Image: Acura ZDX
Acura
The Acura ZDX embodies Honda’s woes. The quirky coupe/crossover blend has been much-maligned by the media and largely ignored by potential buyers. November sales totaled just 156.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, msnbc.com contributor
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/15/2010 3:23:42 PM ET 2010-12-15T20:23:42

Honda is getting busy, going into the holidays, offering automotive journalists a sneak preview of its most important product launch of the coming year.

The rendering of the all-new, 2012 Civic reveals a sleekly aerodynamic coupe, one Honda hopes will catch the eye of buyers in an increasingly competitive compact car market. Critics say the Japanese automaker may be losing its edge, and so the ninth generation of the Civic is going to be critical to Honda’s future success.

Scheduled to make its first formal appearance at next month’s Detroit Auto Show, the Civic has long been — along with the bigger Accord — the foundation of the Honda brand. And even as it approaches the end of its life cycle, Civic remains the 11th-best-selling vehicle in the U.S. market.

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Though Honda has significantly expanded its line-up in recent years, its newer models — both in the mainstream Honda and upscale Acura brands — have proved less than stellar successes, leaving many observers wondering whether the maker has lost its way.

“Honda has always been an innovative company,” said George Peterson, head of the market research firm, AutoPacific. “But lately they’ve been missing the mark.”

At first blush, that comment might come as a surprise. After all, the automaker posted a 16.1 percent sales increase in November, in sharp contrast to the decline reported by arch-rival Toyota. For the year-to-date, American Honda sales — which include the Acura division — total 1.101 million, up from 1.044 million during the first 11 months of 2009.

But it only requires parsing the numbers a bit to see what's causing Peterson and other analysts concern. Much of the recent sales surge is the result of the re-launched 2011 Honda Odyssey minivan, and to a lesser degree old-line models like the Civic, the Accord and, on the Acura side, the entry-level TSX.

But some of Honda’s more recent additions have either come in short of expectations or proved downright disasters. There’s no better example than the Acura ZDX, a quirky coupe/crossover blend that has been much-maligned by the automotive media and largely ignored by potential buyers. November sales totaled just 156, with year-to-date volume of 3,006.

The new Honda Insight, which was supposed to help the carmaker regain its early strength in the hybrid-electric vehicle segment, has also been a disappointment, selling at little more than a fraction of the anticipated rate. Analysts also have questioned the market performance of Honda’s other new hybrid, the sporty CR-Z, though company officials challenge that criticism.

“It’s doing well according to our expectations, though journalists think it should sell” much better, said Steve Center, American Honda’s national marketing director.

Center acknowledges there are some challenges facing Honda, though he points to the maker’s overall market performance as proof positive it is still doing well. If anything, its double-digit gain in November validates the maker’s decision to go light on its marketing budget, which lags competitors like Toyota in spending on both advertising and incentives.

The Honda executive also points to a curious quirk in Honda’s historical performance in the American market.

“In bad years, our share increases and in good years, it declines,” reflecting Honda’s policy of not trying to overbuild and force cars onto the market, even if that means occasionally being short of supply at the showroom level, he said.

Ironically, Honda has often done better in down markets than when the auto industry is in growth mode. Is Honda just following that pattern now?

Peterson and other analysts aren’t so certain. The weak performance of new models is troubling and could point to problems with more mainstream offerings, warns Joe Phillippi, of AutoTrends Consulting. The reaction to the new Civic, he suggests, will be a clear measure of what many believe is a misfiring design department.

“Their styling has gotten totally off-track,” contends Phillippi, pointing not only to the ZDX but also to the quirky look of the new Odyssey minivan, with its oddly-angled rear side windows.

Acura has taken the toughest criticism, much of it aimed at the almost comic book-style shield the maker has adopted for a grille on all of its offerings. Significantly, the upcoming Acura TSX Sport Wagon notably downsizes the vast chrome mass — which American Honda’s Center admits has been “polarizing.”

But Acura has other problems. It hasn’t regained its footing after a decision, some years ago, to abandon well-known brand names, like Legend, in favor of less distinctive names like TSX, RL and ZDX. The brand's difficulty defining itself compounds that issue. In recent years, even senior officials have questioned whether Acura is a luxury brand, after all.

“Anyone in this building who says this isn’t a luxury brand is mistaken,” Center said from Honda’s U.S. headquarters. But whether inside or out, he concedes “one of the problems we’ve had is a communications problem.”

Internally, Honda is spending a lot of effort developing a clear focus for the Acura brand and Center promises that a wave of new products coming “within the next two years … will address this.”

Story: Automakers, utilities aim to make Calif. plug-in car leader

As for the Honda side, the carmaker is taking efforts to shore up weak offerings. There have been widespread news reports that the CR-Z will soon get a conventional powertrain to accompany the hybrid version, for example — something the company is, at least for the moment, denying.

“Their engineering still turns people on,” said Phillippi, who believes the automaker can recover from its current problems — especially the mainstream Honda brand.

One reason for that optimism is research by Experian Automotive showing Honda doing better than any other brand in picking up customers walking away from Toyota — still troubled by its ongoing safety and quality problems.

That could help Honda weather its own, less violent storm while it struggles to reconnect with the market. The response to the new Civic will be the first test of whether it is getting back on track.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Photos: Los Angeles Auto Show

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  1. Focusing on electric

    Ford Motor Company Focus Electric, Ford's first all-electric, zero CO2 emissions passenger car, is test driven at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. It's Karma

    Fisker Automotive's Fisker Karma, a sports luxury plug-in hybrid car, is shown at the auto show, Nov. 18, 2010 (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Making like a leaf

    The Nissan Leaf, a 100% electric car, is test driven at the auto show on Thursday. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Whip it

    Mike McQuary, CEO of Wheego, speaks beside two Wheego Whip Life vehicles, Nov. 18. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Cool blue

    The Mazda Shinari concept car is displayed at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Nov. 17. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Pile up

    Scion cars are on display at the show in Los Angeles. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. One of 333

    The Audi R8 GT, of which only 333 are scheduled to be sold worldwide, is seen at the show on Thursday. (Reed Saxon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Electrifying concept

    The 2011 Kia Pop concept car is revealed. Less than 10 feet in length, the all-electric, chrome-colored three-seater was created by Kia's European Design Center in Germany and can travel up to 100 miles on a single charge, according to press materials. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Trying it on for size

    A visitor sits in the driver's seat of the 2012 Infiniti M35 h (hybrid). (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Coming to America

    The new Fiat 500 is seen near the old version during the press day of the LA Auto Show. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Chrysler interior

    The interior of the 2011 Chrysler 200. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. What's it going to take to put you in this car?

    The 2011 Hyundai Elantra is presented by John Krafcik, president of Hyundai Motor America at the Los Angeles Auto Show. (Friso Gentsch / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. SAAB story

    The SAAB 9-4X Crossover is unveiled at the LA Auto Show. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Electric presentation

    Shinichi Kurihara, President and CEO of Mitsubishi Motors North America, introduces the Mitsubishi electric vehicle at the LA Auto show. (Phil Mccarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The 2011 Chrysler 200 is unveiled at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Charge!

    General Motors North America Marketing Vice President Joel Ewanick drove this Chevrolet Volt electric car with extended range capability from Detroit to the Los Angeles Auto Show. The Volt will go on sale in December. (Steve Fecht / GM via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Hepcat

    The Jaguar CX75 Concept electric car is unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The show opened to the press Wednesday. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Topless

    The Nissan Murano Cross Cabriolet Concept, unveiled at the show, is ready to take in the Southern California sun. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Star power

    Jonathan Browning, President and CEO, Volkswagen Group of America, left, and German model Heidi Klum show off the new Volkswagen EOS convertible at the show. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Big entrance

    The 2011 Chevrolet Camaro convertible makes its world debut at the show. The car features a 312-horsepower direct injection V-6 engine delivering 29-mpg highway. An SS model will feature the 6.2L V-8 engine producing 426 horsepower. A six-speed manual transmission will be standard, with an optional six-speed automatic. (Steve Fecht / GM via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Interior design

    A Nissan's Ellure opens up at the show. The car may be poised to replace the Altima in the automaker's current model lineup. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Golden moment

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  23. Hello L.A.

    The Range Rover Evoque, a five-door, all-wheel drive vehicle makes its debut at the show. (Reed Saxon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Tonight's guest ...

    Mercedes CEO Ola Kallenius introduces the automaker's CLS63 AMG at the show. The V8-powered sedan sports a menacing look. (Paul Buck / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Going up

    This Cadillac concept car unveiled at the LA Auto Show makes simply opening the door an adventure. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. By a nose

    Fuji Heavy Industries President and CEO Ikuo Mori poses with a new Subaru concept car unveiled during the show. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. "F" grade

    President and CEO of Mercedes Benz USA Ernst Lieb introduces the Mercedes Benz F-Cell at the show. The F-Cell is a hydrogen electric, zero-emmissions vehicle powered by a fuel cell. (Paul Buck / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Close Focus

    Visitors look at a 2012 Ford Focus with racing modifications. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Concept hybrid

    The Lexus CT 200h hybrid concept is on display at the show. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Porsche hybrid

    A Porsche GT3 R Hybrid is displayed. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Data: Latest rates in the US

Home equity rates View rates in your area
Home equity type Today +/- Chart
$30K HELOC FICO 4.30%
$30K home equity loan FICO 4.99%
$75K home equity loan FICO 4.36%
Credit card rates View more rates
Card type Today +/- Last Week
Low Interest Cards 11.04%
11.04%
Cash Back Cards 16.44%
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Source: Bankrate.com