Honda’s good for Britain

We drive the new CR-V and talk to Philip Crossman, MD of Honda UK, about the company’s future

While politicians are making shallow promises ahead of the imminent general election it is a delight to see genuine confidence in the manufacturing sector and specific investment in Britain from the motor industry. Whatever our political leaders consider the root cause of the last recession, Honda’s engine building pace and recently announced, dedicated Civic manufacture at Swindon are signs of the company’s commitment to the UK. Touring the plant, we’re informed of the recent £200M investment: an assurance that it remains a key site among Honda’s 40 facilities globally.

Sales in the Civic have dipped but with a 2015 model year facelift, the new Sport version and exciting Type R on the horizon, Honda has added welcome interest to the British-built model. Launches at Geneva Auto Salon this year injected further dynamism with the NSX and HR-V models, all surrounded by hungry journalists. So how are the latest products underpinning this confidence?

Models

Motor Writer will be covering the new Civic Sport in depth in a few weeks but, briefly, the little touches to bring it up to date certainly counter the comments we raised in the recent Tourer review. Honda’s decision not to bring the new Accord to the UK (although Crossman preferred to call it a “suspension”) laid bare the immediate importance of the revised CR-V. It now comes with a new nine-speed auto ‘box, more powerful 1.6 diesel available (replacing the 2.2 litre) and a light tickle to its looks.

Crossman cites plans to increase annual production from 52k units to 80k in the next couple of years (although this is still less than the pre-recession 100k). The white overall-clad “associates” and parts-delivery robots on plant the floor are all busily contributing to this. The confidence is echoed in the product, too: engines are built to such exacting standards that they needn’t be fired-up on a test bed. The first time they are started is to drive the vehicles off the end of the production line.

Challenges

Asked about three main challenges facing Honda right now, Crossman doesn’t hesitate in stating that people need to think about Honda again. He highlights the need for a hydrogen infrastructure in the UK, more than hinting at strategic direction. Then there are the standard commercial challenges: matching costs and volumes. Being such a global player, currency market fluctuations can have a significant impact on profitability.

Behind the wheel of the latest CR-V, I pondered Crossman’s answer to what constitutes Honda’s unique selling point. Why might a customer choose a Civic rather than a Golf, a CR-V over an X3? He had paused a fraction and then reeled-off: breadth of range, personality, fun, reliability and – intriquingly – the shadow of founder Soichiro Honda. I still wasn’t clear. Pressed on how Honda would reach new customers, Crossman sited the company’s differing advertising philosophy: “not just showing a silver car on a mountain road, it’s more about lifestyle”. The latest Honda CR-V advert shows a red car cleverly driving an endless mountain road.

Advertising aside, the CR-V proved a worthy tourer and gobbled up the motorway and A-roads around the Cotswolds competently. With improved sound insulation, it is relaxed although there’s a little wind noise at speed. For all its vertiginous stance, it is happy being thrown into corners and the improved taut steering and widened track make it extremely easy to position. The technology is also nudged in the right direction with optional dynamic cruise control (with clever road-reading ability) and updated infotainment screen as per the Civic. Navigation is slick, provided via Garmin’s latest software.

Efficient

The twin-turbo 160 PS 1.6 diesel is a peach – smooth, efficient and perfectly adequate for the CR-V, emitting roughly 10PS more power and the same 350 Nm torque as the outgoing 2.2. The 120 PS 1.6 is still available and while great in the Civic, is a little flat under the CR-V’s weight. The new nine-speed gearbox doesn’t feel quite as fast-changing as Volkswagen’s DSG product but it is smoother and gears are selected sensibly. Interior trim is neat, if a little plain. When asked about competitors’ premium models, notably Lexus and Infiniti, Crossman informs that there are no immediate plans to bring Honda’s premium Acura brand to Britain.

So, with the welcome styling tweaks and technical updates for the existing range plus exciting products in the pipeline, it will be good news for Honda and great news for UK industry if the sales forecasts can be realised. My final question to Crossman? What would he be driving home in? “A CR-V, of course. Love it. But it’s not the new 1.6 diesel – the journalists have them all.”





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