Ojai, Calif. — The road was rough, winding, and fast as a couple dozen auto writers swung through the Santa Inez Mountains east of Santa Barbara, putting some new-model Honda Accords through their paces.
The idea was to pick the car apart -- to find fault with the road-handling, gas mileage, comfort, or anything else, for that matter.
After 118 miles of tortuous driving, the cars -- muddy but still tight -- reached the end of the road and the drivers headed for home.
In the process they went through a mud hole -- unplanned but caused by persistent rain showers in the mountains on the day of the run -- skirted large rocks that had tumbled onto the road from the heights above, and braked from time to time because of sharp curves and small animals on the way.
Indeed, it was a good ride. While the '82model Accord boasts no big breakthrough in mechanics or design, it does, nonetheless, incorporate a bevy of smaller changes to make it an even better vehicle than last year's model.
For one thing, the rebodied Accord is larger yet lighter for 1982; not a lot larger, but roomier nonetheless. The wheelbase is increased 2.8 inches over 1981. But it's in the handling that the driver is impressed.
Both torque and suspension are improved, which accounts for the better performance. The whole idea was to make the car "more European" in its cornering characteristics, according to the engineers. Indeed, the car takes the small road bumps as well as the deep ruts with equal poise and success.
The Japanese carmaker claims the new Accord is a more "slippery" car with a drag coefficient of 0.37. This fact, together with the adjustments to the drive train and suspension, have improved the fuel economy for 1982.
Honda brought the first Accord to the US in 1975 although the Japanese manufacturer sold its first car in the US in 1969. That was even before the early-bird Civic. Since then it has brought in the Civic, revamped and enlarged it, launched the Prelude, and now is moving into 1982.
Its CVCC -- compound vortex controlled combustion -- engine, which until not too long ago didn't require a catalytic converter, got the attention of automotive engineers the world over, including Detroit.
It has been in the areas of people-packaging and engineering that the company has excelled. As a result, sales soared the world around.
"We expect to sell about 360,000 cars in the US in 1982," predicts T. Chino, president of American Honda, Inc., since june. Looking further ahead, he says the goal is 500,000 cars within three or four years, assuming, of course, the federal government doesn't extend the restrictions on Japanese vehichle exports to the US.
But then, Honda will soon be building cars in the US, anyway, the first Japanese company to do so. Strapped for production facilities in Japan, the Japanese automaker is putting up, adjacent to its motorcycle plant in Marysville , Ohio, a car-assembly plant which is scheduled to go into production by the end of 1982 -- six months early.
The company expects to turn out about 15,000 Accords a month by the time full out-put is reached in May 1984.
And as for a second automobile plant:
"If the US plant launch is successful, we would consider another assembly plant in the US," confirms Mr. Chino.
Meanwhile, Honda, already the "mileage champ" on the highway, drove off with even higher mpg honors as four vehicle teams made round-trip transcontinental trips from Los Angeles to New York and Los Angeles to Miami, two vehicles on each route. The four-car average for the 22,824 miles of driving was 56.121 miles per gallon in 1982-model Honda Civic 1300 FE's, the FE standing for -- you guessed it -- fuel economy. The mpg figure is higher by more than a mile than the official Environmental Protection Agency highway economy number of 55.
Highest mileage of any one day of the test was 69.394, helped along by tail winds and long downhill slopes, in New Mexico and Oklahoma. The participants were professional race drivers, so the average motorist probably would be unable to match the figures. However, the cars were standard road cars and legal highway speeds were held to at all times, according to Honda.
The Japanese company, small in comparison with dominant Toyota and Nissan (Datsun), is basing its future growth plans on innovative engineering as it works its way toward a goal of a half million car sales a year in the US.
The company, for example, markets a self-leveling suspension in Japan which combines conventional coil springs with small air springs to stabilize the height of the car over the road. The pneumatic system can be used for inflating tires as well. It may come to the US in the future.
It also is beginning to sell what it calls a Gyrocator in Japan, a system designed to help a driver reach his destination with the least difficulty. The device uses a cathode ray tube (CRT) on which transparent maps are placed and the route is traced on the screen.
It's expensive -- "maybe about $1,000" -- according to N. Kawamoto, head of Honda's research and development company, an adjunct of the manufacturer.
"We want to take some of the decisions away from the driver and make a car easier to handle," aserts Mr. Kawamoto. "The target is to make the cars acceptable to the entire world," he adds.
Nor will Honda be left behind in introducing a small, low-priced, 1-liter car in the world market, including the US. Fuji (Subaru) and Suzuki have been selling minicars for years. General Motors, in fact, has a deal with Suzuki for developing a micro-size car for the US.
Honda engineers also are working on radar systems for cars to activate the brakes in an emergency, etc., but so are other carmakers the world over.
The company doesn't consider its research arm a "poor cousin."
About "3 1/2 percent of total sales of Honda cars and motorcyles go to the R&D company," according to Mr. Kawamoto.
Not bad for a company that began on the driver's seat of a motorcyle a few years after the end of World War II.