Birmingham, AL We are the champions! wailed Freddie Mercury from two heavily taxed stereo speakers. The man in control of the audio system was Yutaka Fujiwara. His audience: a mixed bag of journalists and Honda personnel lounging in the Honda hospitality suite, at the end of a long day. In between gulping mouthfuls of Really Expensive Sake, Mr. Fujiwara was stationed next to the entertainment center, leafing through a small collection of CDs, feeding them into the needlessly complicated CD changer, and punching up whatever tracks seemed appropriate at the moment. When the Queen arena-anthem began dribbling from the pulps of the poor Sony bookshelf stereo system, Fujiwara-san tached the volume up all the way to 11, putting a big exclamation point on the day.
Who can blame the guy for wanting to blow off some steam? After all, Mr. Fujiwara is the LPL (Large Project Leader) for the all-new 2005 Odyssey, so it's understandable if he felt that the weight of the world was finally sliding off of his shoulders. If you're not familiar with Honda-speak, the title LPL means that he is top dog on the project. Head Honcho. Numero Uno. El Capitan, ...well, you get the idea. While working within a very strict set of parameters, he is ultimately accountable for improving one of the most successful designs in Honda's history.
As it turns out, during the dinner that immediately preceded this celebration, I had the pleasure of sitting adjacent to Mr. Fujiwara. As I introduced myself to him, Mr. Fujiwara first said "Oh, Temple of VTEC?" and a subtle smile appeared on his face. For a split second I wondered what he would say next, but was relieved and somewhat gratified when he exclaimed "Very famous!". During the dinner, we discussed a number of things, including his own personal philosophy and goals of the project. While Mr. Fujiwara has been tasked with back to back family-mover projects (the previous project that he led was the Stream), he made it clear that he hopes his next assignment is to be responsible for Honda's "next sportscar". At this point, my ears perked up and I was hoping this discussion might lead to some sort of hint about what's currently going on at Tochigi in that area, but alas, I got nothing. In further discussions, he made it clear that he was very passionate about vehicle dynamics and driving pleasure. While the Odyssey is no sports car, it definitely delivers far more than most would expect from a minivan in terms of both dynamics and driving pleasure, but more on that later.
As for the goals for this project, they were numerous. But ulimately, the marching orders for Fujiwara-san were pretty clearly spelled out: Don't screw up. The current Odyssey design, though (by Japanese model standards) an automotive dinosaur at 6 years, is maintaining a brisk selling pace, right up to the production cutoff. How briskly? May of 2004 was the strongest selling month in history for the Odyssey, and it outsold the brand new 2004 Sienna in May, June, and July of this year as well. And according to the blur of powerpoint slides, it maintains the best demographics in the marketplace. In other words, the current Odyssey boasts the youngest, most educated, and highest earning buyers in the market. So one can hardly fathom the number of Maalox moments that fill a typical day for Mr. Fujiwara. Nevertheless, assuming Honda's able to keep filling the pipeline, their goal of selling 160,000 2005 Odysseys in the first year seems pretty realistic.
In pursuit of attaining these goals, it was (wisely) decided that the new Odyssey should build upon all of the current Odyssey's strengths, while taking it to new levels in terms of style, sophistication, dynamic performance, safety, comfort, and convenience. Easy, huh? Well, Honda often makes it seem that way, but many other automakers can't seem to resist the urge to fix what's not broken.