Hello and welcome to Letters to Doug, your weekly Jalopnik Q&A column wherein you provide the Qs and I provide a long, ranting A that goes off on a lot of unrelated tangents.
Before we get into today’s letter, I want to remind you that you, too, can participate in Letters to Doug. Just send me a letter at Letters2Doug@gmail.com, and I will cherish it deeply and undoubtedly reply thoroughly. I say this because my usual strategy (“I probably won’t read your letter”) has resulted in me getting fewer and fewer letters, to the point where I almost took one this week from a guy asking if I wanted to improve my “SEO scorre.”
But fortunately, I received an excellent letter this week from a reader named Art, who’s writing to us from the beautiful state of Indiana. (Motto: Yes! We are still located between Ohio and Illinois!) Art writes:
Why won’t Honda make a V8 in any of their products? Honda is resolute in their position that V8s are completely unnecessary, except for racing. Honda’s engineering capability could deliver a world-class, and perhaps world leading, small displacement, over-square, normally aspirated, high-revving V8.
I’d say the lack of a V8 is because Honda lost their mojo. But even when Honda had their mojo, they still wouldn’t do it. Acura surely needs a V8 to be competitive in the full size luxury class, and a stellar NA V8 would make the new NSX even better. Honda keeps talking about getting serious in the half-ton truck market, and who better than Honda to make differentiate with a small NA V8.
Art from Indiana
Before I get started, I just want to say, Art, that this is an excellent question, and it’s one that I’ve wondered myself many times in the past. This is a welcome departure from most letters I receive, which say things like: I just bought a Ford Focus and the seller didn’t tell me it has no windows. What do I do?
Fortunately, Art, since I’ve had time to think about your question over the years, I’ve also had time to develop an answer. And the answer is: Honda for the past few years has been run by the single most cautious group of human beings ever assembled. Seriously: if Honda’s corporate executives were a mother, it would make its children wear elbow pads when playing video games.
For proof, I present to you several tremendously cautious decisions made by Honda in the past.
Possibly the most hilarious example of Honda’s unadulterated caution came when the SUV market was starting to blow up in the early 1990s. Here’s what happened: the Ford Explorer came out in 1991, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee came out in 1993, and Toyota had the 4Runner, and Nissan had the Pathfinder. And good ol’ Honda was sitting there, cautiously watching everyone else get rich, building shit like the Del Sol.
So finally the order is given, and Honda decides it’s time to go forward with an SUV. But do you know what they do? They don’t build one of their own. They call up Isuzu and ask for a copy of their SUV, just because they know that thing already sells pretty well, and they’d rather play it safe than take the “massive risk” of designing a whole new model. Mind you, by this point, Ford was already selling more Explorers than General Mills was selling breakfast cereals.
It would be ten more model years before Honda finally developed its own midsize SUV, the Pilot, which debuted for the 2003 model year. By this time, they were literally the very last Japanese automaker to come out with an SUV. Mitsubishi had like four SUVs, for God’s sake. So the Pilot was the last one to the party. And it showed up wearing elbow pads.
We could also talk about trucks. For years, Honda watched from the sidelines as rival brands Nissan and Toyota duked it out over the 0.6 percent of the pickup market that goes to foreign pickups. And for years, Honda was adamant that they wanted to compete in this segment. “We want a truck,” said Roger Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, Honda’s vice president of reading safety labels to make sure nobody has an allergic reaction. “We wouldn’t be Honda if we didn’t dive right into this segment after a careful 15-year monitoring period.”
So then when they finally do get around to building a truck, what do they do? Engineer it from the ground up? Go balls-to-the-wall? Come up with a super awesome VTEC monster truck with factory spray cannons? NO! They use their existing SUV chassis, their existing SUV V6, and their existing SUV transmission. They did, however, add a built-in cooler to the cargo area.
“We wouldn’t want to get too crazy,” said Roger Super Handing All-Wheel Drive at a 2005 Honda driving event that was open to members of the public. “By ‘driving event,’” he continued, “We mean that a trained Honda employee will drive you around a parking lot at idle speed.”
And this brings us to Honda’s take on the V8. I first heard the “Honda should make a V8” argument back in the early 1990s when they brought to market the NSX and the entire Acura luxury brand. At the time, it was sacrilege not to make a V8 luxury car – and in fact, the entire cornerstone of the new-for-early-1990s Infiniti and Lexus luxury brands were V8-powered luxury sedans. Acura, meanwhile, gave us the Vigor, with frameless windows and a 5-cylinder engine.
The reason they did this was they were waiting to see if this whole “V8 thing” would catch on. I mean, yeah, sure, the V8 originally came out in the early 1900s and was used in literally millions of vehicles throughout the ensuing century of powered human transport. But Honda still wasn’t convinced. “Look what happened to the horse,” said Honda spokesman Donald Low Rolling Resistance Tires. “That could still happen to the V8.”
And you know what the crazy thing is? It turned out Honda was right. These days, V8s are done. They’re finished. They’re kaput. People are gravitating towards turbocharging, and smaller displacement, and fuel economy, and Honda is well poised to reap the benefits — especially in the luxury sedan segment, where its V6-powered Acura RLX has attained the same sales success as a DVD rewinder.
“Any day now, that thing is going to take off,” said Reggie Real-Time Four-Wheel Drive, Honda manager of buying steak dinners for Consumer Reports staff, as journalists checked into their hotel for a Honda press event. “Say, can I help you with those bags? I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself before you sign a release.”
And so goes Honda, cautiously as ever. There will be no V8. There will be no rear-wheel drive. There will be no replacement for the Element, for the Del Sol, for the Prelude, or for the CRX. There will just be the Civic, the Accord, the CR-V, the Pilot, the Odyssey, and a couple of Acuras, soldiering on, until the sun burns out and human life is eradicated on this planet. And when that happens, Honda will wait a few extra years before shutting down production. “You never know,” said Jim The Power of Dreams. “What if the aliens want a backup camera?”
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.