for the complex entertainment interfaces and re-configurable instrument clusters.
Development of Honda Connect began well before the January 2014 announcement of the Open Automotive Alliance and Android Auto. Because of the testing and safety requirements in the auto industry, lead times to validate software for something like an infotainment system are much longer than in the phone business which is why the new Honda system is built on top of Android 4.0.4 which was initially released way back in October 2011 with the dessert code-name Ice Cream Sandwich. Honda added a custom interface to its Android implementation with a grid of six large buttons, similar to numerous other infotainment systems.
Honda Connect uses a seven-inch capacitive touchscreen to show off the navigation, radio, rear camera and other vehicle data. The system will include access to the Honda App Center for access to download compatible apps for use in the vehicle. These will presumably be conventional Android apps that have been vetted by Honda to ensure they are suitable for use on the go without distracting the driver.
The system comes pre-installed with the Aha Radio app for playing a variety of media and also includes support for MirrorLink on compatible phones to push the phone display to the vehicle.
Honda has not yet replied to inquiries for more information about the Connect system. Many of the automaker’s North American vehicles already support Apple’s SIRI eyes-free and Honda has announced plans to support both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It’s unknown at this time if the Android-powered head unit will include support for the two newer smartphone app conduits or if drivers will be restricted to apps from the App Center. Nvidia spokesman Alan Hall did say that the Android system is only for the European market at this time.