If you follow have followed the auto industry for more than 15 or 20 minutes, then you know there are awards, prizes and honors for everything from the best tire rim to the best radio reception (okay, we’re kidding about the last couple, but it seems that way, doesn’t it?).
Well, as they said in the late Broadway show about the Roman Empire, “Something Interesting Happened on the Way to the Forum” and the truth of the matter is that something is the real world intruding on a world the auto industry thought it owned.
Here’s what happened this past year that makes us wonder whether the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and Honda and its ritzy cousin the Accord line haven’t been using the auto world as their view of the real world.
(Explanatory note: The author of this story spent six years working at a Honda dealership before retiring and has cannot report on some of the problems due to various relationships he still has with Honda and some dealerships. Plus, there are certain non-disclosure clauses that were signed that are still in effect. Suffice it to say; what is being noted here is the truth.)
In the 2013 model year, the real world caught up with IIHS and Honda and you have to wonder who is doing the counting at either institution. It also makes you wonder about awards in general.
Tightening award criteria
Over the last decade or so, the IIHS has been slowly tightening the criteria it uses to judge the cars it rates. The auto insurance safety rating and public affairs group has added many real world tests to the battery it already conducts. For example, IIHS has added front quarter accidents and the damage they cause both humans and cars, as well as the rear quarter.
The group has also upped its speed a bit in reporting on the accidents it follows and the list that it covers just keeps on growing.
The last couple of years saw IIHS adding new safety categories to its lineup of safety awards and 2013 saw Honda taking a bundle of awards because the captive import (imported cars that are also built here most of the time with better results than the homeland) market that they built cars for made good cars. Or were they that good?
Somewhere along the line the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NH
TSA) reported that many rather late model Honda Civics and CR-Vs (same vehicle chassis, different body) and it ordered Honda to recall about several hundred thousand Fits and the other vehicles to have the particular parts checked.
(It seems that there’s a pesky relay in the automatic window circuitry that tends to overheat and the wire seems to be a little undergauge – this is our reading of the situation, you will likely find other determinations – elsewhere that tends to melt and catch fire.
Yes, the window does stop working, so you can be sure your last sight won’t the interior of your Honda filling with smoke as the window drops into its well, but it is annoying having your Honda being sprayed out by your local call fire department just as you might be making “your move” on your soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend or if she’s forgiving, it’s not your fault and she may end up your wife.)
Honda, to its credit, jumped right on this problem and said they were going to voluntarily recall the affected vehicles when the replacement kits were ready and they would handle it. It’s great PR.
Indeed, that was the theme of Jim Hall, an automotive analyst for the Detroit firm 2953, a firm that follows the auto industry. Hall said it’s just great public relations when an automaker can get out in front of a problem and announce they will fix it. It shows they are being consciences. That they were also fulfilling the mandates of various federal auto safety acts seems to have been lost in the shuffle.
Why let the facts get in the way of a good story, so our heroes become the automakers, while the guardians of public safety the NHTSA (htp:/www.nhtsa.gov) become the nags – like your Momma when she reminded you that dirty socks belonged in the hamper).
Still, it’s not all bad because the automaker can hid behind the safety agency when it takes repeated torpedo after torpedo as Toyota has done in the last five years (about 20 million vehicles of the Toyota and Lexus lines were recalled, www.toyota.com) by NHTSA.
Even Toyota’s top echelon of leaders hid behind the NHTSA shield on the various vehicles that were recalled.
And, this brings us back around again to the IIHS and Honda affair. It seems that IIHS recently named Honda its “Top-Pick” for safety in its current design.
When you look a little more deeply at the award as Forbes has done, you begin to see a pattern here that many in would like you not to see.
As the automotive world’s safety standards have been ratcheted up over the last few years so that cars become safer, it requires that organizations like IIHS modify their testing procedures (Consumer Reports, too) to reflect real world issues.
That’s why the 2013 “Top Picks” had 130 models singled out. However, with the 2014 tightening of the IIHS standards the number dropped like 40 tons of scrap, to 30, many of them Hondas.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Even as IIHS was announcing its 2014 winners a check of the Internet, using Google, revealed that more than 91,000 Honda fits were being recalled for window issues, while 748,000 Pilots and Odyssey minivans were being recalled for issues with their airbags. It seems that they don’t have enough rivets to ensure they (the airbags) work correctly.
Fortunately for Honda, they had enough lead-time to get out in front of these issues so they look like the guys with the white hats.
Just a few missing
While looking like the guys with the white hats, Honda’s headdress began to take on a shade of gray when it was discovered there were 3.8 million Hondas recalled on 2013 for safety and other issues and 1.7 million upscale Accords or 5.5 million.
Then, of course, there’s NHTSA’s order telling Honda to take back 980,000 2002 to 2005 vehicles due to the window malfunction. It looks like they forgot that one, right?
The final analysis is this: the auto industry is getting better at responding to safety-related issues, there’s not doubt of it. They are also looking at the issues that sell, safety and quality and are answering any issues that have to be answered as quickly as possible.
Makes sense really
In the long run, the cars that answer the safety or quality calls are the ones that buyers perceive as having extra value and they go right to them. As Hall points out, answering the safety issues prevents future lawsuits. Hall told Popular Mechanics, in a piece on recalls says carmakers are just being extra cautious.
“…The motivation is to avoid future litigation mostly. The worst cost is if you're perceived as covering something up," Hall says. "Fixing a problem—especially if you already have a good reputation—is just perceived as doing things right."
IIHS making test more real
This also answers some critics of the IIHS who have long complained that it’s testing are too mild on the car industry. Now, their testing is as tough, if not tougher, than Consumer Reports.