Sunday, August 18, 2013

Editorial: Does Honda need to find their Bob Lutz?

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Honda has lost its soul.

As a long-time owner of Honda and Acura vehicles, it brings me no pleasure to have to point this out, but as an enthusiast, I feel it is my duty to do just that. Nothing that either brand has introduced of late inspires much enthusiasm and the upcoming 2015 NSX has yet to hit dealerships, so I am not counting that chicken until it hatches. After all, we all saw what happened with the vaporware that was the last supposed NSX successor. In fact, the rest of the automotive market does not seem the least worried by the 2015 Acura NSX, prompting Audi to start a Twitter war with Acura and calling the 2015 NSX vaporware just like its V10 powered predecessor. And even if it does materialize, that still only leaves a single car with any serious performance profile in the entire line-up, which is nothing to be proud of.

Looking back through Honda's history, there have almost always been a number of more performance oriented models in their line-up, either in the form of nearly race-spec versions of conventional models, a la the Integra Type-R, or dedicated models such as the S2000 and Honda Prelude. Light weight, sharp handling, and an engaging driving experience were characteristics that spread to all models and the company's racing lineage shone through in the continued use of double-wishbone suspensions front and rear to provide chassis dynamics that were exceptional. However, as the years went on, the Prelude and all Type-R models disappeared from the American market, the Integra was replaced with a strut suspension based RSX, and both the S2000 and NSX were allowed to fade away without successors. Now, we are left with only a very mediocre Civic Si to carry on the Honda performance car banner in North America, with the rest of the global market having absolutely nothing performance oriented coming out of Honda's factories.

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This sort of pattern is not new to the automotive industry. In fact, Chrysler went through a similar period, producing staid, boring cars that were lifeless and dull. However, there was visionary at Chrysler who was a performance car nut and who was largely responsible for the first revival of Chrysler's performance image. That man was none other than Bob Lutz and the car that recaptured everyone's imagination was the Dodge Viper. Rolling onto the show stand in 1989, it captured the hearts of car enthusiasts with its wild proportions and monster engine. When it went on sale in 1991, it quickly became a pin-up car that could rival Lamborghinis and Ferraris in the bedrooms of young budding car enthusiasts all over the country.

After leaving Chrysler, Lutz popped up across town at rival automaker GM, where he continued to usher in an era of performance cars, bringing the Monaro and Commodore from GM's Holden brand in Australia and unleashing them on American audiences as the GTO and G8, respectively. He also oversaw development of the Cadillac CTS, the first serious contender that the American luxury brand had fielded against BMW's perennially loved 3-series. And, of course, the revival of the Camaro, sporting the heritage look combined with modern technologies, allowed GM to field an impressive performance car line-up that excited enthusiasts.

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Honda, a company that has its roots in motorcycles, should be able to quicken the pulse of an enthusiast at its mere mention. It should inspire thoughts of hitting twisty mountain roads accompanied by a sonorous exhaust note bouncing off the rock face. Not to question Honda's commercial success, which it clearly has managed well even in the wake of natural disasters that set its production capabilities back, but the lack of exciting vehicle prospects is going to slowly sap enthusiast buyers away, leaving behind only those buyers looking for boring reliable transportation, further draining away the company's soul. While the revival of the NSX is a step in the right direction, the rest of the line-up is looking extraordinarily dreary when it comes to performance.

Finding a Bob Lutz-like personality within the company who can help inject a dose of enthusiast DNA back into the company could help spark a whole new era of performance enthusiasts to take an interest in Honda and Acura again. Doing so may not be shareholder friendly initially, but bringing back an audience that has been abandoning the brand in droves might pay off in the long-run and restore some of the luster to Honda's performance image. Is there someone there brave enough to take up the challenge?

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