Proud Honda keeps on burnin' Some might say it's just another predictable year for the juggernaut that is Honda Motor Co. Ltd.

At least it looks that way on this side of the Pacific.

For the sixth year in a row, the Japan-based automaker has chalked up increases in both sales and domestic production in North America.

For the second straight year, Honda - along with its Acura luxury division - will rack up better than a million sales in the U.S., and for the first time in its 28 years of carmaking will record output of more than a million vehicles in North America (including Mexico).

Honda's U.S. sales increase, up 8.8% through October, is nearly double the 4.6% overall increase for the industry.

Growth came in large part from a 17.3% gain in sales for the upscale Acura Div. - a near 17% hike for sales of the new CL and a roughly 24% bump in sales of the TL meant an added 17,000 units for this year over last. A full production year for the Odyssey minivan - with sales up better than 90% over 1999 - will add another 120,000 units or so into the sales total.

The recently introduced Acura MDX also added a few numbers in its first month in dealer showrooms. Its sales were on pace to add 35,000 to 40,000 in 2001. The Odyssey-based MDX is being built in Alliston, Ont.

U.S. production for Honda was headed to end the year at better than 740,000 light vehicles.

All this took place as Honda prepared to launch - globally - its seventh-generation Civic from a dozen different manufacturing locations. Changeover from the old to new Civic will take place at all 12 plants within a two-month window. In North America, Honda's East Libery, OH, and Alliston plants will be capable of a yearly build of 230,000 and 170,000, respectively, of the new Civics.

The last changeover - from Civic generation five to six in 1995 - took six months to accomplish.

Honda is focused on simultaneous launches in order to reduce the time required to offer a new model worldwide. With the immediate availability of information through media such as the Internet, today's customers are more aware of new model introductions in other countries, say Honda execs. And customers are more reluctant to buy an outgoing model when they know its replacement already is on sale elsewhere.

The heart of the quick change is Honda's New Manufacturing System (see WAW - Oct. '00, p.103). And the key to NMS is in the welding. Fewer model-specific jigs are required, allowing a robotic welder to easily handle four of Honda's five main platforms simply by reprogramming. The NMS also changes plant layout in the assembly area. Assembly processes that are similar for any platform are grouped to streamline assembly and logically arrange production sequences. Model-specific routines are done off-line in sub-assembly areas.

The top-selling Accord - No.1 in sales for the '00 model year - also got a significant freshening, inside and out, for '01.

On the manufacturing side, Honda began construction of its 110 superscript th manufacturing facility - this one based in Lincoln, AL, near Birmingham and not far from DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz M-Class plant in Vance, AL.

A team of 170 Honda employees are working out the logistics for the ramp-up at the new plant, which will initially assemble 120,000 Odyssey minivans and V-6 engines a year when it goes on line in spring 2002. Investment in the new plant is pegged at $440 million.

When Lincoln reaches full production, Honda officials say the automaker will be producing more cars in North America than in Japan.

Honda's plans are truly ambitious. Earlier this year, Honda President and Chief Executive Hiroki Yoshino laid out company goals of selling 3 million automobiles worldwide by 2004, up by half a million from current levels.

Breaking that down by region, North America is forecast at 1.45 million, up by about 150,000 vehicles. Japan is targeted for 900,000, up by 200,000 units. Europe is forecast to hit 350,000 units, up by 100,000, after construction of a new Civic plant in the U.K. Production capacity there will grow from a current 150,000 to 250,000, and plants there will begin exports for the first time. The first of those exports to hit U.S. shores will be the CR-V small SUV, sometime in 2001.

Mr. Yoshino says that in the next four years, Honda plans to launch more than 20 new or full-model changes, most of them in the sport/utility, multipurpose vehicle and super minicar segments. It also plans to add a new small model to be introduced in 2001 and targeted at the European market.

Plans also call for a complete revamping of its engine lineup by 2005, with all meeting 2010 mandated fuel-consumption targets.