Will going mainstream help Honda regain its Mojo?

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2008 Honda S2000 sales brochure

News from the Tokyo Auto Salon on the blogosphere featured a Toyota T-Sport concept, a coupe that would resemble what could be the result of an illicit tryst between the S2000, Mustang and Megatron from  Transformers. AutoCar UK also reports that Porsche has confirmed the development of a 4-cylinder engine that could find application in a new entry level model as well as the Boxster, Cayman and possibly in a 911. Porsche has reportedly said they expect this engine (2.5 liter) engine to deliver around 360HP in turbo form. Before one can say Doppelkupplungsgetreibe, all of us at the news team got in a tizzy about what Honda could possibly do to build another S2000, only this time to make it a more permanent product.

There is no doubt that of late several have questioned whether Honda’s mojo is lost. The CR-Z has had lackluster sales and there is nothing exciting forthcoming from Honda, other than the Civic Si concept revealed in Detroit and rumors of a turbo 200 HP CR-Z. Be that as it may, the only way Honda can truly thrill us to bits is by bringing back some RWD cars and going back to their roots. In a perfect world, Honda would have an NSX supported by an S2000 and a Kei class RWD roadster that could bear the Honda Beat badge.

Honda never really intended to have the S2000 continue to sell for as long as it did. After all, the plan was to build a car to commemorate their 50th year. As a one-off model the S2000 was built ground up with its own engine and components sharing very little in common with other cars on the Honda platform. The F20/F22 engines had no other application in other cars, nor did other components that Honda developed for the S2000. From Honda’s perspective, the cost of manufacturing this car was possibly higher as the cost of component development could not be spread across several different product lines. Neither was the S2000 designed to be a volume car. With its rev-happy engine, “manual” gearbox, and sporty handling it would appeal only to a select few.

Therefore to offer another S2000 for the enthusiasts and keep this going, Honda will have to tread the mainstream path. I can hear daggers being unsheathed at this blasphemous suggestion and pens being dipped in vitriol, but would request you to hear us out.

As I think of the competition, namely Nissan, Porsche and Mazda (BMW does not count with their bloated wares) – they have all had a version of the Z, Boxster/Cayman and the Miata for the average person that could not shift if their life depended on it and for whom the word “clutch” would not necessarily evoke that which exists between the dead pedal and the brake. It is such people that make up a large section of the auto-buying market and who drive a roadster or a sports car for the image or the false allure of virility that it may provide. Nissan, Porsche and Mazda have built their business on marketing to these customers while also ensuring the enthusiast is covered. It has allowed them (especially Mazda & Porsche) to actively promote racing and establish their brand credentials. Spec Miatas are the choice of club racers everywhere and those with money can always buy a race ready P-car. It is these customers that Honda must tailor their offerings to as well.

Next up, the usage of shared components, technology and production lines. While Honda has found uses for technology and production lines, they never built the S2000 as a car that would spawn and support other product offerings. While that has rewarded us with a pure-bred roadster, it nevertheless has left us disappointed to not see a successor. Nissan on the other hand utilizes its VQ series engine in a whole host of vehicles in addition to the Z. Porsche also does the same thing with its design trickery between the Cayman and the Boxster and Mazda too has used the MZR engine in its other cars.

Seeing how the competition has navigated through the years could very well be a template of sorts for Honda to add some much-needed zing to its product line-up. They could develop a turbo engine for the S2000 (seeing how they may go turbo with the CR-Z) and have a detuned version powering a lighter weight Kei class roadster like the Honda Beat. In keeping with their purist tradition, they could develop a dual-clutch transmission for the S2000 (or the NSX) and apply it across the board to other product offerings, instead of a CVT or an automatic. A DCT (along with a manual for the purists) would keep the enthusiast base assured that Honda has not sold out, while also reaching out to the vast commuter pool that can’t shift. Other options could include a retractable hard top along the lines of the Miata PRHT (Power Retractable Hard Top) while equipping the enthusiasts version with a cloth top like today. Also if HPD and/or HFP got involved with providing OEM racing accessories to owners (say roll bars or performance mods), that would go a long way in ensuring more Honda’s go road racing on the weekends.

Danny Bahar, the CEO of Lotus , that epitome of lightness and efficiency, has gone on record stating that Lotus intends to expand its offerings by targeting the “Porsche customer”. In other words, Lotus wants to expand beyond the enthusiast and possibly build an Elise that the average American will fit into. Likewise Honda needs to build scaled-down versions of its performance cars to reach out to groups other than enthusiasts, for the sake of the enthusiasts.

The possibilities are limitless and all it needs is Honda’s resolve to get back to running things the Soichiro Honda way. It could very well be that Honda has such plans on the anvil and may get back to its enthusiast roots once they have met global fuel economy requirements for their fleet. Until then though, our enthusiast hearts will wonder, ponder, curse and loathe, hoping the nightmare will end and the dream is realized. Lest you feel offended about dumbing down an NSX or an S2000 for the masses, let me remind you that it would any day be better than having an Odyssey or a CR-V with a manual transmission and “sporty” Mugen decals.

Hope springs eternal in our hearts for Honda, how about you? Do you think Honda must go mainstream with their performance cars if that’s what it takes to justify building a sports car?

Image courtesy of ed62slow

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