Honda…oh how the mighty have fallen. As many of you know, I often like to wax nostalgic about my car obsessed youth. Although I grew up during two great hypercar wars, I also grew up, and started driving, during the greatest tuner car war since the 1960’s.
The late 90’s and early 2000’s witnessed the rebirth of the affordable, moderately sporty cars for all. While the cars weren’t as fast, the formula remained the same as the 60’s: Take a boring, slow, everyday car and beef up the engine and the suspension. Sometimes the factory did this for you, sometimes you did it yourself. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the GTO and Nova were replaced by “import tuners” such as the Honda Civic Si, Acura Integra GS-R, and Mitsubishi Eclipse GST/X.
Used cars such as the Toyota Supra, Nissan 300zx, Mazda RX-7 and Mitsubishi 3000gt or new or used Mustangs and Camaros were much faster. The Supra, 300zx, RX-7 and 3000gt were the true “import tuners” of the time. They were and are still proper sports cars, thus, I will refer to the lesser cars (such as those pictured above) as “economy tuners.”
Although the Supra’s, Camaro’s and the like were much better than the “economy tuners”, they didn’t occupy the right niche for most 16 year-olds at that time. First of all, they were too expensive for a first car. Second, they were too fast for a first car. Economy tuners weren’t actually fast, they were just a little faster and a lot louder than the normal economy cars of the time. Case in point, I once raced a friend in his 1999 Civic Si in my mom’s V-8 Mercury Mountaineer…it wasn’t even close, the Mountaineer destroyed the Civic. My dad’s Buick would have done the same. It didn’t matter though, perception was all that mattered. How losing races to basic SUV’s didn’t ruin our perception of these cars until much later in life is beyond me. I guess that’s why 16 year-olds aren’t allowed to vote. Anyway, back to Honda.
At the time, Honda was, by far, the king of the castle among us. For the record, when I say “us” or “we” I mean adolescent boys in Orange County California who turned 16 around 1999-2000. Also, when I say “Honda” I also mean “Acura.” If you didn’t know that Acura is Honda’s luxury arm, then please stop reading this blog.
You may be asking yourself, why Honda? Why not Toyota? At the time, Toyota was far down the road to its current soulless, yet lucrative, existence (FR-S not included). Toyota did not produced only one exciting car at that time. The Supra had been out of production for a few years. Everything else was dull, ugly, boring, and usually beige. (As you will see later, Honda is on that road now) Their only sporty car was the Celica GTS, although it was faster than most of the Honda’s at that time, it was ugly and had a reputation as a “chick car”. Being known as a “chick car” is a fate worse than death for a 16 year old male. This is why we weren’t all driving the worlds best driver’s car at the time, the Mazda Miata. Once again, another reason why 16 year-olds shouldn’t vote.
For reasons unknown to science, Honda’s were not chick cars. Honda’s were seen as being as reliable as Toyota’s but they were for people who actually had souls. More of “us” wanted them which led to a much larger aftermarket for them. Let’s look at Honda’s sporty lineup in 2000:
Civic SI: 160hp, 8500rpm redline, plus a giant VTEC sticker on the side.
Prelude: 200hp, 8000rpm redline, plus a giant VTEC sticker on the side.
S2000: 240hp, 9000rpm redline, rear wheel drive.
Acura Integra GS-R: 175hp, 8000rpm redline.
Acura Integra Type R: 197hp, 8500rpm redline, giant TYPE R sticker on the side.
Acura NSX: 290hp, 8500rpm redline, an aging supercar at the time.
Acura 3.2 TL/CL Type S: 260hp, 6100rpm redline, an inferior Japanese alternative to the 3 Series, but an alternative nonetheless. Basically the only Japanese 3 Series alternative at that time.
While the numbers may seem modest to car enthusiasts, they are actually not far off from what is common in the class today, besides the NSX of course. What the numbers don’t tell you is how special and exciting all these cars were. They all had personality and spunk. Their high revving nature made them extremely fun to drive, the sound of a small engine at 8000+ RPM’s is music to a gearhead’s ears. The Integra Type R is still considered to be the best handling FWD car ever made. They also had ample room under the hood (besides the NSX) which meant they were relatively easy to work on. The Civic Si and Integra GS-R were the bench-line against which all other economy tuners were judged. The Integra Type R was practically a super car as far as we were concerned. The Integra Type-R’s 1.8 liter engine revved to a sky high 8500rpm’s and produced 197hp. It also had an amazing suspension, a limited slip differential and was lighter than the base Integra because Honda stripped almost all the sound deadening insulation out of it. Outside of the premium brands, nobody has a lineup as sporty as this today. Honda has not sold a car as extreme as the Integra Type R for quite some time.
For enthusiasts, Honda’s lineup was probably the best lineup outside of premium or high performance brands in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Simply put, Honda’s and Acura’s were a sporty alternative to the sea of beige being produced by Toyota and the irrelevance coming from Nissan. This made sense considering Honda’s rich motorcycle and automobile racing heritage. There was a view that the technology developed on the race track trickled down to the street cars. This was especially true for the VTEC system and the big stickers that came with it.
The RSX launched in 2002 as a replacement for the Integra. RSX was a stupid name. Just like TL was a stupid name compared to “Legend,” the car it replaced. As a fanboy, I didn’t see it at the time but Acura was essentially “emblem chasing” the German luxury brands. BMW, Mercedes and Audi used only numerical or alphabetical names, thus, all the pretenders had to do the same (I’m looking at you too Cadillac). However, this was the first step towards Honda losing its identity. More on this later, back to the RSX.
While it may not seem like much now, the RSX Type-S was a truly great car when it came out. It had all the things that made the Integra special, it was affordable, sporty, relatively practical, economical, high revving, smooth shifting and it handled well. It also had a unique interior and a certain level of class that was missing from the Integra. The key to the RSX was the driving experience,which was anchored by its engine. The 2.0 liter four cylinder produced 200 horsepower and redlined at a silky smooth 8000rpm.
More importantly, it occupied a unique niche that even the Germans have tried and failed to fill: sporty entry level luxury. With the exception of the BMW 1 Series (and this is debatable due to its price), no car has filed the sporty entry level luxury niche like the RSX Type-S did. BMW tried with the 318ti and Mercedes tried with the C230 hatchback. They both failed. Miserably. Acura did not.
In my opinion, 2002 represents both the peak and the beginning of Honda’s decline as a reputable performance brand. The RSX Type-S was launched and the NSX received a major face lift. The S2000 was still a high strung performer and the TL/CL Type-S were still reasonable performance alternatives to the 3 Series. Yet, 2002 was the beginning of the end. Since 2002, Honda has not produced a single redesigned performance model that is significantly better than the cars in its lineup between 1999-2000. From an enthusiast standpoint, Honda’s new models have in fact become worse or been stagnant since 2002.
|Honda’s design department must be blind.|
The Prelude ceased production in 2001 and the 2002 Civic SI (left) was overweight, under-powered, and had styling only a mother could love. Also, the US lineup lacked any car with the phrase “Type-R” affixed to the end of it. But this is merely the time of the iceberg.
The 2002 Civic SI provides a nice example of Honda’s problems which started in 2002 and continue to this day. The 2000 Civic Si produced 160 horsepower, redlined at 8500rpms, did 0-60 in 7.2 and ran the 1/4 mile in 15.7 seconds. Source. The 2002 Si, despite gaining 150lbs, still produced 160hp but it did 0-60 in 7.6 and ran the quarter in 15.9. Not only was it slower it was far less dramatic and exciting. Although it produced more torque and had a more usable powerband, it revved to a lowly 6500rpms. Thus, it didn’t make much power and it made even less drama. Source. Why Honda thought it was good to follow up a sporty car with a model that makes the same horsepower is beyond me, but this lack of pushing the envelope became a recurring theme.
In 2006, Honda eventually put the sweet and high revving 200 horsepower (actually 197 but what’s 2 horsepower between friends?) engine from the RSX Type S in the Civic Si. Then, as part of what seems to be a company wide sleep induction campaign, the 2012 Si got a shocking 200 horsepower, but out of a 2.4 liter engine that revved to 7400rpm’s. From an objective standpoint, the new engine was probably “better” but from a subjective standpoint, it was a step down. The car’s soul had been removed. I don’t know what Honda’s engineers were doing during those 6 years, but they surely weren’t working on the Civic Si’s powertrain considering that some of Honda’s competitors made over 240 horsepower at the time. Thus, the Si now not only makes less power than its rivals, it also has less soul. Not a good combination.
Another Honda great, the S2000, suffered a similar fate until it was discontinued in 2009. When the S2000 howled its way onto the scene in 1999 it squeezed 240 horsepower from a 2.0 liter engine at a stratospheric 9000rpm’s. The engine made no torque but the horsepower and redline made it an
extremely exciting and unique car. In 2004 Honda replaced the 2.0 liter with a 2.2 litre that made the same horsepower but produced more torque. Seemingly, this was a good thing, but once again, like with the SI, the S2000 lost its soul.
Honda killed the S2000 in 2009, by then, it was Honda’s only sports car besides the Civic Si, which, let’s be honest, isn’t a real sports car.
This lack of pushing the performance envelope was endemic throughout Honda. The RSX was killed in 2006. Acura has not had a 2 door model since. The best and saddest example of this performance neglect can be seen in the slow and steady death of the NSX.
The NSX was, at one time, an amazing car. It launched in 1990 with a sweet, smooth and high revving 3.0 liter v6 that produced 270hp and featured a healthy dose of Honda racing technology.
It did 0-60 in about 5.5 seconds. At the time, these were impressive numbers. More importantly, the car didn’t break every three hundred feet like other supercars at the time. However, by the mid-90’s the NSX was falling behind in the power department. The NSX’s competition such as the Dodge Viper and Porsche 911 Turbo produced over 400 horsepower each and were finally reliable. The 911 Turbo was a true “every day supercar.” The NSX remained essentially unchanged until 1997 when it received a new engine and 2002 when it received new headlights and tail lights.
The new engine was a step in the right direction. It was a 3.2 liter and produced 290hp. The 2002 NSX did 0-60 in approximately 5 seconds. Unfortunately, 12 years is an eternity in the world of high performance cars. By 2002, the NSX’s competition had left it far behind (literally and figuratively). For example, a 2002 BMW M3, made 320 horsepower from a 3.2 liter engine. Keep in mind than an M3 is not a “supercar” and the NSX cost approximately twice as much. The NSX was not even in spitting distance of the supercars at the time. Due to neglect, the NSX went from hero to bottom of the barrel. The NSX fell so far that in 2001, the S2000 accelerated just as actually just as quickly as the NSX and was nearly as fast around a track. Source. The NSX was mercifully put out of its misery in 2005.
As shown by Toyota’s success, a low volume supercar and sports cars may not matter to most, especially the mainstream media. However, the importance of so called performance and “halo” cars and should not be forgotten or ignored. I can not sum it up any better than Zora Arkus-Duntov, the “father” of the Corvette:
“THOUGHTS PERTAINING TO YOUTH, HOT RODDERS, AND CHEVROLET”
The Hot Rod movement and interest in things connected with hop-up and speed is still growing. As an indication: the publications devoted to hot rodding and hop-upping, of which some half dozen have a very large circulation and are distributed nationally, did not exist some six years ago.
From cover to cover, they are full of Fords. This is not surprising that the majority of hot rodders are eating, sleeping, and dreaming modified Fords. They know Ford parts from stern to stern better than Ford people themselves.
A young man buying a magazine for the first time immediatly becomes introduced to Ford. It is reasonable to assume that when hot rodders or hot rod-influenced persons buy transportation, they buy Fords. As they progress in age and income, they graduate from jalopies to second-hand Fords, then to new Fords.
Should we consider that it would be desirable to make these youths Chevrolet-minded? I think that we are in a position to carry out a successful attempt. However, there are many factors againt us:
- Loyalty and experience with Ford.
- Hop-up industry is geared with Ford.
- Law of number-thousands are and will be working on Fords for active competition.
- Appearance of Ford’s overhead V8, now one year ahead of us.
When a superior line of GM V8’s appeared, there where remarkably few attempts to develop these, and none too successful. Also, the appearance of the V8’s Chrysler was met with reluctance even though the success of Ardun-Fords conditioned them to the acceptance of Firepower.
This year is the first one in which isolated Chrysler development met with succsess. The Bonneville records are divided between Ardun-Fords and Chryslers.
Like all people, hot rodders are attracted by novelty. However, bitter experience has taught them that new development is costly and long, and therefore they are extremely conservative. From my observation, it takes an advanced hot rodder some three years to stumble toward the successful development of a new design. Overhead Fords will be in this stable between 1956 and 1957.
The slide rule potential of our RPO V8 engine is extremely high, but to let things run their natural course will put us one year behind-and then not too many hot rodders will pick Chevrolet for development. One factor which can largely overcome this handicap would be the availability of ready-enginered parts for higher output:
If the use of the Chevrolet engine would be made easy and the very first attempts would be crowned with succsess, the appeal of the new RPO V8 engine will take hold and not have the stigma of expensiveness like the Cadillac or Chrysler, and a swing to Chevrolet may be anticipated.This means the development of a range of special parts-camshafts, valves, springs, manifolds, pistons, and such-should be made available to the public.
To make good in this field, the RPO parts must pertain not only to the engine but to the chassis coponents as well. In fact, the use of light alloys and brake development, such as composite drums and discs, are already on the agenda of the Research and Development group.
These thoughts are offered for what they are worth-one man’s thinking aloud on the subject.
Signed: Z. Arkus-Duntov
With the death of the NSX, Honda has one “sport” model in its lineup. The Civic Si. Honda’s traditional lineup is still made of good, competitive, cars (besides the Ridgeline of course). Acura’s lineup, while good, is arguably not competitive. Acura, while ostensibly a “luxury” brand, does not offer an engine with much over 300 horsepower, a V-8 or RWD. The majority of Acura’s lineup is simply rebadged Honda’s. Luxury consumers are not stupid, for the most part, especially on the high end, they know a pretender when they see one.
I’m sure Honda’s sales are fine. As Zora explained above, there are probably lots of buyers from my generation who purchased an Accord, CR-V or Pilot due to their positive experiences with the CRX’s, Si’s and GS-R’s of their youth. The question is, in a few years, when the children of my generation go car shopping for the first time what will they want?
Nobody wants the car their parents drove. Buick and Cadillac learned this the hard way. BMW and Mercedes haven’t had to learn this because they, especially BMW, continue to make very exciting performance and performance oriented cars.
I don’t think its too late for Honda. Only time will tell, but Honda should should develop more sporty cars and try to regain its reputation as a fun, reliable, and sporty alternative before it is completely lost. It is a lot easier to repair an image (Ford) than it is to rebuild one (Cadillac/Buick).