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Pressure mounting for Honda

/ 11:19 PM February 21, 2012

Last week, the motoring world was abuzz with the launch of the all-new, 9th Generation Honda Civic. Surfing through the ’net, review about the new Civic has been rather lukewarm. Pundits the world over have said that the exterior looks are rather bland, unadventurous and too safe. Honda wanted the new Civic to be instantly recognizable, and they accomplished that. But do people still want a Civic?

Looking through its list of competitors, the Civic fails to really move the game forward. Hyundai’s Elantra is excellent, having just reviewed it recently. The Chevrolet Cruze, especially in diesel trim, is mighty impressive, and Ford is all set to launch the all-new 2012 Focus to the Asean Market this coming Bangkok Motorshow, with local sales expected to be sometime within the year. The new Focus has been of great interest to a lot of people. People have been messaging me on e-mail, text and FB, asking if and when the new Focus will be coming to our shores.

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Crucially, the other competitors offer greater value for money. A lot of them are cheaper, or are better equipped, or have more powerful, hence more exciting engines. While I am a Honda fanboy as much as the next person, I fear for Honda. Can it still afford to sit on its laurels? Granted, their cars, particularly the Jazz, and even the City of late, have me smitten, but that’s simply because these two cars truly outshine their respective competitors in their segment, the most hotly contested segment that is continuing to grow.

But the Civic segment? I fear that in general, it is a dying, shrinking market. Whatever market share or at least top-of-mind recall people have in that segment is going, slowly but surely, to the upstart brands like Kia, Hyundai, Chevrolet and Ford. Upstart because these are the non-traditional Japanese brands, and they are the brands offering truly unique, game-changing innovations to this segment, and offer better value for money, plus truly unique, stylish and modern looks. A generation ago, we grew up riding in our parents’ Lancers, Corollas and Civics. I guess now, the segment buying this market want something different, something they can identify with their own, and not something closely associated with their parents.

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But the more worrying concern for Honda is that, compared with Mitsubishi and Toyota in particular, they lack a diesel-powered SUV/pickup. This is the biggest reason why I feel Honda is slowly but surely becoming less and less relevant to the market. Toyota has the muscle to outlast its competitors, being the only brand that has a vehicle in practically every segment in the industry. Mitsubishi is enjoying great success because its key products, the Montero Sport SUV and Strada pickup dominate their respective segments, which are the most contested, and fastest-growing segments in the industry. The Koreans, Kia and Hyundai, have also been churning out diesel-powered vehicles one after the other, even in the small-car segment. How can Honda compete with these brands if they lack a diesel powertrain?

Surely, people will want and always be loyal to a Civic. The original H-brand has a strong following, both from enthusiasts and consumer-biased car buyers alike. It’s a very safe, very dependable, very traditional car. But it really just lacks any sex appeal with its very safe design, plus very expensive asking price. In the same way, everyone wants a fine Swiss watch, but not everyone can afford one, so they end up buying a digital Japanese-brand watch (amusingly enough, also made in Thailand). These watches can do all the functions of the Swiss watch and more, cost far less and are now, crucially, just as fashionable.

I wish for Honda to succeed in the remaining segments they chose to soldier on. And I think one way to overcome their lack of product offerings and market relevance is to release halo models that will brighten up the dowdy range. A Honda Civic Si Coupe, perhaps some German-market Type-R’s, and a special limited run of Honda’s next-generation NSX if and when it does come out, will truly brighten up Honda’s image, which is founded on motorsport, engineering and competition.

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TAGS: auto, Honda, Honda Civic, Motoring
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