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Honda President and CEO Takanobu Ito
There’s been a new sheriff in Hondaville since June 2009, and he understands what we automotive media types have been whining about recently, regarding Honda’s design and technology malaise. Takanobu Ito assumed the presidency then and has ever since been yanking on the reins of the company to steer it away from the green/efficiency-trumps-everything direction it was wobbling in and back towards its roots as a manufacturer of high-performing, fun-to-drive, and environmentally friendly cars. Uncharacteristically charismatic as Japanese auto magnates go, Ito-san doesn’t mince words and doesn’t make excuses. His resume suggests he may indeed have the stuff to put Honda’s money where his mouth is, having stamped his passport as a general supervisor of motorsports starting in April 2004, and before that having served as Executive Vice President of Honda R&D Americas since 1998. Right at the top of the interview, Ito-san declared that upon assuming the presidency, he made it clear that he intended for Honda to regain the high ground in terms of fun-to-drive and technological innovation. The supercar to be unveiled in Detroit will certainly represent a giant leap forward in the former, and the tech on display at Twin-Ring Motegi on the eve of the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show, suggests his troops have made a reasonable start toward the latter. Here are some highlights of our hour-long session.

Battery EVs versus hybrids: EVs make a lot of sense in compact and crowded Japan, hybrids make more sense in roomy America, where the Fit EV may prove to be as big an electric car as makes sense and as small a car as can be sold in reasonable numbers. Similarly, different types of hybrids will suit different vehicle types–IMA in small, low-priced cars, two-motor and SH-AWD hybrids in larger and luxury vehicles. Globally, he’s skeptical of Mr. Gohsn’s high sales aspirations for battery electrics, and agrees with most think-tank predictions that hybrids will grossly outsell EVs for the foreseeable future.

What went wrong with the Civic? Priorities got skewed. Ito-san takes full responsibility. That’s gallant, but he was serving as managing director of Honda del Peru when the big decisions were being made, so it doesn’t look like his fault. Steps are being taken to rectify the perceived deficiencies ASAP.

What’s next for Acura? Ito-san is not satisfied with the current performance of the brand in the U.S., though sales are strong in China and the Middle-East. He intends to make new products more unique and sporting. Look for the hybrid-electric Super-Handling AWD to figure in this renaissance, along with the supercar.

How will Honda cope with the strong Yen?
The company is redoubling its efforts to build vehicles in the regions that consume them for the most part, with a goal of 80/20 domestic/import sourcing as a natural currency hedge. Toward that end, in order to fully utilize Japanese production capacity the company is attempting to increase its share of local sales in the popular Kei-class minicar class with products like the N Box and N Concept cars previewed at the Tokyo Show.

What about motorsports?
Honda still finds competition to be fundamental to its interests. Ito-san stressed that there’s no truth to rumors of an impending return to Formula 1, but the company competes (successfully) in a number of other classes, including Indy racing, which is attracting some stiff competition of late. Honda also won Moto GP’s “triple crown”–leading in the rider, constructor, and team points counts.

President of Honda North America, Tetsuo Iwamura

We enjoyed an equally open and honest conversation with Honda’s North America boss, and contemporary of chairman Ito, Tetsuo Iwamura. Both men joined Honda in 1978, and we have to imagine they are good friends, as their personalities, demeanor, and sense of humor seem quite similar and accessible to North Americans. Once again we lobbed in the hardballs, and Iwamura-san cracked away at them.

What are you doing to fix Acura? A new RDX and small sedan are on the immediate horizon next spring. Acura’s mission is to provide smart luxury that meets social needs, not just personal needs. The small sedan will share some platform architecture with the Civic but feature unique powertrains. The forthcoming supercar is a core element of Honda/Acura’s history and DNA, and will be sold as an Acura in North America. We will also hear news about the RL flagship sedan quite soon too.

Will the Ridgeline pickup continue? Honda’s only truck is an important model and there is no current plan to cancel the Ridgeline, and measures are being considered to expand its appeal. (There is also no word on the timing or content of its replacement.)

Toyota reportedly made radical changes to its Camry in response to the Korean competition. Has the Accord experienced any such delays? No. The Accord due next year is expected to be quite successful without radical changes made midway through its development, as it has been designed with full knowledge of the competitive landscape.

Why isn’t the Crosstour selling better? The problem is not with that this is too much of a niche product, it hasn’t been marketed correctly. Iwamura-san now believes that using the Accord name changed people’s expectation of what the car was. Subtle changes in store for the vehicle and a fresh marketing approach should change the sales picture.

What about those Consumer Reports jabs? For so many years the disparity between the competition and Honda in terms of quality, materials and technology was large. Now it is considerably smaller, but the world still expects great differences. Honda is redoubling its efforts to widen this gap again, and intends to add content and technology with minimal price increases.

Design has been a recent weak point. Are any changes coming in that area? No. Honda has a very clear design principle, known as mmmm–man maximum, machine minimum. Honda will continue to adhere to these principles and will not follow the mode of fashion. [That said, we feel the EVster and AC-X look considerably better than some other recent Hondas.]

Will North American production capacity increase to further reduce Yen-hampered imports from Japan? There are no plans to expand production to new locations beyond the forthcoming Mexico plant, but that plant and the Indiana plant have room to expand production somewhat, should demand warrant it. Meeting future CAFE targets will ultimately require more hybrids, however, and so Honda will need to consider building them here.
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