And it does it without a pickup truck Reaching more than a million new-vehicle sales a year without a pickup truck line has been American Honda's singular achievement in 2000 - and there's no reason why the record can't be broken in 2001.

That's what they're saying at Honda's U.S. headquarters in Torrance, CA, and unless the market really tanks, doubters are few and far between.

In optimistic fashion, American Honda Executive Vice President Thomas G. Elliott chalks up the records posted by the 997 Honda and 260 Acura dealers last year:

- Combined passenger-car sales up 9.8% and SUV/minivan sales 3.3%.

- In September, American Honda recorded its record sales month in its more than 30-year history - more than 117,000 units (beating arch-rival Toyota).

- Sales leadership in three market segments: Civic, with a restyled 2001 model introduced last fall, in the compact class over Focus and Cavalier; CR-V in the growing small SUV segment, over Wrangler and Forester, and Acura 3.2 TL in the near-luxury sedan group, eclipsing BMW "3" Series and Lexus ES300.

Mr. Elliott traces his history with American Honda to its beginnings, having started in 1970 as a sales assistant, fresh out of California State-Long Beach, where he majored in marketing.

A motorcyclist, Mr. Elliott drove Honda bikes and saw the possibilities in a car line from the powertrain-focused Japanese producer.

"Those early Honda cars were pretty minimal," recalls Mr. Elliott, "but they were quick learners over in Japan and we knew they were working on a substantial small car with every intention of going upscale as soon as possible.

"That was to be the 1973 Civic, and GM dealers we were signing up couldn't wait to get their hands on it."

The Civic in 1974 and the Accord in 1979 quickly became American Honda's core models and paved the way for domestic production at plants in Marysville and East Liberty, OH, Alliston, Ont., and El Solto, Mexico. The Odyssey's success in the minivan segment in the 1990s made possible a fifth plant location, Lincoln, AL, opening this fall.

"What's going for us," says Mr. Elliott, "is a reputation for value and reliability. It started with those cycle powertrains but has gone on to include breakthrough engines in low emissions combined with high economy, plus the hybrid Insight that was the first gas-electric vehicle in the U.S."

Honda is spreading its clout as an economy/performance automaker into the luxury SUV class with the all-new Acura MDX this year, assembled in Alliston on the Odyssey platform. It is aimed at Chevrolet Tahoe, Lincoln Navigator, Jeep Grand Cherokee, BMW X5 and Mercedes M-Class at a suggested list price below any of those - $34,850.

Mr. Elliott, who oversees auto operations for American Honda and shares responsibility for both Honda and Acura Divisions with Executive Vice President Richard Colliver, forecast sales of 330,000 Civics and 275,000 Odysseys for calendar 2001 and about 35,000-40,000 MDXs for its first full year.

Industry analysts were seeing nothing but further gains even if the total market eases off from its all-time record level.

Honda dealers agree with the bullish outlook.

Publicly owned consolidators with Honda and Acura stores all reported they were top profit generators in the first nine months of 2000. Sonic Automotive says its top-ranked Lute Riley Honda in Dallas has consistently been a star performer.

Though Honda dropped its long-running Civic hatchback after the '00 run, it is not retrenching any further, says Mr. Elliott.

The Civic coupe for the first time is more distinctively styled than the four-door sedan. Mr. Elliott says, "We're pleased that 60% of Civic owners buy another Honda."

The Civic gets another boost this year when Insight's hybrid engine is adapted for a new model. Honda's Anna, OH, engine plant long since has also topped the one million annual mark on L4 and V-6 engines.

As for a possible pickup truck from Honda, Mr. Elliott won't say yes or no, but throws out a hint or two.

"Market segments we're not in are always under study," he says. "Bear in mind this is one of the most exciting times in American Honda history."