Honda pins enthusiast revival hopes on motorsports engineer

Honda is looking to its engineering side to make its cars more appealing.

While sales of the Honda Civic sedan and coupe seem to be bouncing back after a rough start last summer, the Japanese automaker says that it realizes it lost touch with what was once a dedicated enthusiast base. All hopes of rekindling that passion lie on the automaker's new North American market research and development chief, Erik Berkman, who was plucked from the automaker's IndyCar efforts.

Berkman's team at Honda's motorsports arm was responsible for designing the new-for-2012 turbocharged V6 that has powered half of the race-winning cars so far in the 2012 IndyCar season - including the racing car driven to victory by Dario Franchitti.

Berkman is hardly new to Honda passenger cars - he recently served as the automaker's new VP of logistics and corporate planning - but he is the first American to hold the high-ranking top research and development position.

"I know that there is a particularly high expectation for Honda to get back that magic it had at one time," Berkman told Bloomberg at Honda's Raymond, Ohio, research and development center. "What are we going to do, complain that expectations are too high for us? That we want low expectations? That's not right."

Bloomberg points out that Berkman's task of upgrading the automaker's current products while still keeping them profitable won't be easy. Honda is the only major automaker to have never posted an annual loss, even through the recent recession and even despite generally negative reviews for many of the company's recent products.

Berkman's first task will be to turn around the Civic, which is selling well but was derided by critics. A refreshed Civic is set to be unveiled ahead of this fall's auto show season and Berkman says it will bring with it a few "tweaks" including upgraded interior materials and revised driving dynamics.

"If we do that [improve the Civic], we'll knock off one more criticism," Berkman said, acknowledging the generally negative reviews the 2012 Civic has seen.

Thirty-year Honda veteran Berkman succeeded Hiroshi Takemura, who was sent back to Japan to take over the deputy director of automobile operations after the Civic got off to a rough start last year.

In Berkman's years with Honda, his most controversial product was also his most heavily-praised. As the development lead on the 2004 Acura TL, Berkman took Honda in a new direction with more distinctive styling and premium items like Brembo brakes.

"It was so controversial, it almost didn't happen," Berkman said. "It was too much for some people."

But Berkman's sedan was a hit, selling 70,000 units in 2004 to become the best-selling luxury sedan on the market. That TL is widely credited with shaping Acura into a genuine luxury brand, a position the automaker has nearly lost thanks to a number of questionable products over the last few years.