Anything but conservative
Honda Motor Co. has decided to let loose. Status-quo designs are out; distinction is in.
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!’ ”
HOT BODY: Honda’s Remix sports coupe concept may inspire new vehicles that are sleeker, lower and more high-tech-looking.
VISIONARY: Dave Marek heads Honda’s advanced design center in Pasadena.