Honda Motor Co.’s name may currently be tainted with the global air bag recalls, but it has proved that it remains an automaker with an attitude, launching a new, genre-defying mini sports car developed by a twenty-something pioneer.
Debuted on April 2, Honda’s S660 is a car of contradiction. It’s a two-seat roadster that delivers a sports appearance for drivers who seek that. Its strikingly sleek body turns heads, and it features a dinky steering wheel and an extremely low driving position typical of roadsters.
Moreover, small windows at the back can be opened electronically so that the occupants can hear the roar of the rear-mounted engine. Even the two heavy doors shut with satisfying thuds.
Yet, it’s a kei class minicar, with diminutive dimensions, limited power and the squeaky sound of an engine displacement of just 660 cc.
“What I had in mind was a car that’s fun to both look at and drive. More than anything else, I wanted to pursue that aspect,” said Ryo Mukumoto, who came up with the initial concept and led the development of the unique car.
He said the idea owes partly to racing karts, which the development team tried out at a track in the process of cementing S660’s concept.
“Racing karts are slow, maybe like 50 kph to 60 kph maximum. You can feel the wind, and the top speed may be low but there’s this great feeling each time you turn a corner,” he said.
“When people talk about sports cars, they talk about high-powered machines, they talk about speed exceeding 300 kph, they talk about hundreds of horsepower and so on, but in fact there are already lots of sports cars like that out there. The truth is, you can enjoy a sports car without driving at high speeds.”
Its features place the S660 in a unique position in today’s domestic auto market, where top sellers tend to be eco-friendly, low-priced and practical.
The concept and the bold decision to pick a young manager for the project were hailed by critics and Honda fans alike as signs that Honda remains an automaker with attitude. Honda has received orders for 8,600 units of S660 to be delivered by the end of the year and an undisclosed number it plans to deliver by next June. Those placing an order now will be told to expect delivery after that time, though the company is working to boost the pace of production.
While it’s not exactly a leading earner for Honda, the car’s success is a bright spot for the company that remains mired in massive recalls related to defective air bags supplied by Takata Corp.
At the S660 launch in April, the media focus was equally on Mukumoto himself, a previously unknown 26-year-old appointed to head the development team to the surprise of many.
Picked for the job in 2010, just four years after he joined Honda fresh out of high school, Mukumoto is a Cinderella of a man who skipped having to tread the corporate ladder and leaped into the media spotlight from an inconspicuous initial position as a concept model-builder.
“My initial job was a ‘hard modeler,’ which was to use wood-like plastics to create mock-up models that are realistic to the touch. So, I was working with a chisel and plane,” he said.
Born and raised in Okayama Prefecture, Mukumoto was convinced at a young age he wanted to work for Honda after reading a children’s biographical manga depicting Soichiro Honda, who founded the company after the war and nurtured it into becoming one of the nation’s largest carmakers.
Chance smiled upon the self-described car enthusiast in 2010 when he still felt he “had a lot of catching up to do” with experienced colleagues in modeling skills. That year, he won an in-house competition that invited all ranks to submit ideas for a new car. His quirky concept of a yurusupo, or yurui (laid-back) sports car, beat some 400 rival submissions, including from experienced engineers.
Using the Japanese word meaning “not tight” or “slack” — and presumably aiming to borrow from the popularity of Kumamon and other yuru-kyara regional mascots — Mukumoto portrayed in his submission a sports car that allows the driver to relax and enjoy the feel of driving, the antitheses of cars aimed strictly at drivers intent on negotiating curves at high speeds.
When the company assembled a car based on his concept as a prize, it caught the eye of then-CEO Takanobu Ito, who put it into mass production.
In March 2011, a development team was formed with 15 members, each responsible for a specific area of work, and at 22 Mukumoto was assigned to lead them, becoming the youngest person in the company’s history to take a position craved by Honda engineers.
Mukumoto plays down talk of his skills, denying that he has any particular leadership or engineering genius.
“People talk about me a lot, but I want to note the team itself was unique,” Mukumoto said.
Instead of choosing veterans in engine design, chassis, suspension, body and so on, the company formed the team by advertising in-house for volunteers — “Like, ‘Hey, anyone want to do this?’,” Mukumoto said — assembling a team of highly motivated individuals who happened to be relatively young.
“In terms of enthusiasm, we are not at all inferior to the veterans; well, we may even be superior,” he added.
And they were all unique individuals, too, Mukumoto said, sounding proud of being part of a team with a difference.
“I remember being all jittery when I opened the door” at Honda’s Tochigi Prefecture lab, away from Wako lab in Saitama Prefecture where he had been, to meet the strangers he was to form the team with. “Then I saw some people with really shocking appearances turn their heads toward me. I mean, one had his hair tied like a samurai, another had his hair dyed gold and another was a skin head.
“It was a team of individuals with so much character. So much so that I immediately shut the door, saying, ‘Oops, wrong room,’ ” he chuckled.
According to Mukumoto, the team operated in a democratic and constructive manner, with older, experienced members supporting the novice leader. There was a friendly, positive atmosphere in the team that they now call a “family” where one member’s suggestion would be batted back and forth with ideas coming from unexpected angles, Mukumoto said.
“They were people who knew what they had to do, and it wasn’t like me giving specific instructions. It was like we were forming a circle, so to speak, not like someone leading a team. I guess real leaders aren’t like me, but that’s how we operated.”
“I don’t know what I don’t know, and everybody in the team was like, ‘He doesn’t know’, so they went out of their way and explained what I didn’t know,” Mukumoto admits. “So it was like, working together while being taught.”
As details were worked out on Mukumoto’s concept, his original ideas went through significant changes. His outward design, for example, was discarded and one developed by the Wako lab was adopted. The overall concept itself was reworked from scratch, he said.
But asked what aspects of his ideas remain intact in S660, his answer was firm.
“When you think of roads in Japan, you can never ignore the fact the speed range is low. So what I envisioned was a car that you can enjoy to the maximum within the limitations of Japan’s ordinary roads, and a sports car in the minicar class, which is familiar to us Japanese. These are the concepts I had envisioned,” Mukumoto said.
“And the key was, it’s a car that anyone can enjoy at the wheel,” he continued. “In other words, it’s not a car only experts can enjoy, but a car enjoyable for experts, of course, but also for beginners, and hopefully as many people as possible.”
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