Payne Q&Auto: How Honda got its mojo back

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

This year Honda General Manager Jeff Conrad and his team are introducing reliable, new Honda Pilot and HR-V sport utes. Ho-hum. Sure, we Americans admire .350 batters. But we loooove .350 batters that hit with power.

And for much of its existence, Honda was synonymous with power.

A 1967 RA300 Honda Formula One car won its first race at the Italian Grand Prix. Jaws dropped when Honda's mid-engine, aluminum-chassis Acura NSX supercar debuted in 1991. The 1999 Honda S2000 was the first-ever 9,000 RPM road car, producing an astonishing 240 ponies with just 2-liters. And the 2006 200-hp Civic SI in my driveway was one of its generation's hottest hot hatches.

But recently, as ol' reliable Honda ruled the retail sales floor with appliances like the Accord, Civic, CR-V, and Odyssey minivan, muscular Honda got locked in the basement. Honda withdrew from F1, ditched the NSX and S2, neglected its hot hatch.

Good news, kids. Honda's got its mojo back.

With the unveiling of the 2016 OMG NSX at the Detroit Auto Show, Honda has launched a performance blitz that includes an F1 return and the insane, 300-plus horsepower Civic Type R (an SI pocket rocket on 'roids). At Pilot's unveiling in Cincinnati this April, I sat down with Conrad, a 33-year Honda veteran, to talk power, pioneers, and 1995 T-top NSXs.

Q: Is sporty Honda back?

Conrad: I don't think it ever really went away. We went through a few tough years with the (Japanese) tsunami and flooding in Thailand. We had to make sure we took care of our core vehicles, but performance is part of Honda's DNA. If you think back to our racing over the years a lot of our engineers cut their teeth (in) our F1 program. That spirit is always with Honda, and you're seeing that with cars that are coming out - we have a new Civic which is the most aggressive that we've ever made. It's a huge redesign and . . . will be in an expanded number of body styles with the sedan, coupe, five-door, SI, and ultimately the Type R.

Q: It's not just production muscle, you guys are back in F1, too.

Conrad: We dominated F1 from 1985 until 1989. Got out for a few years . . . and just got back in. We're happy with the way things are going. Takes time to get your sea legs. We have always been active in Champ car, now IndyCar.

Q: Is the step up in production performance coordinated with the racing? Win on Sunday, sell on Monday?

Conrad: It's coordinated from the point of view that we know that sports-oriented cars build excitement among enthusiasts and enthusiasts influence other people. Everybody loves performance. You may not buy that particular high-performance vehicle, but everyone wants a little bit of performance in their vehicle.

Q: Honda doesn't just "get" the U.S. consumer, it's been a pioneer in U.S. segments like compact SUVs. Now you're a pioneer again with the subcompact HR-V. How does a Japanese company understand American customers so well?

Conrad: You hit on it when you say "customer." Lots of people talk about engineering things around the customer, some people give it lip service. We don't. Everything we do is built around the customer. We do our research. We listen to the research. We try and build what they want.

Q: Unlike its stable mates, Pilot sales have lagged its segment. How does it catch up?

Conrad: Two things. 1) It's a very competitive segment. Everyone wants to be a major player in it. We have had some very big years with Pilot sales and we are targeting the 2016 Pilot to be #1 in retail sales. 2) We're not going to get there overnight –we don't have the (production) capacity.

Q: What defines Pilot?

Conrad: Modern styling, a high degree of sophistication, every piece of technology (customers) would want in a vehicle. Better fuel efficiency, improved handling . . . it's the entire package wrapped up in a price point that our customer is going to find attractive.

Q: You're into motorcycles. Still got a bike in your garage?

Conrad: I no longer have a motorcycle. My wife had something to say about that . . . but I do have my eye on a low mileage, 1995 Acura NSX. The '95 was the first year (the NSX) got a bump in horsepower and the removable T-top. I like to feel the rush of wind going through my hair (laughs – because he is bald as a basketball).

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.