Honda's Fit Future: Interview with Art St. Cyr, VP of Product Planning, and Andy Boyd, former PR maven for Honda

From Fit to Ridgeline, we ask about the future of American Honda

By Rss | January 21, 2014
At the Detroit Auto Show, Honda debuted an all-new generation Fit subcompact, which provides more interior space and new technologies. We talked with Honda to find out about this new car as well as other technologies the company is looking at in the future. Below is our interview with Art St. Cyr, Honda's vice president of product planning and Andy Boyd, former Honda PR maven and communications consultant at Andrew Woods & Associates. What were your goals for the new Fit and what was Honda trying to improve from the last generation?
Art St. Cyr: We look at the Fit as a very important gateway vehicle for Honda. Actually, about two-thirds of our Fit customers come back and buy another Honda, so it has our highest retention rate and is a very important vehicle for us. But with the Fit, we're looking at expanding this small car market that we have and we are coming up with the new small CUV that will be launched later. But we really look at that as one of our pillars of getting people into the Honda brand, staying with the Honda brand and with the Fit itself. It has great versatility and interior packaging space. It will have class-leading fuel economy. It is fun to drive and it is a very safe vehicle. All the things that represent the Honda brand are represented in the Fit.
Acom: What do you think your competition is doing wrong, so to speak, in this segment? The subcompact market has long been a difficult segment for automakers. ASC: I wouldn't say people are doing things wrong per se, but what I would say is I think we do it better. Our technology packages, engines, and those type of things. And we started the Fit with the whole Magic Seat concept of repackaging and our packaging magic allows you to get a really huge amount of space in a small exterior packaging. But that's not just in the Fit. You can see this across the whole lineup from the Fit all the way up to the Odyssey where packaging and powertrains are really strong. Acom: Is there potential that the Vezel, Japan's new small CUV will come to the U.S.? How would it differ from the Japan version?
ASC: We announced last year in Detroit that a small CUV is going to come to the U.S. and that it will be based off the Fit platform. The Vezel is the name of the vehicle that was launched in Japan. But we've always said that we'd make a small CUV that we would launch here whether it's called the Vezel or something else. We do see the small car market as a place we want to be in and we think we offer some unique strengths that other competitors can't match.
Andy Boyd: It (the new small CUV) will be sourced from our new plant in Celaya, Mexico, which is where the Fit will be produced when it starts production here in a couple of months. Acom: The new Fit, as well as the new Civic, has the next-generation HondaLink. How is Honda planning on rolling out this infotainment system through the rest of the Honda lineup?
ASC: We'll be phasing it in as the development cycles are appropriate for that. But the thing about HondaLink is that we do think it's what customers want. They want to be able to connect to their smartphones. They want to be able to take the things they have in their everyday lives and bring it into the car and use it in a safe manner, which is what the HondaLink allows them to do. We think it's the future of how people are going to interact between their smartphone and their cars and it will be studied on a model by model basis when we put it in each market and segment. So without talking about future plans, you can infer that it [HondaLink] is going to be propagated throughout more cars in our lineup.
It really goes back to what customers are asking for. Customers, just because they get into a car, don't want to stop their lives. More and more, smartphones are part of lives. It's amazing that, 10 years ago, people didn't even have cell phones and now you can't live without them. On the new Fit, with the new MirrorLink function, even with vehicles that do not have embedded navi, you'll be able to download an application on your cell phone and you'll be able to display it on your screen. AB: For less than $60, you'll have an in-dash navigation powered by your smartphone, which is good for young buyers who would have been looking at over $1,000 to put navi into their cars. Acom: Unlike other automakers, Honda has not focused on turbocharged engines. Are turbocharged engines a potential option for the future?
ASC: At the Tokyo Motor Show, we talked about a whole series of downsized turbos that we're going to be introducing throughout the Honda lineup in different regions around the world. We talked about a 1.0-liter turbo, a 1.5-liter turbo, and a 2.0-liter turbo. We will look at the vehicles that we have, the market that they are in, and will pick the best engine that is appropriate for that market and segment.
Acom: Is there any potential of these turbos coming to the U.S.? ASC: Absolutely there is potential. Downsized turbos are the future. AB: There is very strong interest, obviously. Those will be core powertrain technologies. Acom: Do you see putting CVTs (continuously variable automatic transmissions) on V-6 engines? ASC: CVTs on V-6 engines? That's kind of an oxymoron in itself, isn't it? Honestly, we look at every vehicle from the ground up, and we look at what the customer is looking for in a vehicle. So whether it be from a package, whether it be from a fuel economy or powertrain standpoint, we design the vehicle around those needs. So I'm trying to think of what need that would actually address. AB: We haven't said anything, but we've talked about the fact that CVTs and DCTs (dual-clutch automatic transmissions) have somewhat different purposes. ASC: A DCT is like automatic manual transmission, a quick shifting transmission which is a much sportier variant of normal automatic transmissions. The purpose of a CVT is for fuel economy, for a very smooth ride that has good passing performance when you're on the highway, better than a standard automatic transmission so depending on what characteristics customers are looking for we will choose the best mating technology for that. So we can't say that we wouldn't do it. We don't want to talk about future plans, but everything is on the table. And we design it from the ground up. We don't necessarily design a car around a powertrain. We design the powertrain for the vehicle we're making.
Acom: I was also wondering about the Ridgeline pickup. We've seen teaser photos for that and it looks like it will be styled very differently from the current version, with a very straight back instead of a curved back. What is the timetable for the new Ridgeline?
ASC: We have mentioned there will be a small gap between the end of production of the current Ridgeline and the new one. We have said that it will be within two years when we end production of the current generation Ridgeline before the newest one goes on sale. We can tell you is that just like any other Honda vehicle, the focus will be package. There will be some very unique features from the current Ridgeline such as flip over seats, trunk in bed, dual action tailgates, some of those very innovative features that we think people are looking for in a modern truck to do the things they expect out of a Honda. Acom: I know Honda uses many five-speed and six-speed transmissions. Why not seven or eight speeds like other automakers?
ASC: Well, the Pilot still has a five-speed and the CR-V still has a five-speed. What you'll find is that those vehicles, when they were built, they were built around performance characteristics, hence they were designed around those type of transmissions. We don't think that customers are necessarily asking for a six-speed as opposed to a five-speed transmission. They want a vehicle that drives well and does what they want to do. We will pick appropriate transmissions for what we are trying to do. What we're trying to do is provide a great package, great driving performance, and fun driving, combined with great fuel economy which is what the multi-gear transmissions get you.
Acom: In a lot of cases, would CVTs be more preferable than going with an eight-speed automatic? ASC: It depends on the market we are talking about. In a lot of cases, yes, it's more appropriate especially if the main purpose of the vehicle is high fuel economy. Acom: Is there potential for sports cars for the Honda brand specifically?
ASC: All of our cars are sporty. We have the Si in our Civic lineup which is a very sporty car. Everything that we do is focused around the driver. Part of Honda's DNA is to make even the base cars fun to drive cars. To that we add different characteristics like the Si, and I think it's safe to say that we view performance as one of our core characteristics.
Acom: The Accord Hybrid is rated as achieving a higher EPA fuel economy rating than the Plug-In Hybrid. What is Honda's strategy behind that? Why get a plug-in version?
ASC: The Plug-In Hybrid and the Hybrid are basically the same concept. The main difference is the battery storage capability. The plug-in hybrid actually has more battery storage capabilities and more batteries. So you can run on all-electric drive further. So the purpose of that vehicle is for people who want to drive on more electric power. They will plug in at home or at work, and they can commute on all-electric power. The gas engine only kicks in when you run out of electric power. But the Hybrid vehicle is designed to be a true cooperative thing, as the motor charges the batteries.
AB: So actually the fuel economy numbers do differ if for instance with the plug-in you have a short commute and are able to be in EV mode. The EV mpge [on the plug-in] is 118 mpge (miles per gallon electric equivalent) versus the regular hybrid is 47 mpg combined. So if you're someone who is able to take advantage of that EV mode in the Plug-In, you are achieving a different level of efficiency. Acom: I noticed the Civic has evolved in its styling. It looks more emotional and dramatic. What is Honda's goal toward future styling of its cars? ASC: We design our vehicles around what we want them to be, and the market in the past few years has gone towards more emotional styling. We do put an emphasis, both on the Honda and on the Acura side, to be more emotional, a little more dramatic with styling cues. But with that being said, we don't want it to be a trendy style. We don't want it to be something that is really hot right now and then two years from now looks old. If you go way back, the beautiful thing about Honda cars is that they never really looked out of fashion, even four or five years down the line as you're going through the model cycle. Acom: How do you distinguish form something that is very trendy versus something that is going to last? ASC: It's very difficult. Obviously, styling is in the eye of the beholder whether you like it or don't but I think it's safe to say that we are trying to make our cars more emotional, as you can see in the Civic and in the new Accord versus the last Accord and in the new Fit. You will see that there are many more dramatic and emotional styling cues in our vehicles moving forward.

More Editor's Picks Articles

We hear it all the time: What's your favorite car? Truth is, it's tough to answer. Favorite car for what? Taking the kids to soccer practice? Hauling lumber? Exploring a new mountain road? Not one car is idea for all situations. So if you want to know our favorites, comb through our Editor's Picks and see.
2015 Chevrolet Colorado is the 2015 Motor Trend Truck of the Year

2015 Chevrolet Colorado is the 2015 Motor Trend...

Colorado Trumps Texas

December 03, 2014

2015 Motor Trend Truck of the Year Contenders

2015 Motor Trend Truck of the Year Contenders

Pickup Throwdown: America's Newest Pickups and a Van Battle for the Golden...

December 03, 2014

Sit-down with Subaru: Q&A with Dominick Infante, National Manager, Product Communications at Subaru of America

Sit-down with Subaru: Q&A with Dominick Infante,...

We ask everything we want to know about current and future Subaru cars.

February 11, 2014

Jason Petty
Jason Petty

Well we've been waiting on a new NSX forever now.