Opinion: “Honda is back in rude health”

Honda is back in full strength, beating even the fabled Ferrari at one of motorsport’s greatest competitions.

For a third of a century, most of Japan’s major car makers have invited me over to the Land of the Rising Yen, or let me gatecrash their HQs, design and engineering centres, test tracks, staff canteens, worryingly hi-tech toilet facilities – places like that.

Among the more memorable firms to host me were Tokyo (and world) No.1 Toyota, plus neighbouring, underrated, misunderstood Mitsubishi. Also special was Mazda of Hiroshima, which was – and still is – classy, and punching above its weight. Deliciously different Daihatsu in wonderfully wacky Osaka was bonkers, but with a lovely, rarely seen serious side and a massive potential that, sadly, it never realised.

Most impressive of the lot? Honda. Based in Tokyo, but building and owning its own, world-renowned circuits (Suzuka and Twin Ring Motegi) not far away, this is more – much, much more – than a mere maker of motorised mobility machines.

I’ve always admired Honda’s standalone, slightly off-the-wall attitude. Here’s a company that forced me to have a conversation with its Asimo robot that had eerily squeaky shoes, which still haunt me; forced me to clap my hands to activate an autonomous prototype that drove to my feet before allowing me to climb aboard; forced me to strap myself into another self-driving car travelling on a test track that was deliberately littered with potentially lethal obstacles it was supposed to – and did – swerve around at great speed. Scared? Just a lot.

When I asked legendary Honda CEO Nobuhiko Kawomoto – or Nobi as I affectionately called him – why he needed two full circuits at Motegi, he rapidly replied: “So we can run F1 race PLUS Indycar race at same time – with Hondas winning both races, of course.”

Sadly, Nobi’s retirement resulted in a bad spell for Honda. It lost its way. Its EV and autonomous know-how, test miles and tech were strong – but the commercial execution wasn’t. The Toyota Prius was allowed to become the ‘green’ car of choice for the new, cleaner world of the late 1990s/early 2000s. Meanwhile, Honda’s ugly, electrified Civic saloon (I ran one – honest) and its other EV offerings didn’t cut it. Exterior designs were hard on the eye. An embarrassingly slow, unsuccessful, eye-wateringly expensive return to F1 was yet another painful thorn in the side of the company, its dealers and customers unwilling to be associated with a brand that had lost form.

But that was then, and this is now. Honda is back in rude health. Its entire range will be electrified by 2022; it’s got one new model arriving every six months; it’s a contender for World Urban Car of the Year thanks to its affordable Jazz and pricier Honda e – a modern cult car and future classic if ever I saw one, drove one, and wanted one.

The icing on the cake? Honda can, again, justifiably describe itself as a Ferrari-beater. Mercedes may be responsible for most of the victories in the current F1 season, but Honda and Honda-powered cars are enjoying the second largest number of wins. The company is back – on the track, on the top of the podium, on the road, and on the showroom floor.

Mike Rutherford

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