Is Honda the least interesting Japanese car company of the moment? It could be, you know, at least as far as UK buyers are concerned. Nissan has dull cars, but it’s also got the quirky Cube, the funky Juke, the raucous 370Z, the bonkers GT-R and, soon, the cutting-edge Leaf. Toyota? It’s got cool hybrids, the world’s best off-roader, the insane Lexus LFA, and it’s interestingly controversial too, as you may recall. Mitsubishi and Subaru? Mmm, both quite dull and unprolific these days, but at least the Evo FQ-400 and Impreza Cosworth keep the pair on the petrolhead radar. They’re still strongly in the run for Japan’s most boring, though, as is Mazda, what with the RX-8 in its death throes. But the MX-5 is fun, the 2 intelligent, and the onset of ‘nagare’ design looks interesting. Suzuki? Well worth watching now VW has got involved, even if we’re struggling to remember the cars they actually sell today.
So, Honda. The CR-Z is an interesting signpost to the future, and I’ve always rated the Civic Type R, but as performance halos these cars are outclassed by the competition, the Insight is a very average planet saver and the whole Formula One debacle did the firm no favours whatsoever.
Yep, I was all for nominating Honda. Then I went to the US. Over there Honda has a premium halo brand called Acura, much as Toyota has Lexus and Nissan has Infiniti. In fact, Acura has been around since 1986 – longer than either rival. It’s got a six-car range, three Accord/Legend-sized saloons (RL, TL, TSX) and three crossovers (ZDX, MDX, RDX), the first two of which I’ve driven.
The ZDX is a pretty radical looking car – imagine Iron Man’s mask transferred to a BMW X6 and you’re somewhere close. During my time in it, the ZDX was constantly commented on – even toll booth workers would squeeze an aside into the shortest of financial exchanges – and it was universally liked. Up front it feels luxuriously comfortable and lounge-like, with a strong centre console dividing driver and passenger, yet also lending a relaxing air of personal space. The penalty for that swooping roofline is a disappointingly impractical boot, poor visibility (the reversing camera is a must, not a cool add-on), and slightly odd entry and egress for anyone who’s less than optimally flexible – there’s a small stretch to clamber up, followed by a scrunch to get under the roofline. Once in, though, headroom is actually okay for six footers, legroom is excellent and, again, it all feels very luxurious.
Nice car, but the more conventional MDX is actually better, and, ironically, more of a crossover in terms of being a proper multi-tasker. It’s based on the same platform as the ZDX, feels almost as special inside and packs the same thrusty 3.7-litre V6, but its ride is a little softer – because there’s no need to live up to the sporty crossover tag – its steering is better and the dynamics are still well above par for daily driving.
Visibility is also much improved, there’s a standard rear-seat DVD system, and the boot is cavernous. Best of all, you can choose from either folding down the main rear seats to open up more boot space, or popping up a third-row to morph the MDX into a genuine seven-seater. It’s a car that would surely sit in a gap somewhere between Land Rover Discovery and Ford Galaxy if it were to ever find its way over here. Nissan Qashqai +2? Nah, the Acura’s miles more desirable.
Stateside, Hondas are more interesting too. Witness the BMW 5GT-like Accord Crosstour, the Nissan Cube-ist Element, the fuel cell-powered FCX that’s available to lease in very limited numbers, and the Ridgeline pick-up truck. Then there’s Acura’s motorsport programme, one that’s seen it dominant in the top class of the fiercely contested American Le Mans Series.
It’s not that Honda’s UK cars are bad, but the fact that its line-up is a little staid seems all the more frustrating given the diversity on offer over the pond.