Honda vehicles still selling well despite auto market downturn

  If there’s a downturn in the auto market, Honda doesn’t know about it.

While U.S. car makers closed factories and announced layoffs last year, American Honda Motor sold nearly 1.5 million vehicles, thanks to gas-friendly cars such as Civic and Accord, said Richard Colliver, American Honda’s executive vice president.

Honda has stayed with a formula adopted in the ’70s: Offer dependable, fuel-efficient cars, said Colliver, here to celebrate the opening of Bob Lindsay Acura, 7500 N. Allen Road, where the public grand opening starts at 9 a.m. today.

Acura is Honda’s luxury brand – akin to Toyota’s Lexus line – but with a difference, said Colliver. “Lexus provides that softer ride – what Cadillac used to be. It’s a great car, but Acura is more sporty,” he said.

“Acura is in transition. We’re moving the brand to a higher level over the next five years,” said Colliver, who has experience with the luxury brand.

Before joining Honda 16 years ago, Colliver spent 21 years with Mazda. “We studied Lexus for three years in preparation for the launch of Mazda’s luxury model, the Amati. I shut it down because the company got into financial trouble. It costs so much to launch a separate brand,” he said.

The new Acura store is a tribute to the Peoria market and Bob Lindsay, who has operated the Honda dealership in Peoria since 1999, said Colliver.

“We’ve only opened three new (Acura) dealerships around the country in the last four years,” he said.

Honda is fussy about its dealers, said Colliver. “Customer service is critical. If there’s an issue, our company policy is that we make the customer happy – not always easy. Honda customers tend to have higher expectations.”

To meet those expectations, Honda does plenty of research, said Colliver. “We sent our research people out on the street in April and May to ascertain if we were seeing a major shift in the auto market. What they determined is that people will still buy a larger vehicle if they need it, but their second car will be a small one,” he said.

“According to our psychographic trends, some people are now feeling self-conscious about driving big SUVs to work,” said Colliver.

Look for a new addition to Honda’s lineup of fuel-efficient cars next spring, he said. The as-yet-unnamed vehicle will be a hybrid, possessing both gas and electric motors, said Colliver.

“The new model will be smaller than the Civic, and we’ll produce 100,000 of them for North America,” he said.

Honda is also experimenting with hydrogen fuel cells, said Colliver. “Over the next four years we expect to have 200 to 300 of the fuel-cell cars in the hands of consumers. We think that hydrogen technology is at least 10 to 15 years away. Right now there are only five (hydrogen) fueling stations in the country, and three of them are in Los Angeles,” he said.

As successful as Honda has been, Colliver is wary about the future. “The next 12 to 18 months are going to be a challenge for the auto industry,” he said, referring to rising raw materials costs and an uncertain economy.

While the road ahead holds plenty of unknowns, Colliver is sure of one thing: “Oil prices will never go back to what they were,” he said.

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