If timing is important to success in the auto industry, Honda is right in step.
In 1973, sensing a huge untapped market for a super-small, high-mileage car in the United States, the Japanese carmaker filled it with the Civic. The car caught on - and the company was on its way. Later, it introduced the 2-door Accord, then the high-sport Prelude and 4-door Accord. Finally, two years ago it revamped the Civic, 13 percent larger inside but a sliver of an inch shorter than the car it replaced.
All the time the carmaker kept its eye on the gas gauge and, for 1982, came out with the even more gas-stingy Civic FE (fuel economy).
To prove its point, last fall four Honda Civic 1300 FE cars were driven round trip coast to coast, with two taking a Los Angeles-New York route and two a road from Los Angeles to Miami - remember, both ways.
When it was all over, the two teams came up with a combined average of 56.121 miles per gallon, according to the United States Auto Club, whose drivers made the run. This was more than a mile above the Environmental Protection Agency figure of 55 for the car. The teams averaged 49.93 miles an hour on the 14-day trip, and on one leg, the Los Angeles-Miami driver chalked up a one-day record of more than 69 m.p.g., although he admits it was generally downhill with a wind on his tail.
Well, I couldn't duplicate any of those figures myself on a recent test of the 1982 Honda 1300 FE. However, I was able to get an honest 46 m.p.g. on four round trips to Connecticut; and on a few days' commute to the office, I chalked up a figure of 40 to 41.
Easily, the Honda Civic FE is a super-high-mileage car, not as good as some of the diesels, perhaps, but highly competitive on gasoline nonetheless.
The Honda people in Japan have been on the right track all along. The first Civic was a small, intelligently designed, high-quality car which sold and sold and sold. Mileage was incredibly high and the price was right.
Showing its grasp on innovative engineering, Honda finally put a catalytic converter on its cars only a couple of years ago to meet the standards for clean air. Its CVCC (compound vortex controlled combustion) system up to then had done the job by itself and used regular-grade leaded gasoline to boot.
Again, showing its quick response to a challenge, when the Civic came up wanting in a federal government crash test of 1980-model cars, the company modified the car and put it through the tests once again. As a result, the Civic was one of only three models listed as having met the 30 m.p.h. injury criteria at 35 m.p.h. for both driver and front seat passenger.
These results, according to a US official, show that ''relatively minor improvements can significantly affect the test results.''
Besides achieving a high score on economy and safety of the product, the Japanese carmaker is also moving ahead in futuristic vehicle control. It has put the conventional road map to flight by developing a system in which a blip of light, scanning a TV screen on the dashboard of a car, shows the driver exactly where the car is at any given time.
The so-called electronic gyrocator uses sophisticated guidance technology, the kind used in jet aircraft and on Polaris missile submarines, according to Nubuhiko Kawamoto, vice-president of Honda Research and Development Company Ltd. , a division of the carmaker.
Already on sale in Japan, the system is designed ''to give information so as to help the driver reach his destination,'' according to Mr. Kawamoto.
Transparent overlay maps are slipped into the bottom of the unit and the image is projected onto the screen, he explains. The scale can be changed depending on the length of a trip.
The new Honda Civic FE has a 1,300-cc engine, 5-speed manual transmission, steel-belted radial tires, and tachometer. The ride is surprisingly smooth for a car of this size and the handling sure and, best of all, predictable.
The company ran into flak over rust a few years ago, a hard lesson to many carmakers at the time. Far better antirust protection is the result.
How well Honda will do in the future is anybody's guess. With tougher competition from Detroit, as well as an aggressive influx of new imports, the Honda people will have to fight harder for every car they sell.
But if past performance is any indication of the caliber of driver at the wheel, it'll make it -- and then some.