Higgins, 57, chairman of the Honda National Dealer Advisory Board, spoke this month with Staff Reporter Vince Bond Jr. about the upcoming Passport, slowing sedan sales and the appeal of the Insight. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: What is the outlook for Honda in 2019?
A: I'm excited about '19. We have high expectations. I'm excited about the new Passport. That opens up a whole new category for us.
Is the Passport something dealers have wanted in that segment for a while?
Every time Honda comes out with an SUV offering, we do well. I don't think this will be an exception. It's a huge market and we haven't had anything in that segment, so I'm excited about that.
How does it feel to be a Honda dealer these days?
Whatever they put out is generally best in segment. I think that'll continue. '18 was a great year and '19 will be even better.
What are some of the Passport's features that will draw consumers to the brand?
It's five passenger, similar in size to a Pilot, but a little bit shorter. Very interesting storage capabilities and off-road capabilities, very stylish and more masculine than we've seen in past offerings. I think it's going to do really well.
What is a good price for the Passport?
I guess it depends on the trim level. Honda always packages their cars above the competitors, and they're always conscious of price. I would anticipate best-in-class and a competitive price.
Will consumers remember the original Passport?
You know, not many. That goes back a ways. I think most buyers won't even be familiar with the old Passport that was the Isuzu Rodeo.
The Accord and Civic were down last year. What can Honda do to deal with lower sedan sales?
Overall, passenger cars were down. It's not a Honda issue. It's an industry issue. Accord actually finished No. 1 in retail in October and November, and they were anticipating a No. 1 finish in December also. The segment itself is down, but the Accord is still doing well within the segment. It's such a great car. It's outstanding. We have a very competitive lease right now. The national lease [on the outgoing 2018 Accord] is $249 with only $1,399 due at signing. They dropped the money down. I think they're more aggressive on the lease side and they'll adjust production to match demand.
Passenger cars are certainly important for Honda. One thing to point out is Honda is all retail. We don't do fleet. That's something important to consider. Other manufacturers have fleet sales, so you're not always comparing apples to apples. I still find Civic as best in class, best in the segment. We do very well with it.
Does Honda need to fill any holes in its lineup?
You can't have too many SUV offerings. It will be nice to add the Passport. That will give us Pilot, Passport, HR-V, CR-V. Pilot did well last year. It was up 25 percent. We were hurt by the HR-V and Fit production in Mexico due to the flood. I think we lost about 45,000 units because of that. The plant shut down.
How many HR-Vs do you have now? Has inventory been low?
The supply has come back up. Most dealers, I think, have sufficient supply on the ground. I just don't know if the manufacturing capacity is at 100 percent yet.
Besides the Passport, is there room for another crossover?
There's always room for additional SUV offerings.
Is the Insight living up to expectations?
We did over 12,000 Insight units over the last half of the year, which allowed Honda to set an EV sales record last year, along with Clarity. I was surprised with how comfortable [the Clarity] was. It feels like a true luxury vehicle on the road. The Insight is very smooth. It feels like it's in between the Civic and Accord. The styling has been very popular. The hybrids aren't always known for their styling. It's hands down the most stylish hybrid out there.
Does Honda do a good job of communicating with its dealers?
I think they communicate well with the dealer body. We have various subcommittees that communicate issues to Honda. Honda communicates back to us. We share that information with our dealer body. We use a newsletter called Dealer Direct, which is an online publication where Honda answers the questions that various subcommittees submit. Then we have the national dealer advisory board. Those meetings are twice a year. We meet with Honda executives to communicate our challenges. It's a very good process.