Q&A: JOHN MENDEL

Honda: We're on a roll

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With the core of its lineup redesigned within the past two years, Honda is entering a fallow period -- except for the Fit and Fit-based crossover arriving this year. How the Honda brand will keep things fresh was among the topics of a roundtable interview with John Mendel, 59, American Honda executive vice president of sales, this month at the Detroit auto show. Staff Reporter Mark Rechtin filed this report.

Q: How would you characterize things at Honda right now?

A: We have a lot of momentum. The CR-V and Civic were No. 1 retail sellers last year. Honda was the No. 1 automaker in EPA fuel economy. I just found out that 75 percent of Hondas made in the last 25 years are still on the road. When I was working at other places, we were happy when it was 80 percent, but after only 10 years.

How is Honda's factory capacity, especially with the Fit coming online in Celaya, Mexico?

We competed with the rest of the world for Honda's Fit allocation. With the Celaya plant, we'll have the capacity we want as opposed to the capacity we get. We can build as many as we want. We're making Fit one of the pillar vehicles with Civic, Accord and CR-V.

How would you rate the upcoming Fit against the subcompact segment?

[The segment is] expected to grow another 4 to 8 percent. With the new model, we are offering things in that segment that haven't been offered before. It's bigger inside. There's more cargo space, legroom and seat room, yet in a smaller package in terms of body size.

Honda sold nearly 304,000 CR-Vs last year, tops in the compact crossover segment. How high can sales go?

We have some upside potential. I am loath to say the volume we can reach. [Hitting] 300,000 is a big hurdle. We're looking to expand. We do some overtime. We do some Saturday. We are very fortunate to support demand.

Honda's making noise with turbochargers and continuously variable transmissions. How far will it go?

We have a wide variety of powertrains. We'll be seeing more downsized turbos. Our CVT has broken the mold of what used to be a nasty and rubber-bandy transmission that didn't respond. Our CVT has become an incredible transmission for whatever motor we decide to put it in. It all depends on what we're trying to get out of the car.

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