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Honda shrinks to grow

Funky: CR-Z concept will eventually replace Integra in 2010.

Acura remains uncertain as Honda attempts to lure youth with sporty green cars

25 Feb 2008

HONDA is still deliberating over the future of Acura in Australia, as it looks to smaller vehicles – some with hybrid drivetrains – to help the company achieve its stated 2010 sales target of 80,000 units per annum.

Speaking at the launch of the all-new, eight-generation CP Accord series, Honda Australia managing director and CEO Yasuhide Mizuno would not confirm when or indeed if Honda's premium brand would be launched in Australia.

“Honda must do more studies in the amount of investment needed for a separate Acura franchise – the dealers, their facilities, staff training, showroom floor etc.

“But such a study, we have to do it.

“Personally even I hesitate. Even others like Lexus have struggled in Australia in the past,” Mr Mizuno said.

Mr Mizuno added that he feels that Honda still has much to communicate to new-car buyers in this country.

“We need to show in Australia what Honda is as a brand. Are we sporty? Are we youthful?” Part of that strategy is the introduction of vehicles that appeal to a greater number of younger buyers.

The CR-Z Concept – the star of Honda’s Tokyo motor show stand last October – is set to arrive in 2010 as a belated replacement for the Integra.

According to Mr Mizuno, Honda envisages the productionised CR-Z as a circa-$35,000 two-plus-two-seater coupe for people aged in their 20s and 30s that would sit below the $40,000 Civic Type R in the Australian line-up.

“Less than $40,000 is where we should do it,” he revealed.

Making the CR-Z much more relevant is its all-hybrid running gear, which Honda says will better connect with the concerns of many younger buyers.

“CR-Z is the CRX customer – young and concerned by the environment,” Mr Mizuno explained.

“(For some people) the Civic Hybrid is too conservative.” As a sign of how times have changes since the CRX’s heyday, the CR-Z will be competing with non-vehicle purchases such as mobile phones, as well as rival coupes and hybrids.

15 center imageLeft: Element and Pilot concepts.

Honda’s research has revealed that – while they may possess a driver’s licence – many people choose to put off buying a new car and instead divert their limited resources to paying off large monthly phone or internet plans.

“In Japan mobile phones is big competition because of the $300 to $400 average monthly payments,” Mr Mizuno said.

Nevertheless, he described the CR-Z as “an epoch-making model” that is aimed at bringing young people back to the car.

Similarly, Honda is looking seriously at the Aria sedan in Australia.

Due to be unveiled later this year or in 2009, the four-door sedan version of the next-generation Jazz will open the burgeoning sub-$20,000 light-car sedan segment to Honda if it were introduced.

Powered by a four-cylinder petrol engine of about 1.5 litres in capacity, the Aria would square off against the similarly-sized Toyota Yaris and Holden Barina sedans.

“With Australian buyers concerned about rising fuel prices we are looking at a 1.5-litre sedan to slot underneath the Civic,” Mr Mizuno said.

A decision as to the future of the Aria in Australia is expected by next year.

Meanwhile, Honda has ruled out the arrival of the Element compact SUV range in Australia.

Conceived as a youth-orientated four-seater wagon, it is pitched as an overtly outdoorsy lifestyle vehicle with a hose-washable interior, reverse-opening rear doors and no ‘B’ pillar for unobstructed entry and egress.

The original (and still current) model, introduced in the United States (where it is built) in 2003, is based on the previous-generation Honda CR-V platform, and uses Honda’s 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine.

The Element was in with a chance for Australia when sales started in Japan around three years ago, but sales were slow so it was pulled in 2006. The next-generation version due in America in the not-too distant future will not be engineered for right-hand drive.

“In Japan, the problem was that sales were quite weak, and after a few months they said ‘Okay we don’t need it’ so it was discontinued,” Mr Mizuno said.

Besides the Element, the latest-generation MDX luxury SUV is another vehicle denied to Australia because Honda in Canada only builds it in left-hand drive form for mostly North American market consumption.

The Honda boss added that not having access to vehicles simply because they are devised as left-hand drive – such as the MDX and Element, and even the America-only Pilot large SUV and Honda Accord Coupe – is not a desirable situation.

“Frankly speaking, this is a Honda weak point,” he revealed.

“American (Honda) developed vehicles often mean only left-hand drive availability.

“(And when we put in a request for them) then they say: ‘Sure, Mr Mizuno. Please pay (for the right-hand drive conversion).”

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