For over two decades, Honda Cars Philippines\' facility in Santa Rosa, Laguna, has been manufacturing affordable and high-quality automobiles. From the legendary EG Civic to the newest GM City, all units produced at this plant have been assembled with the greatest of care. I\'ve always felt that the Philippine-made cars have had an edge over other Hondas made outside Japan. Maybe it\'s that extra attention to detail that our countrymen put into their work, but it has always been a point of pride for me, despite not being a flag-waving cheerleader for the \"Proudly Philippine-made\" set.
Recently, we were invited to tour the facility to see for ourselves what went into making the Honda City, in particular, the new EL and ENC variants. The HCPI facility has the capacity to build 15,000 City sedans a year, with a separate sub-assembly line ready for other products. While it doesn\'t run at full capacity, they have so far produced over 70,000 City units since 1996. And production has been steadily growing with the introduction of the new \"GM\" generation.
Currently, production runs at about 30 cars a day with a single shift. The shells glide around hanging from overhead conveyors, clothed in rubber fender protectors to prevent damage to the bodywork. While panels are imported from Thailand, the body shell, the crash structure and the sub-assemblies are all put together and welded on-site. Workers then meticulously check the straightness of the body and smoothness of the panels before the comprehensive five-dip corrosion treatment and painting. Rusting fenders on Hondas? A thing of the past.
Engines and transmissions are also assembled on-site. If you believe girls don\'t know how to wrench, the piston assemblies on your City would like to disagree with you. After assembly, engines are tested for defects before going out to the final assembly line.
It\'s here that everything comes together. Everything from the revolutionary mid-chassis fuel tanks to the equally revolutionary ULT seats are stacked in bins waiting to go into the car. After every panel is fitted, every wire is tucked and every bolt is tightened, the cars go on to quality checking.
If you\'re the kind who believes in turtle-slow break-ins, you\'re in for a shock. Even before the car has left the factory grounds, it has been revved to kingdom come, the brakes slammed, the door seals blasted with 20psi of water, and the suspension subjected to a zip around a track best described as \"farm-road level.\" All of these are done in the name of quality control.
Building a car entails waste, but HCPI prides itself on its eco-consciousness. Styrofoam packing is recycled on-site, while other solids are \"carbonized\" in a \"Universal Carbonizer.\" Waste water is processed and reused at the on-site fishpond before being released back to the environment. This fishpond and its thriving denizens represent HCPI\'s guarantee that their waste treatment system is effective.
While the HCPI plant used to produce the Civic, the extra lines now lay idle. Under-utilization is a malaise affecting our entire auto-manufacturing industry. Despite claims by some that our high wages are to blame, HCPI\'s Japanese management points out that wages in Thailand and Indonesia are increasing, minimizing that difference.
Instead, the real problem is volume and economies of scale. Thailand and Indonesia are million-units-a-year markets. The Philippines is stuck just past the 200,000-unit level. Here, even the strong-selling City doesn\'t shift enough units to fully utilize the plant\'s full capacity.
One further handicap is that the Philippines is one of the rare left-hand-drive markets in the ASEAN region. Exporting to Korea, China and Japan is out of the question, due to their robust manufacturing sectors. HCPI has only ever exported the City to Laos, and that was in very small numbers. Without export, economies of scale are questionable at best, impossible at worst.
But HCPI sees the current car-market surge continuing for the next 10 years or so. Would they consider expanding production, then? Volume-selling entry-level cars like the Brio are currently not in the cards, and there is little priority to develop a left-hand-drive variant just for the Philippines. Too bad.
In the meantime, Honda gives us new City variants instead. While the sexy 16-inch wheels and the eye-catching Sparkling Brown paint are nice, the inclusion of Isofix latch anchors for child seats and vehicle stability control make it one of the few truly five-star cars in the new ASEAN NCAP. Though cars can achieve five stars without VSA, the last star is struck off in its absence.
The Thai-made Jazz does not have these additions yet. If you need a reason in choosing between the Jazz and the City, that\'s as good a reason as any. Then again, maybe a better reason to patronize the City is to persuade the manufacturers that building in the Philippines still makes sense. Nobody\'s going to invest in more chickens unless people buy the eggs.
Photos from HCPI and Niky Tamayo