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Honda redesigns: Is the automaker resting on its laurels?

Consumer Reports News: August 08, 2011 10:08 AM

We recently announced that the redesigned 2012 Honda Civic scored too low in our tests to recommend. Each car we test must pass a threshold in road test score for it to be recommended. It’s no surprise that such a knock against a perennial top-selling small sedan generated a lot of reaction and debate. But something has often been missed in the conversation: Consumer Reports has been chronicling a decline in Honda’s design competitiveness for the last few years.

Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, Honda makes well-rounded, reliable, and fuel-efficient vehicles. Some of Honda’s products, like the Fit, Odyssey, and Ridgeline, and Acura MDX, still are near or at the top of their respective categories.

But Hondas no longer dominate our Top Picks list; as recently as 2006, Honda built five out of the 10 Top Picks. Most of their best products (Fit, Ridgeline, MDX) are older designs. In comparison, Honda’s recent track record with redesigns of some of their key products—as well as some of their all-new models—shows some disturbing trends.

Overall score Generational declines
2012 Honda Civic LX 61 Braking, fit and finish, agility
2006 Honda Civic EX 78  
2011 Honda Odyssey EX-L 83 Agility, some interior materials
2005 Honda Odyssey EX-L 91  
2009 Honda Pilot EX-L 74 Braking, fit and finish
2005 Honda Pilot EX-L 79  
2009 Acura TL 85 Controls, steering feel
2004 Acura TL 90  
2010 Honda Insight 54 n/a (new model) but scored too low to be recommended
2010 Honda CR-Z 57 n/a (new model) but scored too low to be recommended

Most of these redesigns have better fuel economy than the model they replaced. They also do well in recent, more-stringent crash tests. But there are some common shortcomings:

  • Stopping distances are often long.
  • Fit and finish is declining. More cheap-looking materials are appearing. (Toyota has been prone to this, too.)
  • We’ve been complaining about Honda road noise for years. While it’s improved in some of their recent products (Accord Crosstour, Odyssey), it’s still an annoyance in many of their other cars.
  • A long-time hallmark of Honda was that the cars were fun to drive. Even mainstream models had great steering feel and body control—both essential ingredients for driving involvement. That entertainment quality has been disappearing with each redesign. The Insight has sloppy on-limit handling with too much oversteer, despite its stability control.
  • Honda is stingy with standard equipment and their options structure (or lack thereof) can make it hard to get what you want. Since Honda doesn’t offer options, you usually wind up paying for other features you might not want. For example, want Bluetooth or an ambient temperature display in a Civic? Hope you don’t mind paying for a sunroof in the EX model. (Honda might be listening: They added equipment like a backup camera to lower levels of the Odyssey and Crosstour for 2012.)

As Honda (and several 2012 Civic owners) responded to our recent Civic news, their cars are often reliable, fuel efficient, and have strong resale. But steady competition means that those factors just aren’t enough. The car should be a really good car, too. We’re getting the feeling that recent Honda designs aren’t aiming at being great, but rather at being good enough. Why tell someone to spend their hard-earned money on something that’s just good enough?

Maybe part of the problem is that old assumptions are becoming blurred. A Ford Fusion is more reliable than the Accord, not to mention quieter and nicer to drive. Hyundai and Kia are building fuel-efficient and well-equipped cars at aggressive prices, and they often drive like Hondas used to. Hondas are traditionally priced at the upper end of their respective segments. Perhaps the company feels the need to become more competitive requires cost-cutting, but it isn’t reflected on their window stickers.

We hope this serves as a wake-up call for Honda and spurs the company to return to its previous excellence of making fun cars with impeccable interiors. Resting on its laurels is no recipe for long-term success.

See our complete 2012 Honda Civic road test and ratings.

Tom Mutchler

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