DETROIT AUTO SHOW -- 2001

A Honda like no other

Model X aimed at Gen Y

Originally published: Jan. 15, 2001

Detroit 2001. The backdrop: The Big 3 losing market share. The Asians and Europeans gaining. And much brave talk from everyone masking the question mark that is the year ahead. On the show floor, sedans, minivans and big sport-utilities were conspicuous by their absence. Spotlight after spotlight focused on vehicles that blurred the lines between car and wagon and truck. Enduring images? How about Tom Elliott -- a silver-haired, 30-year Honda veteran -- flanked by helmeted kids on inline skates, showing off his company’s stab at the audience of tomorrow, a creation that could only prompt him to pause and say: “This sure doesn’t look like any Honda I’ve ever seen before.’’

Capturing the youth market is crucial for American Honda Motor Co. -- so crucial, in fact, that the automaker noted for engineering reliable but conservatively styled people movers put together a team of young designers living in one of the country's hippest markets: Southern California.

Their mission: create a vehicle to transport sporting college-age guys and the equipment they lug around.

The result: the rugged Model X sport-utility unveiled at last week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It loomed large among a host of cutting-edge designs aimed at the next generation of car buyers and retro concepts targeted at nostalgic baby boomers.

The Model X also represents a radical departure from Honda's set ways.

“This sure doesn't look like any Honda I've ever seen before,” said Tom Elliott, executive vice president of American Honda. “If an active 20-year-old guy were to design a vehicle, this is what he might come up with.”

Marketing bonanza

That active 20-year-old guy represents a powerful demographic more affluent than youth of the past. The target Generation Y audience -- the 71 million people born between 1977 and 1994 -- is bigger than the baby boom segment and represents more than 25 percent of the current U.S. population. In 2000 alone, they bought more than 500,000 new vehicles.

“They are the new blood that every automobile manufacturer is interested in,” Elliott said. “And they won't be happy just buying what previous generations did.”

That's why Honda involved some of them in the creation of the Model X.

A team of 10 designers at Honda's Torrance, Calif., design studio began work on the Model X more than two years ago, led by then 30-year-old Tim Benner. The team's mean age was about 26, and all were involved in at least one extreme sport, said Benner, himself a surfer.

They came up with a sturdy vehicle to haul around friends or sports gear. The washable interior is meant to withstand all the sweat, dirt and blood a group of young active men might inflict. Its flat floor sleeps two 6-footers with the rear seats pushed forward. The back section of the roof slides forward to create an open space similar to a pickup bed.

Headed for production

Elliott said Honda will decide within a year whether to put the Model X into production, but another source said the project already has the green light.

The Model X probably would sell for less than $25,000, Elliott said, and would be sold primarily in North America.

The existing concept is almost ready for production, Benner said, though all-wheel drive also would be offered. The most important feature to maintain is the versatility offered by the wide-open doors, flat floor and pickup opening, he said.

Said Benner: “There's not a lot here we can't do.”

You can reach Amy Wilson at awilson@crain.com

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