DETROIT – One of the most ready-for-market concept cars at the 2013 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, which kicked off Monday, is the so-called urban utility vehicle from Japan's Honda Motor Co Ltd (TYO:7267).
Somewhere between a small SUV and the Honda Fit minicompact, the five-passenger vehicle with the strange and somewhat awkward profile is on the one hand aimed at a cluster of Honda buyers that the automaker doesn't often attempt to reach: people with extremely modern design sensibilities.
And at the same time, this just-unveiled preemie is an important element in a longer-term strategy for the automaker to target more and more smaller, efficient vehicles to what the company calls “active, lifestyle customers living in the city."
What was shown today is likely to be more or less the automobile that will begin production some time next year at a nearly completed Honda factory in Mexico. More than likely, the first of these new cars will roll off the assembly line in second quarter, 2014.
“When you look at the tires and wheels on the Urban Concept, it seems closer to production than the other concept cars. The proportions seem realistic. Sometimes concept vehicles have very strange proportions – like a big lower body and a tiny upper body,” said Larry Dominique, president of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based auto industry analytic firm ALG. “But that vehicle seems to have the right proportions, so I think it lends a lot of insight into what the production vehicle is going to look like.”
Apart from the darkly tinted glass blocking out what probably is an interior still in the works, the vehicle looked ready to be driven out of downtown Detroit's Cobo Center, where the massive auto show is taking place through Jan. 27.
With a sleek body, overscaled curves and futuristic LED lights, critics will either hail it as the next thing in innovative car design or they'll hit it with the same types of criticisms delivered by many to Nissan's Juke mini crossover: a statement one step too bold for many scrupulous car buyers over 25.
But Honda President and CEO Takanobu Ito told a packed crowd of journalists that the car is a glimpse into his company's future.
"We believe there is good market potential for this vehicle," said the company's chief.
The Mexican plant where this urban utility vehicle will eventually be manufactured for the North American market is an $800 million facility that Honda is almost ready to debut in Guanajuato state, the automaker's first plant in the country. Current plans call for the Honda Fit, a five-door subcompact hatchbook, to be made at the new factory. Honda says that 90 percent of its vehicles sold in North America are currently manufactured on the continent and the Mexican plant will increase that figure by another 5 percentage points.
Honda's U.S. sales jumped 24 percent in 2012 compared to the year before on the back of its popular Accord, Civic, and CR-V; the latter broke an all-time record exceeding 281,000 units, a 29 percent increase from 2011. This year looks equally promising for the 64-year-old Japanese company, the first to make cars in the U.S., with the newly designed 2013 Honda Accord and Civic models.
The company has yet to release its 2013 sales estimates.