Rediscovering the North, rediscovering HondaBy Botchi Santos
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Back in the day, Honda Cars Philippines was an absolute powerhouse. Their Civics and Accords, followed by the first-generation CR-V, were the pinnacle of Philippine Motoring: desirable, reliable, with the added panache of being THE premium Japanese brand in the country. Times were good, and Honda (foolishly) rested on its laurels. How the mighty have fallen, indeed.
When main rival Toyota introduced the IMV lineup in late 2004, the writing was on the wall: People started to find diesel-powered cars desirable because of lower running costs and the versatility afforded by these large vehicles. Rising fuel prices nailed the coffin shut. “Ondoy” in 2009, and the recent “Habagat” rains just this year affirmed the need for tall, high-riding and highly versatile diesel-powered vehicles. Honda had nothing. To add insult to injury, the Fukushima incident of 2011 and the intense flooding of Thailand all but cut off Honda Cars Philippines’ supply line of vehicles.
I was also a very stern critic of Honda’s vehicles: dynamically good, well-built, but expensive and ultimately lacking in emotional connection to buyers. Many cars, particularly the Korean brigade, took advantage of Honda’s lackluster product lineup by offering better priced, better equipped and ultimately more desirable cars. The Hondas weren’t bad, they just weren’t worthy of the Honda badge.
Fast forward a few months, and Honda Cars Philippines, under the leadership of new boss Tatsuya Natsume, has been working at a manic but silent pace, completing the full-model lineup and ensuring stable supply of vehicles. The fruits of their labor can be seen here, with Honda now finally having a complete model lineup (well, almost complete) and raring to go on an adventure.
The route Honda chose was indeed flattering for the typical Honda: fast, flowing B-roads, spiced up with some mild offroad trails and lots and lots of tight, second-gear switchbacks,
hairpins, crests, dips and bumps. It was also a frantic pace: close to 500 kilometers in two days with lots of stops and adventures, the second day being a full-on 300-kilometer drive. Thankfully, the Ramirez brothers, Georges and Louie, with Stefan, son of the late Kookie Ramirez tagging along, know how to keep the group tight and on time.
Our day started with a late morning flight to Tuguegarao and, upon landing, a quick lunch with orientation followed. Already, Honda’s CR-Z hybrid sports coupe was heating things up with everyone wanting to get behind the wheel. Thankfully, nobody dared to get in. So I followed my instincts: get in, and unless I am asked to get out, I get to drive the car immediately. Looking at it differently, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.
With lunch down, we headed out to the famous Callao Caves in Cagayan Province, near the Akgarkan River. The seven caves are a world wonder; tourists hike the steep trail of 183 steps and lots of rocky lanes to reach the caves, the last having a small chapel where people can pray and find God. I didn’t bother to join the trek, lest I get a cardiac arrest and find God in an untimely manner, but spent the time checking out the Honda lineup. The CR-Z is ready to market, but Honda, being the typical conservative (timid?) Japanese company, needs a lot of reassurance before they decide to bring it in officially. Decked out in a Mugen (which loosely translates to never-ending or forever challenging in Japanese) bodykit, forged aluminum wheels, sport struts and springs, it’s an absolute winner—a real hoot to drive. And it is ready for almost every kind of corner—slow and fast, smooth or bumpy—you throw at it.
The Insight is another hopeful. Like the CR-Z it is expensive, waiting for the government legislation informally known as the “Hybrid Law” to be passed. If this bill is passed, Honda, as well as other hybrid powered vehicles, will have substantially lower prices thanks to government tax discounts on excise and ad valorem taxes.
The Honda Jazz and City are familiar sights, being highly popular. Also is Honda’s Civic which, despite looking new, already looks so common as Civic fans nationwide rallied together to support the ninth generation, much like Honda’s CR-V. But it is Honda’s Pilot SUV and Odyssey that fully complete the lineup, and tap new markets for the H-brand slowly losing relevance in the mass market, going-up market (a wise move) in the process. And the Odyssey and Pilot showcase everything Honda’s been very good at over the years: solid, reliable, roomy, fuel-efficient, and despite being people movers, hugely fun to drive, and drive fast.
We reach our stop for the night, the Cagayan Holiday and Leisure Resort & Casino in Santa Ana, an oasis in the middle of nowhere. The resort is beside the sea and features its own airstrip for flying in whales (high roller gamblers) from abroad directly into the complex. Santa Ana itself is infamous for housing Port Irene, the controversial port that allows importation of used luxury cars, despite the ban on them. Leaving the next day for Laoag, Ilocos Norte, we chance upon rows of vehicles, ranging from vans and MPV’s, luxury and sports cars, both original LHD units and the obvious converted units (Japanese sports cars). While other cars may be more desirable, our Hondas just far more comfortable, reliable and just as exciting given the road conditions that lie ahead. From Santa Ana, a 300++ kilometer road trip awaits us. Driving through mountainous terrain, mostly 2-lane provincial highways, over tarmac, broken cement, asphalt, the Honda Civic surprises us all. Despite being full with three XXL-sized adults and bags, the Civic never gives up; the engine perpetually singing to redline; the paddle shifter being used far more than it was ever intended to be used; and with speeds hitting well over 140 kph through unknown terrain, overtaking slower moving vehicles far and few in between. We reach our first iconic stop, the Patapat Viaduct, perhaps belonging to the northernmost highway system of our country. It’s a beautiful, winding ribbon of tarmac that flows with grace, flattering both car and driver. Before and after the Viaduct is equally dramatic and breathtaking: the descent from the mountains leading to Patapat being intense, sometimes insane and even abrupt. While the roads after are beautifully flowing, allowing you to open up third gear through sweepers and blind corners. Ditch-hooking the Civic, Initial-D style is the norm here to get the most cornering speed and traction.
Our final stop is the Windmills at Banguid Bay. The windmills, which in today’s money costs about a billion pesos, generate electricity for the north, and provide a breathtaking, high-tech
contrast to the natural beach shaped by the wind for millions of years.
Heading to Laoag, everyone is tired but happy for the amazing driving experience matched only by the breath-taking scenery. Six years after I first went here, I have to say it is so much easier now to drive up north, and with GPS/SATNAV now widely available, it is far more convenient to go get lost and rediscover yourself in the North.
Honda has much to be proud of as the cars all survived without problems and more importantly, amazed, impressed and flattered its drivers and occupants. Let’s hope this translates to equally impressive sales, and the return of the desirable Hondas.