Honda US executive says Accord isn't trying to unseat Toyota Camry, but it could

DETROIT – Honda is feeling Fit in the U.S. as it enters 2014.

For starters, there’s the subcompact of that name, which has undergone an overhaul. The new model was unveiled Monday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The automaker promises the car — once the top-selling subcompact in the U.S. but now a laggard — will be faster, more efficient and roomier.

Then there’s Acura, its luxury brand, which on Tuesday unveiled a “performance luxury sedan” called the TLX. The carmaker hopes it complements strong players such as the RDX and MDX, which have enjoyed successive months of sales increases. But officials also acknowledge that it might entail untangling some alphabet soup for prospective customers.

Also, can the Accord unseat the reigning midsize-car king, Toyota’s Camry? John Mendel, the company’s executive vice-president in the U.S., offered his thoughts on the battle for buyers and prospects for new products in an interview this week with reporters. His comments are edited for length and clarity.

Q: Is subcompact market, up only 4 per cent last year, going to gain much traction?

Mendel: Depending on who you listen to, the forecasts are 4 to 8 per cent in that market. So it’s less about the opportunistic view of how much the market is going to grow as much as really looking at what Fit has been able to do with relatively little attention from a marketing or incentive standpoint. It’s doing 50,000 units a year, with capacity constrained.

One of the areas we’ve focused on besides keeping Fit ‘fit’ is making it bigger on the inside than the old one, and offering more cargo space, leg room, and seat room yet in a smaller package in terms of body size. And then we’re really focusing on something that the subcompact class has failed to deliver on, which is ride, handling and general highway comfort.

Q: Is TLX a make-or-break model for the Acura brand?

Mendel: I don’t know if it’s make-or-break, it’s certainly very important for us. The TL and TSX have been historically good sellers for us, but we’ve been winding them down over the past couple years in preparation for the TLX. It’s not a melding of the two. TLX puts the final brick in our hierarchy strategy, in terms of having a true smaller, midsize and large car.

As for the naming options, there’s not a lot of room to manoeuvr. Frankly, we have customers who understand what an RL is, they understand what a TL was, what a TSX was. It’s not a perfect world, so we’ll work with our customers to make sure they understand.

Q: How does Accord unseat Camry in the coming year?

Mendel: Through natural demand, but unseating Camry, I can honestly tell you, is not something that ever comes up in our business plan. It’s not, ‘We must slay the mighty giant.’ We look for steady and sustainable growth. I think we can do it by having a better product. We made big strides toward that this year. To the degree that the industry at large continues to play in the fleet market, that’s going to affect the ability to unseat anybody. We are the No.-1 retail-selling car in the midsize class, so that’s a great accomplishment.