Really not that long ago, Honda stood out from the crowd in much the same way as a giraffe stands out from a herd of ambling wildebeest. Hondas were different, odd, clever, exciting. And better.
In 1990 there was the NSX, a mid-engined two-seater that waded into battle with Lamborghini and Ferrari, sporting a small V6 engine. While it couldn’t sting like a bee, it could dance the dance of even the most zippy butterfly. And the induction roar was a noise that stirred the soul.
It’s been said many times that Japanese cars have the character of a washing machine. And it’s true. Japanese car makers always designed their cars to keep everyone happy: retired postmasters in Swansea, east African taxi drivers, soccer moms in Houston . . . everyone.
But, as modern politicians know, if you try to keep everyone happy, you end up looking a bit boring. If you make a stand, stamp some character into the mix, you get a big funeral that shuts half of London. That’s what the NSX did. It was the Boris Johnson of supercars. Only a bit lighter.
There was also the CRX, a small 1.5-litre coupé that served no purpose at all. The rear seat was a birdbath. It had the grunt of a mouse. And the comfort of an acacia tree. But because it was so unusual I bought one the moment it went on sale.
I always harboured a soft spot for the Prelude too. Most coupés at this time were based on normal saloons. The Capri was a Cortina with a comedy nose. The Scirocco was a Golf. The Calibra was a Cavalier, and so on. But the Prelude was a Prelude. Honda didn’t try to save money by sharing parts. It made it to be as good as it could be, and then it clothed it in a very pretty body and gave it pop-up headlamps. That was the Honda way. Different. Better.
But, despite the unusualness, the company never lost sight of its origins. It started out making piston rings for Toyota and knew that quality was the beginning, the middle and the end of everything.
Honda knew that its own cars had to be just as reliable. And they were. The variable valve timing system is a complex blend of mechanical and electronic engineering. So you’d have to expect some failures. It would be only natural. But after the company had made 15m units, guess how many warranty claims there’d been. Nope. You’re wrong. The correct answer is zero.
Hondas, then, were iPhones that didn’t jam. They were style icons that worked. They were the embodiment of what Charles Babbage was on about — the unerring certainty of machinery. Or, to put it another way, Alfa Romeos that started.
Remember the Honda Civic Type R? What a machine that was. Or the Integra. Or the original Insight. Oh, and I’ve just remembered the S2000, which was a beefed-up Mazda MX-5. Slightly bigger, and slightly more butch to behold, this two-seater soft-top had an engine that screamed up to 9000rpm and would sit there all day. Every day.
It wasn’t just cars either. There were motorcycles and generators and marine engines and lawnmowers and water pumps and mopeds that were so important to the world that they were immortalised in a Beach Boys song. There were leaf blowers and quad bikes and hydrogen fuel cells and Formula One powerplants that won the world constructors’ championship six times on the trot.
All of these achievements were immortalised in one of the greatest television commercials of all time. Set to Andy Williams singing The Impossible Dream, it showed a balding man charging across New Zealand in a range of everything Honda had made over the years. You watched it and you wanted to have a go on every single thing.
But what Honda would you want to drive today? A Jazz? A Civic? An Accord? A hybrid? I suspect that, in the best traditions of multiple choice questions, the correct answer is E — none of the above.
The range of cars sold by Honda in Britain is about as dreary as a Victorian tea set. The reliability is still there, but the flair, the innovation, the genius? All gone. Honda’s demise is like the Rolling Stones deciding to start recording hymns. Or the hotel chain Raffles deciding that Formule 1-style bathroom cubicles are quite good enough.
I’ve just spent a week in the Honda CR-V diesel EX, which is a big and quite expensive bucket of nothing at all. Honda tells us the latest model is rammed with significant improvements but then struggles a bit when they are listed. It has, for instance, daytime running lights. Just like every other car on the market.
It has a powered tailgate, which means you have to stand in the rain while electric motors take five seconds to do a job you could have done in one. It has a 12% reduction in CO2 emissions, which is irrelevant unless you are a bear. And the four-wheel-drive system is now electronic rather than hydraulic. Which is another way of saying “worse”.
Under the bonnet of my test car was a diesel engine. Honda was one of the last big car manufacturers to make such a thing, and it is nowhere near as good as the ones made by everyone else. It’s noisy, rough and, compared with, say, BMW’s effort, way down on power.
Inside the CR-V are no features you cannot find in cars that cost less and a few that are annoying. The sat nav screen is surrounded by buttons so small, you can’t see what they all do. And there’s another screen that tells you a raft of stuff you don’t care about. Such as how many hours you’ve driven since you accidentally set the trip meter. It’d be more interesting to know when high water was due on the Solomon Islands.
The rear seats, apparently, are 38mm lower than in the previous model. I mention this simply because I’m running out of things to say. As the miles droned by, I began to wonder who on earth would spend more than £31,000 on the model I was driving. It has no more seats than a Vauxhall Astra, and if you really need part-time four-wheel drive and a tall boot, Ford, Hyundai, Kia and many others can sell you something similar and better for less.
I suspect the answer is caravanists. People who enjoy this type of holiday tend to be the sort who vote UKIP and therefore like the fact that the CR-V is made in Swindon by British people, not by a sausage jockey or a garlic-munching surrender dog.
They also like the promise of great reliability and the sense that four-wheel drive is on hand to help out should the site be on a bit of a slope. Plus, of course, the boot is capable of taking all the paraphernalia they need for a summer holiday in Britain: umbrellas, windbreaks, cagoules, wellies and so on.
I still don’t get it, though. Buying a car because it suits your requirements for two weeks in the summer surely is like wearing ski boots all year round because you go to Verbier every February.
There is no reason for buying this type of car. And even if you can think of one, there is no reason for choosing the Honda. The Land Rover Freelander is much better. So’s the Nissan X-Trail.
Honda needs to buck up its ideas. I realise that there will be a new version of the NSX, and I have high hopes for that. But it needs a bigger range of other stuff too. It needs to get different again. It needs to get better. Because until it does, there’s no reason for you or me to get out our chequebook.
Perfect for towing Nigel Farage’s caravan
Honda CR-V 2.2 I-DTEC EX
- 2199cc, 4 cylinders
- 148bhp @ 4000rpm
- 258 lb ft @ 2000rpm
- 6-speed manual
- 0-62mph: 9.7sec
- Top Speed:
- 48.7mpg (combined)
- Road Tax Band:
- G (£175 first year; £175 a year thereafter)
- L 4570mm W 1820mm H 1685mm