Behind the curtain at Honda

2011_honda_odyssey.top.jpg By Alex Taylor III, senior editor-at-large


FORTUNE -- When a new car is unveiled to the public, the thousands of decisions that went into its conception often get lost in the hullabaloo -- along with the identities of the people who made them.

These are the experts who decide what the car should look like, what features it should have, and how many will be sold and at what price -- and do it three or four years before it reaches the market. As part of the process, they've studied the competition, vetted parts suppliers, and learned what makes their customers tick -- and then made some educated guesses.

They are the product planners, and their job today is more difficult than ever. The market is crowded and competitive, product segments are being redefined, and the choices they have to make have expanded exponentially.

With the omnipresence of the Internet, planners operate in a fishbowl. Back in the day, planners didn't know whether they had succeeded or failed until sales reports returned from the field. Now, they get instant feedback from an army of analysts and observers, both qualified and less so.

Case in point: the 2011 Honda (HMC) Odyssey. Revealed to the press in mid-September, it has already generated hundreds of lines of comment and dozens of blog posts before it goes on sale at the end of the month.

While the vast majority of comments are positive, there are enough complaints about the pricing, the availability of options, and the interior packaging to make a planner cringe.

But most of the criticism has focused on an element of the car that is fundamental to its success: its design. "2011 Honda Odyssey pricier, fancier - uglier?" read the headline in USA Today. You could all but hear the planners quickly recalculating their forecasts for sales volume and transaction prices.

Planning a new minivan is especially problematic. For one thing, there are more features and options to juggle than in an ordinary family car. For another, planners have to nudge the vehicle away from the dreaded "soccer mom" associations without selling short the utility and safety that makes minivans attractive to young families.

When examining their options for this fourth-generation Odyssey, Honda planners thought they detected a cultural shift that would broaden its appeal. Generation X and Y members, they believed, were more open to the minivan's workaday functionality than their Baby Boomer parents.

"Quantity time" was more important to them than "quality time." So Honda tried to devise a vehicle that people would want to spend a lot of time in. That meant creating a package that would appeal to a driver's emotions as well as needs, and have a lot of features as well.

The new Odyssey has a lower and wider stance that gives it a bit more pizzazz. But that hardly gets noticed amid the attention focused on the "lightning bolt" belt-line on the exterior sheet metal that zigs when it reaches the third row of seats. The feature isn't unique and it actually provides a bit more visibility for passengers, yet critics have been unsparing.

One critic wrote, "The minivan looks like it was broken in two just aft of the rear wheels and then received a transplant from a wholly different vehicle."

But styling is a subjective matter and radical designs wear better as they become more familiar.

Fitting out a minivan for "quantity time" was like filling a Christmas stocking. Planners loaded up the Odyssey with features like a flip-up trash bag ring, cool box for drinks, storage compartments for various items and no fewer than 15 holders for cups and bottles.

The Odyssey also bristles with electronics options, such as a disc drive-based audio system that holds 175 CDs, a blind spot detection device, and the piece de resistance: a 16.2-inch display screen for rear seat passengers that can simultaneously show two different sources of programming, like a video game and a movie, side-by-side.

All of this required tradeoffs along the way. Since there were limits to the size and weight of the vehicle, each added feature had to be balanced by something else.

Creating four inches of width in the second row for the middle-seat passenger, for instance, meant widening the Odyssey and losing arm rests on the outboard seats. But the planners decided not to make the sliding door track less visible by burying it beneath the window because that would have required moving the door motor.

And they determined that they would not offer all-wheel-drive because it would have added weight and cost would, and it would only appeal to 5-7% of potential buyers.

Also left on the cutting room floor: keyless start, adaptive cruise control, and the option for a four-cylinder engine.

Packaging all of these options in a way that made sense to customers as well as the factory where the vans are assembled was the next challenge. So Honda sorted them into seven trim levels, from LX, starting at $28,580, to the $44,030 Touring Elite -- and then had to figure out what percentage of overall sales each one will get so the right number of parts could be ordered.

Planners expect the minivan segment to grow by approximately 13% and for the Odyssey to ring up sales of 110,000 vehicles annually. That's down from the peak sales year of 177,919. But this is the new normal, and if Odyssey hits that target, it will be a very important sign that planners have done their job right. To top of page