Any­thing but con­ser­va­tive

Honda Mo­tor Co. has de­cided to let loose. Sta­tus-quo de­signs are out; dis­tinc­tion is in.

Los Angeles Times - - Business - By John O’Dell

A lot of ad­jec­tives can be used to de­scribe the cars and trucks that Honda Mo­tor Co. sells in the U.S., but “sleek,” “beau­ti­ful” and “head-turn­ing” usu­ally aren’t on the list.

The au­tomaker’s U.S. de­sign shop — whose own chief de­signer, Dave Marek, vol­un­teers “con­ser­va­tive” as an ac­cept­able mod­i­fier for Honda de­sign — wants to change things.

So do Honda’s top ex­ec­u­tives at U.S. head­quar­ters in Tor­rance and the com­pany’s home base in Ja­pan, Marek said.

As a re­sult, Honda R&D Amer­i­cas is split­ting up its on­ce­mono­lithic U.S. de­sign stu­dio. It has been hir­ing new de­sign­ers, model mak­ers and other styling cen­ter staff, and has put out the word that it’s OK for em­ploy­ees to use “sharp de­sign” and “Honda” in the same sen­tence.

“The com­mit­ment to de­sign has al­ways been there, but now it’s been shifted to a pri­or­ity,” said Marek, 49, who heads the ad­vanced de­sign cen­ter that Honda R&D opened in Pasadena five months ago.

On Thurs­day, Honda will open a third South­ern Cal­i­for­nia de­sign fa­cil­ity, this one ded­i­cated to the Acura brand, un­der the di­rec­tion of 41-year-old de­signer John Ikeda. He had been run­ning the Acura side of the for­mer Honda-Acura cen­ter that was part of the com­pany’s Tor­rance cam­pus for 32 years.

Sep­a­rat­ing the stu­dios and stick­ing the ad­vanced de­sign work in a down­town Pasadena build­ing 30 miles from the oth­ers may not sound like such an im­por­tant move, but Marek and Ikeda say it has sig­nif­i­cant con­se­quences.

“We’re an en­gi­neer­ing-driven com­pany and our ex­ec­u­tives need to un­der­stand de­sign,” Marek said. “They aren’t used to for­ward-look­ing de­sign; they want to be safe. This will help” change things.

When Honda ex­ec­u­tives come to the Pasadena stu­dio now, “they see only the ad­vanced stuff, and we can look at it in iso­la­tion and start ask­ing whether we’re go­ing far enough,” Marek said. “This opens their eyes to more ag­gres­sive, ad­vanced styling.”

That’s some­thing Honda needs as it ma­tures, said an­a­lyst Wes Brown of Ice­ol­ogy, a con­sumer and mar­ket re­search firm in Los An­ge­les.

“Honda is still sell­ing like crazy,” he said, “but the me­dian age of its buy­ers is get­ting older and they need to bring back the younger buy­ers who built the com­pany. You can’t do that with bland de­sign.”

Not all of Honda’s ve­hi­cles de­serve to be rel­e­gated to the con­ser­va­tive col­umn. The dis­con­tin­ued mid-en­gine Acura NSX, for in­stance, was a racy in­ter­pre­ta­tion of an ex­otic Euro­pean twoseater.

And, like them or hate them, Honda’s Ridge­line pickup and the boxy El­e­ment util­ity ve­hi­cle stand out in any crowd.

So does the 6-foot-2 Marek, whose straw­berry red pony­tail and Mo­hawk-style top­knot sig­nal a per­sonal sense of style that is any­thing but con­ser­va­tive.

The ideas he and Ikeda have for boost­ing Honda and Acura vis­i­bil­ity can be seen in the Honda Ac­cord coupe and Acura sports car con­cepts that were un­veiled in Jan­uary at the North Amer­i­can In­ter­na­tional Auto Show in Detroit and the Remix sports coupe con­cept that de­buted in Novem­ber at the an­nual Los An­ge­les Auto Show.

The con­cepts show off the de­sign “lan­guage” that Marek, Ikeda and col­leagues hope will in­spire a new gen­er­a­tion of Hon­das and Acuras — sleeker, lower and more high-tech-look­ing, with sharply creased sheet metal soft­ened by smoothly curved rooflines.

Honda’s de­signs grew more con­ser­va­tive with its growth, based on the pop­u­lar­ity of its Civic com­pact and Ac­cord mid­size sedans and coupes.

“Con­ser­va­tive is what hap­pens when you are try­ing to get broad ap­peal,” said Ste­wart Reed, head of the trans­porta­tion de­sign pro­gram at Art Cen­ter Col­lege of De­sign in Pasadena.

“I’ve heard it called the ‘fil­ter fac­tor,’ be­cause ev­ery group inside the com­pany has a say in how the ve­hi­cle should look and the de­sign is fil­tered through all that,” he said. That’s why pro­duc­tion cars of­ten bear lit­tle re­sem­blance to the stylis­tic con- cept ve­hi­cles that man­u­fac­tur­ers un­veil with great fan­fare at the world’s ma­jor auto shows each year.

Through the decades, car de­sign also has been in­flu­enced by what Reed calls “the fla­vor of the year.”

“One year it’s safety, then per­for­mance, then fuel econ­omy, then in­te­rior qual­ity,” he said. But now “buy­ers ex­pect ev­ery car to have all those things, so what’s left to set each brand apart is de­sign.”

Honda has suc­ceeded on all other fronts, said mar­ket re­search an­a­lyst Jim Hos­sack of Au­toPa­cific Inc. in Tustin. “But as time goes by, even the most loyal cus­tomers start look­ing for more dis­tinc­tion in their cars.”

Honda, Hos­sack said, “could cer­tainly use a more dra­matic styling, es­pe­cially for Acura.”

The com­pany’s up­scale brand “doesn’t stand out, and peo­ple buy­ing lux­ury want their car to make a state­ment,” he said.

That’s not been lost on Honda, Ikeda said. He be­lieves that the abil­ity to work apart from their Honda-brand col­leagues will give Acura de­sign­ers a bet­ter op­por­tu­nity to fo­cus.

“Face it,” an­a­lyst Brown said, “Honda is the com­pany’s bread and but­ter, and you know that when­ever the Honda de­sign­ers were get­ting be­hind on one of their projects, it was easy to reach over and pull some­one off an Acura project to give a hand. That’s go­ing to be harder now that they’re in sep­a­rate build­ings.”

Marek’s ad­vanced de­sign­ers also have in­flu­enced the Acura brand, Ikeda said.

“We think we’re push­ing the en­ve­lope and then look at what Dave’s group is do­ing and go, ‘Wow!’ ”

john.odell@la­times.com

Honda

HOT BODY:

Honda’s Remix sports coupe con­cept may in­spire new ve­hi­cles that are sleeker, lower and more high-tech-look­ing.

Honda

VI­SION­ARY:

Dave Marek heads Honda’s ad­vanced de­sign cen­ter in Pasadena.

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