In March 2017, Honda Manufacturing of Alabama announced plans for a multi-phase project to expand its plant in Lincoln. Improvements involve expansions to two vehicle assembly operation lines and are intended to improve manufacturing flexibility, logistic efficiency and adaptability for future technology. The total investment for the project was $85 million, and construction for the first phase is expected to finish later this year.
“This significant financial investment in our Lincoln facility will enhance Honda’s manufacturing efficiency and flexibility to help us meet strong customer demand for our products and prepare us for future opportunities in our industry, ” says HMA President Jeff Tomko.
The project brings HMA’s capital investments in Alabama to more than $750 million in the last seven years. In that time, Honda has expanded its Lincoln team by 450 employees. According to a study by the University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Research, Honda’s in-state operations yielded a $6.8 billion economic impact in 2014. Nearly 90 percent of HMA’s 4, 500 employees live in the counties directly surrounding the plant: Calhoun, Etowah, Jefferson, Talladega and St. Clair. The manufacturer’s presence in Alabama also has brought in a host of Tier 1 industry suppliers, accounting for an additional 7, 600 jobs.
The first phase of this project is expected to be complete later this year, but the 3.7 million-square-foot facility already is producing a number of popular models.
Honda’s new Odyssey minivan was revealed last January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and enjoyed a promising reception. “The response to the new Odyssey certainly has exceeded our expectations, ” Tomko says. “This new Odyssey raises the stakes for family-friendly packaging, performance and technology in the minivan segment. In all aspects of its design, the new Odyssey is made to keep every member of the family happy, no matter the seating position, no matter the destination.”
Production of the 2018 Odyssey minivan began in April, with a fanfare of Honda associates as the first model rolled off the line. “The 2018 Odyssey is the fourth generation to be built in Alabama and the second generation of Odyssey to be completely designed and developed in the United States, ” says Tomko. “In reality, this was a project more than five years in the making.”
The original Honda Odyssey debuted in 1994, with more than 2.5 million sold in the U.S. Since then, the Odyssey has seen a host of additions and upgrades reflecting breakthroughs in technology and research.
Kelley Blue Book named the Odyssey its Minivan Best Buy of 2018 and later declared it one of the year’s best family cars. Honda officials say the new Odyssey was developed from the wheels up to accommodate multiple passengers, children and the myriad other needs of a modern family. For example, the Odyssey’s second row seating can be separated via the Magic Slide Seat. A space saver for errands and road trips, the seats can be rearranged to accommodate passengers, as well as groceries, luggage, pet carriers and more.
In pursuit of a more peaceful ride, the 2018 Odyssey features Honda’s newly developed acoustic spray foam, installed throughout the minivan’s body. The 14 points of sound control serve to reduce noise within the cab.
With a downloadable smartphone app called CabinControl, passengers can now remotely control both rear cabin heating and air conditioning and the entertainment system, and can input destinations to the vehicle’s embedded navigation system. The app also allows up to seven passengers to upload their music preferences to the audio system.
An eight-inch touch screen featuring Honda’s proprietary operating system allows passengers to connect with various interior settings, maps and other phone-based tools. Behind the first-row seats, passengers can watch a ceiling-mounted rear entertainment system. The screen can play media via in-vehicle WiFi or phone data, and a trip-tracking app should prevent the recurring question, “Are we there yet?”
The Odyssey’s upgrades feature a 10-speed automatic transmission, an unprecedented feature for a minivan. “For the trim levels of the Odyssey, the new 280-horsepower i-VTEC V6 engine (32-plus horsepower versus the outgoing model) is paired with an all-new 10-speed automatic transmission, the first of its kind for front-wheel-drive vehicles, ” says Tomko.
The new minivan is the latest in a series of redesigns for HMA’s vehicles. “Recently, HMA has updated its product lineup and introduced three all-new models within the last three years, ” says Tomko. Before revealing the new Odyssey, the company released an all-new Pilot in 2015 and a redesigned Ridgeline in 2016.
The latest Pilot hit the market last December, just after Kelley Blue Book dubbed it the Mid-Size SUV Best Buy for 2018. Among its safety features, the Pilot is integrated with Honda Sensing, a package of driver-assistive technologies. The suite includes adaptive cruise control, crash mitigation breaking and systems to keep the vehicle on the road and in the correct lane. Passengers can access Google Maps and other apps through the Android Auto system, using touch and voice control, while iPhone users can access their phone’s features through Apple CarPlay, a voice and touch interface.
The Lincoln plant is the only Honda location that manufactures the Odyssey and Pilot, and is also the home of the Acura MDX and the Ridgeline pickup, which was named 2017 North American Truck of the Year. HMA is Honda’s largest light truck production facility, able to turn out 340, 000 trucks, cars, minivans and engines per year.
The V-6 engines that power each of those vehicles are built exclusively in Lincoln. “In 2015, HMA opened a state-of-the-art engine assembly facility, which is one of the most highly automated engine assembly operations in all of Honda, ” Tomko says.
The company ended 2017 on a high note, reporting a record of 1, 641, 429 U.S. sales for the year across Honda and Acura lines. This is the third consecutive year that Honda has set a new all-time sales record, with a 0.2 percent increase over the previous year. The Alabama-made Pilot saw a 54 percent increase in sales, moving a total of 18, 602 vehicles.
Honda’s forecast for 2018 is just as bright, and the forthcoming increase in production capability will bolster HMA’s contribution to future numbers. “It is exciting for our entire Honda team of 4, 500 associates who have been committed to bringing high tech, family-friendly vehicles to customers, ” says Tomko, “whether they select the Odyssey, the Pilot SUV or the innovative Ridgeline truck, all of which are built right here in Alabama.”
Tom Little is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Birmingham.