29 Apr 2013

Honda’s identity crisis

My blog is about bikes—in particular the F800GS—so this entry is, in itself, suffering from something of an identity crisis.

My career has spanned 22 years in the field of corporate graphic design with a focus on brand identity. The graphic design industry has developed something of a bad name, with inexpensive, powerful computers and software available to anyone fancying themselves a bit of a designer from their basement... so opinions vary and everyone certainly has one.

I am of the opinion that automotive design is the pinnacle of the industry. Where else does design combine aesthetics, engineering, safety, comfort, dynamics and economy? I have a huge appreciation and a great deal of respect for the blood, sweat and tears that go into every detail of a modern vehicle.

Which brings me to Honda. A company close to my heart, having owned 3 of their cars and 2 of their bikes through the years. Considered by many to be one of the finest engineering companies in the world, their cars are well known to be among the most reliable, and their engines among the most durable.

Honda's styling is a different matter, however. Through the years they have had some incredible design hits, such as the then-futuristic 1988–91 Civic and clean-cut 1990–92 Accord—both designed to showcase their expensive and compact double wishbone suspension using design cues such as impossibly low beltlines.

So what happened when they redesigned the 9th generation Civic? The styling was such a disaster and an offence to the eye that the refresh scheduled for its 4th year was brought forward 3 years (pictured). Despite this, it still lacks the coherent, clean styling of its predecessor and gained frumpy proportions, awkward angles, and a flabby set of tail lamps straight off a Taurus or Camry from a decade ago.

The gobs of plastic chrome on the front and rear are out of place with the black trim on the sides. The window line is disturbed by a black triangle of plastic on its leading edge where a single window lived previously.

The stance is somehow wrong, looking almost as though the wheels have a negative camber—shaky knees. This is worsened by the increased overall length and decreased wheelbase compared to the previous generation.

It looks a bit pants.

In my opinion the 8th generation Civic is one of Honda's more recent styling hits, particularly the Japanese/European version.
Ignoring the shopping trolley handle rear wing specific to the Type-R (pictured), the design is clean and tidy, and the shape flows harmoniously from front to rear. The plastic chrome above the front intake fits well with the design and doesn't look like a pretentious attempt to move the car further upmarket.

It brings to mind the spirit of the 4th generation (1988–91) with its short front and long cabin. Honda never quite managed to capture this spirit with the 5th, 6th and 7th generations.

The flowing profile is offset by round detailing in the headlights, tail lamps, fuel filler cover and the wheels themselves, coming together to give a sense of stability and strength.

The face is slightly aggressive without being offensive—the slim headlights widen the appearance of the front end and the rearward curve toward the wheels emphasises and makes a feature of the short engine compartment.

The design is tight and sorted, with none of the frumpiness of its successor.

All is not lost with the 9th generation. Although the hatch version is also a questionable bit of design with some dumpy proportions, it seems Honda is listening—the upcoming tourer (pictured in concept form) loses the bad bits from the hatch and is, to my eyes at least, distinctive, flowing and harmonious on the whole, although some details such as the front air intakes are a bit fussy.

Honda's transition from concept to production traditionally consists of different wheels and lighting details, so what you see here should be virtually indistinguishable to the real thing.

In Europe, medium sized estates sell well and Honda may just have a sales hit on their hands.

I like some of the details such as the hidden rear door handles, which give the car a style reminiscent of a shooting brake, and the 3D tail lamps. The curving upper window line and bulging wheel arches effectively mask the fact this is actually cargo-carrying box on wheels.

Overall, Honda have managed to turn a utilitarian class of vehicle into something fairly desirable.

It will be interesting to see how the low end models with clear windows and small wheels ruin the design, but in Britain it shouldn't be a problem since buyers tend to spec up to the biggest wheels available.

I still question what happened to the disaster that is the saloon/sedan model. It's difficult to imagine the two cars are the same vehicle underneath the bodywork. Instead of continuity between the two, it is as though two teams of designers set to work in their own bubbles, completely isolated from each other.

Time will tell, but I for one hope Honda go back to their roots and start designing iconic cars again. Cars which complement their incredible engineering and still look good 20 years on.

Photos: World Honda

8 Apr 2013

3 Apr 2013

Red devil

I recently had the opportunity to take out an R1200GS Touring Edition (fully optioned) for two hours. In the rain, at that… Wow what a machine.

Compared to my F800GS it is loud and hugely more powerful. The engine is a touch rougher (more alive?) at idle but slightly smoother when revving, and the hydraulic clutch is far lighter than the cable clutch on the F800GS. That said, it is like a hair trigger which means a few stalls until you become acclimatised to it.

The boxer engine sounds bloody amazing—throaty and resonant—and the cylinders don’t stick out much further than my legs so there wasn’t much difference squeezing among cars when filtering.

The semi-active suspension is, in general, firmer than the soft F800GS. The bike feels well planted and the telelever front suspension greatly reduces dive under braking.

You sit far lower to the ground than on the F800GS and whatever magic those crazy German engineers have done, they’ve managed to mask the extra 25kg, as the new R1200GS actually feels lighter than the F800GS in low speed manoeuvres (the previous R1200GS, in my opinion, was a lumbering beast).

The ride-by-wire throttle programmes feel tangibly different. Rain mode makes the throttle feel gentle and slightly lazy, road mode feels roughly as responsive as the cable-operated F800GS throttle, and dynamic mode feels almost hyperactive. For obvious reasons I didn't try enduro or enduro pro modes.

The cruise control was flawless at 30mph—no driveline lash. I didn’t get a chance to try it on any faster roads due to the short time I had the bike.

The LED headlamp is an amazing and practical piece of tech for a dual sport bike, as LEDs are highly resistant to vibration.

The daytime riding light gives the new R1200GS a strong identity on the road and is beautifully executed with even lighting all the way round its contour.

Subjectively, car drivers seemed to shift over in their lanes to make room compared to when I'm on my F800GS, which means the unique lighting seems to deliver on its promise of extra visibility.

When the dipped beam comes on (either manually via a switch, or automatically via light sensors), the daytime riding light fades to roughly 50% intensity.

I seriously considered getting my F800GS appraised for part exchange. However, I would never buy a first model year bike—by the second model year, the worst of the bugs should have been identified and resolved.

Interestingly, going back to my F800GS did not feel like a downgrade at all. It felt like ‘home’ so to speak… familiar and comfortable. Powerful but in a much more discreet way.

As lovely as the new R1200GS is, the F800GS stands up well and is definitely the more capable bike on the rough stuff.

In retrospect, when my F800GS is 3 or 4 years old I think the R1200GS might just be my next bike, but it’s not quite time to exchange it.