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July 22, 2015

COMMENT: Honda flexes for a younger product portfolio

With its's fourth major launch or model update so far this year, Honda could be accused of running to catch up having put development on hold when the economic crisis hit in 2008, writes Chris Wright.

With its’s fourth major launch or model update so far this year, Honda could be accused of running to catch up having put development on hold when the economic crisis hit in 2008, writes Chris Wright.

Back then, a new NSX supercar was canned and Formula One participation was axed as the traditionally conservative company seemingly turned in on itself to concentrate purely on core product.

In the  meantime, rivals continued to pour money into new models, enter previously unthought of niches and generally continue to burn through the R&D budgets. They left Honda behind…or did they?

The petrol heads and automotive pontificators might like to consider that this is actually the sixth largest carmaker in the world, producing some 4.3m vehicles annually. It is also the largest maker of motorcycles – 70m a year and in India Honda is even the generic name for bikes. It builds aircraft, develops robots and if if you add power equipment, generators, lawn-mowers and marine into the mix you have by far the biggest engine maker in the world. Honda is also fiercely independent and not reliant on any other manufacturer for platforms or engines.

Okay, so finances are not as strong as they once were, largely now down to exchange rates, but the company still spends billions on R&D. The view of Honda in Europe is also skewed by the fact that the region has been near the bottom of the priority list over the past few years. Efforts have been concentrated on the all-important US and Japanese markets and, to a lesser degree, South America. Europe, however, is very much back on the Honda radar.

Philip Crossman, head of Honda in the UK, the company’s largest European market by far with 55,000 annual sales, said that after a product lull post-Lehman Brothers, new models are coming thick and fast.

“There is so much coming it’s a challenge for us, the dealers and the customers. But that’s a good problem to have.”

You also have to be a little bit careful accusing Honda of being behind the curve. Go back a few years and the company was pretty well last to the party with a diesel engine; but when it arrived it  knocked the socks off anything else around at the time.

Back to cars and we’ve seen the European launch of the Jazz (called Fit in Asian markets), the company’s most important model, in Frankfurt this week. It’s the culmination of a hectic spring and early summer for the press team which has barely caught breath since the last launch earlier this month of the HR-V in Lisbon, and before that the Civic Type R in Slovakia.

Since launch in 2001, some 5.5m Jazz models have been sold globally, just under 800,000 of the them in Europe – it is one of Honda’s most successful models ever and hugely popular at home in Japan where all future production of the car will be centred at the Yorii plant. For Europe, the latest model comes with a new 1.3-litre petrol engine, replacing both the previous 1.2- and 1.4-litre units, while there are no plans to continue with a hybrid – again popular in Japan while sales elsewhere have been slim.

So, from having the oldest model range at the beginning of the year, Honda can now boast one of the youngest and there’s more to come with the European launch of the new NSX supercar at the beginning of next year.

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