Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify certain features of the 2015 Honda Fit’s rear seats.
SAN DIEGO -- If there is any question about whether smart engineering is on its way back at Honda Motor Co., one need look no further than the second-row "magic" seats of the 2015 Honda Fit.
In an impressive display of packaging, not only does the second row give plenty of legroom and headroom for a 6-foot-tall person to sit -- rare for a subcompact car -- but the seats fold down seamlessly to the floor of the hatchback's cargo area.
Sure, the seats cost more -- Honda declined to say how much -- to engineer and build than conventional seats. But a conventional rear seat -- as seen in the Ford Fiesta, Nissan Versa Note and Hyundai Accent -- has nowhere near the same occupant space and does not fold flat with the cargo area floor. To Honda's engineers, the seats are worth every penny.
"It depends on how you think about it," said Makoto Konishi, the Fit's chief engineer or "large project leader" in Honda parlance. "Sometimes added cost is necessary. To spend the money to beat the competition, it's worth it."
That level of confidence from a chief engineer has been sadly lacking from Honda for more than a decade, as purchasing-, finance- and regulations-obsessed executives ran roughshod over Honda's engineering culture.
But after a series of product-launch miscues and meltdowns -- starting with the 2001 Civic and culminating with the 2012 Civic -- Honda had its moment of clarity: The automaker that once was willing to spend a couple of extra bucks to deliver smart engineering needed to return to its roots. Cost-down and fuel economy solutions still would be important, but no longer paramount.
With the 2015 Fit, engineering detail after detail is done the way of company founder Soichiro Honda: elegant solutions based on customer-first decisions. Sometimes, it's visible, with better packaging taking priority over aerodynamics. Sometimes, it's felt in the driver's butt, such as the subtle change in the design of the torsion-beam rear suspension that makes the Fit's handling more responsive.
"If you go cheap, and it doesn't sell, you don't win. If it's going to cost $50 more, and you don't do it, you don't win," Konishi said. "We are trying to give birth to things that are different from the competition."
That this is happening with Honda's $17,000 entry-level car can only spark the imagination for when Honda cascades those improvements up through the model line.
If the 2015 Fit is any indication, Honda has its mojo back.
In its glory days of the 1980s and '90s, Honda's main mission was to engineer a better car that flattered the driver, even if it was slightly more expensive.
But after Japan's economic bubble burst in 1991, bean counters began playing a larger role in Honda's strategic and product planning. The culture of dynamic driving and smart packaging took a back seat to meeting cost and corporate average fuel economy and safety standards.
For Honda watchers, the turning point came when Honda ripped out the supple, double-wishbone front suspension in the 2001 Civic and replaced it with a cruder, cheaper MacPherson strut setup. Honda's rationale was that it improved the engine bay layout -- and it cost hundreds of dollars less per unit. But Honda purists were outraged.
Still, within Honda, the band played on, as management continued to believe that consumers still worshipped Honda vehicles. Riding the red-hot car industry, the Honda brand rolled to 11 straight years of record U.S. sales, through 2007. It collected scads of J.D. Power and Associates quality and APEAL -- for Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout -- awards.
But after a string of poorly envisioned products (see chart, Page 3),Honda stopped winning APEAL awards. Although Honda still was near the top in Power's quality rankings, its product execution was turning it into a commodity-car brand, with rising incentives to show for it.
As engineering took second priority, the nadir came with the 2012 Civic, which was savagely de-contented in anticipation of the recession crimping consumers' spending habits. The interior was subpar, with inferior materials and fabrics. Noise, vibration and harshness were punishing and un-Honda-like. Consumer Reports removed the Civic from its "recommended" list for the first time in memory, calling it "cheap" and "insubstantial." Although Honda sold a ton of Civics, it paid a fortune in incentives to move the metal.
This was the inflection point for Honda, and crisis thinking took over. CEO Takanobu Ito took the blame for the lousy Civic, but he also put heat on his engineers to make it better -- fast. The underlying message to chief engineers for subsequent products: engineering and quality over cost.
With a quick turnaround of a nearly clean-sheet, no-holds-barred redesign of the Civic for the 2013 model year, Honda rescued one of its most important vehicles. It also started applying the Civic's lessons to the development of the CR-V and Accord. Although both products were well down the development path in r&d terms, both showed measured improvements over their predecessors, especially the Accord.
The first vehicle that would benefit fully from the new thinking would be the Fit.
"The Fit reflected on our experience with the Civic," Konishi said. "How much would we be willing to do to save cost or improve fuel economy? Would we be willing to make the car smaller to get better fuel economy?"