It has also chopped and changed its ‘image cars’, in contrast to rivals that have nurtured theirs, while potentially significant developments such as the IMA hybrid haven’t made the hoped-for sales breakthroughs.
Honda was once at the cutting edge of hybrid development with the Gen-1 Insight IMA in the mid-1990s, created by engineers redeployed from F1. Yet the five-door model, an obvious volume-seller, didn’t appear until 2009, a decade behind the Prius. The Insight was dropped in 2014, just as the politics of air quality was emerging. “Honda had an early lead in hybrid technology, let it go and Toyota has romped all over them,” says Peter Wells, a professor at Cardiff Business School.
Globally, the CR-V and HR-V SUVs have been huge hits for Honda, and both are among the world’s top 10 sellers. The CR-V broke new ground in 1997 with its car-like driving manners, boosted at the time by shared knowledge of Land Rover’s Freelander plans. In fact, some insiders rate the CR-V as Honda’s UK shining light ahead of the Civic.
But it was Nissan’s overwhelmingly successful Qashqai that was to become the compact SUV standard bearer, its 2007 launch leading to huge sales numbers. “The Qashqai soon became a reference model and has allowed Nissan to take sales away from its Japanese rivals,” says Felipe Nunoz, a global analyst at Jato Dynamics. European CR-V sales peaked with 76,000 units in the Qashqai’s launch year, a time when the Toyota RAV4 sold 99,000. By 2017 CR-V sales fell by more than half to 34,000, compared with 71,000 RAV4s, while the HR-V sells around a quarter of the Nissan Juke’s UK volume.
Undoubtedly Honda’s back catalogue is graced by handsome and great-looking cars, but consistency of style and brand, especially in the volume-selling models, has somehow eluded them. “There have been some fantastic cars, but they haven’t been used as a jumping point to the volume sellers,” says Dale Harrow, head of car design at the Royal College of Art.
Harrow questions whether Honda has ever really pinned down critical details, such as the front-end graphic of its cars, and suggests that some models, like the HR-V, remain “apologetic and plain vanilla”. Yet the latest Civic is a riot of shapes, vents and styling lines – seemingly built by a different company.
A fundamental issue that Honda has struggled to fix is aligning its brand image across Europe, with owners who are typically older in the UK than they are in places such as Germany and Eastern Europe.
That makes car design challenging, but it is not helped by Honda’s refusal, according to one insider, to work around a typical “European buyer”. Instead, the firm allows each country or region autonomy.