A certain elation strikes you when your odometer rolls over 200,000 miles, 215,000 miles, 230,000 miles. A grin takes hold of you, especially when your car is still running beautifully, rocketing at 80 around texting teens who make a habit of wobbling at 50 in the left lane. This wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for me when I had my 1990 Honda Accord, and each new set of zeros affirmed me in my $1,200 purchase.
And though I ruined my engine while attempting some maintenance (I’d rather not talk about it), the Accord’s functional lifespan was getting scary. Clearly, only a decapitation by another immortal would kill it. In fact, a man calling himself “Million Mile Joe” has put almost a million miles on his sedan of the same year.
But lately, I haven’t been so impressed with Honda. While they still prove reliable, they’ve sacrificed the fun they used to subtly weave into their line, and the brand is slowly sinking into a comfortable coma.
Toyota, on the other hand, known since 1985 (the last year of the RWD Celica) as the world’s largest producer of highway anesthetics, seems at last to have heard the alarm clock and has thrown off the blankets.
The year was 2009, and the tuner and autocross community let out a collective wail of mourning as the final S2000 growled gleaming and beautiful out of the factory. Honda’s super light, two-seat convertible had been designed to fight the likes of the venerable and impressive but still girly-looking Mazda Miata (that’s MX-5 to all our international friends). Its 2.2 liter offered an impressive 240 hp, and it looked ravishing. And now, it was dead.
We found some consolation in the news that soon Honda would release a new two-seater, this one an homage to the brilliance and Marty-McFly coolness of their long dead CRX. Though the “Rex” was FWD and slightly underpowered, it was immensely tunable and found a home among the eccentric geniuses who like to race front-drivers.
Sadly, however, what we got was a hybrid – heavy, inefficient, and more awkward than Howard the Duck in the seventh grade. The CR-Z has not been a hit. Like its namesake, it is a two-seater, and holds the honor of the only proper appropriate manual transmission in the publicity stunt that is the current hybrid segment, but it only gets 37 mpg, which is a little less than the old CRX; and has a 0-60 time of 9.2, which is more than the old CRX
Strike two for Honda.
With Acura’s Integra long crushed ‘neath the wheels of brand-rebooting, and the Civic putting on pounds like a freshman at an out-of-state college, Honda fan boys like myself have only the gorgeous lines of the current Accord coupe in our dwindling enthusiasm arsenal.
This week, Honda dropped some numbers on their new global “roadster.” And officially struck out. Yes, like everything else Honda makes, it is a depressing FWD, and though it will avoid the saggy hybrid tech of the CR-Z, it will carry an engine no larger than 1.5 liters. Transferring energy from that anemic power plant to the road will be a semi-automatic motorcycle transmission. Great–flappy-paddles in a car that will certainly have a two-digit 0-60 time.
On the other side of town, Toyota has been moving in a different direction, and it’s an odd one for them. Their brilliant MR2 breathed its last in 2007, but the beginning of Toyota’s descent into beige lethargy began as far back as 1985, when they decided that their dad-friendly sports hatch, the Celica, no longer needed that long drive shaft. Since then, they’ve produced boring Camry after slow Corolla, and no number of awesome and immortal trucks, modest body kits, or NASCAR sponsorships could keep them from sliding into a reputation of a company who builds cars for people who don’t like cars.
Even Scion, Toyota’s scarf-wearing, record-scratching hipster youth brand couldn’t produce a fun car. Their sporty hatchback, the tC, is a front-driver and a rebadge of their global sedan, the Avensis. And though it packs a whopping 2.4 liter engine, it’s only capable of 161 hp.
Last year Toyota offered some oxygen with the Lexus LF-A, a monumental supercar they’d spent ten years developing. But it was packed with technology, and therefore overpriced for its performance figures. The millionaire on a budget could have more fun in a Lamborghini or Ferrari for less, and he could actually buy one, whereas the LF-A was lease-only.
Then, in 2009, Toyota announced what might turn out to be their best idea in decades. They were working in conjunction with the exceedingly non-beige Subaru, of whom Toyota now owns about 17%, to develop a RWD sports car. The FT-86, as it was known, would be an homage to Toyota’s ‘80s drift machine, the AE-86, which saw very little US distribution, but remains a legend on the Japanese mountain passes.
For this new project, Toyota would take the reins on chassis design, while Subaru would provide the engine, a tidy 2 liter flat 4. Since the announcement, negative rumors have abounded, mostly out of disbelief that Toyota could ever make a cool car again. Would it be a front-driver after all? Would the Subaru version have AWD, like almost every other car they’ve made for decades? Would it be underpowered, overweight, and automatic only?
No, actually. Toyota has held the line, with each new concept version revealed (including the Scion version, the FR-S) remaining a light, RWD sports car with a stick between the front seats. Power numbers have recently leaked, and that Subaru 4 will be capable of an acceptable 200 hp. And in my opinion, like the AE-86 of old, it will be easy fodder for tuners who could easily tweak and turbocharge that figure to a substantial improvement.
On one more opinionated note, the only thing that could hurt US sales is the Scion badge. Though stickers for base models are expected to hover around a very reasonable 20 grand, the beanie-sporting sub-brand is dying quickly, their college-and-post-grad niche market growing up, having kids, and realizing that they don’t like the way the neighbors view their hatch-mounted turntables.
So yes, the masses who would rather ride trains but are forced to drive would prefer ponderous, automatic beigemobiles. Honda’s consistent sales have proven that. But there’s something to be said for Toyota’s catering to their fringe, those of us who don’t mind at all when the rear wheels come a bit loose. Their Japanese reliability, like a 10,000-fold katana, has remained, but they might just be getting fun, too. Stifle your gasps.