Waku Waku?

Sadly not, just a perished rubber seal…

Image: The author.

Now that my company’s premises have finally moved (after 27 years of failed attempts…) memories swiftly return to the family run garage, directly across from the old plot. Dealing mainly in the average, everyday eurobox, pleasant surprises could often appear, sitting forlornly outside, awaiting attention.

The last such surprise before the move was no less than a Honda Stepwgn Spada – sadly not a misprint, but Honda’s way of saying Step Wagon. As for Spada, well, what were they imbibing in Hiroshima? Had swords been this slab-sided, the weapon would have an altogether different history. But drop your nomenclature concerns and seek further depth!

The example witnessed by your author was a third-generation model from 2010, imported into the UK just two years ago. The friendly mechanics informed me of the reason for this Sword’s presence – a fuel pump failure. The local customer explained how, as one might expect, the car was pristine on arrival. Developing the fault, he limped the Sword to the garage and parked up. Problem sourced, the new part was then ordered from Japan (no exact date of arrival). 

Having since moved away, the outcome remains unknown but my interest was nevertheless piqued. First revealed at the 1995 Tokyo motor show, Honda gave this Civic based, cab-over engine minivan the uninspiring moniker of FM-X. Brought to the JDM market the following year with its new name and lasting four before facelifts, options were as sparse as the car itself; a solitary 2.0 litre, 125bhp, four-cylinder B-series petrol mated to a four-speed CVT.

Measuring 4,705mm long, 1,695mm wide and 1,815mm high, the 2,855mm wheelbase held the car’s 1,400 kilogram weight. Conventionally opening front driver and passenger doors, the rear travellers made do with a passenger side only sliding door making for a six window DLO. The rear door hinged upwards, making for a fine shelter should it rain on your picnic. A mild facelift for ‘99 gave way to the second generation in April 2001.

Unchanged dimensionally, major changes were found both inside and regarding powertrains. Now utilising K-series mills of either 2.0 litre 160 PS or a 2.4 litre 162 PS flavour, these were seen at improving on the original’s somewhat lacklustre forward motion. That larger engine also came with a five-speed box.

If the first Wgn comprised just seating, the cabin space now became themed around the family. Play Mode for sitting opposite with interaction, and Food Mode with easily made tables. The latter two being practically the same – Sleep and Cargo Modes. 2003 saw another Wgn facelift as it introduced the Spada name as model line. Popularity gained momentum with 24,000 sold in the first six months of 2004 whereas the third generation arrived in May 2005.

Maintaining the wheelbase and weight, a trend buck occurred as this version became shorter and lower. The Wgn sported powered sliding doors on both sides, which compared with fellow homegrown rivals. Those sides now possessed a tapering diagonal slash, breaking up the plainness of its predecessor which also introduced the eight-side DLO. Spadas now had their own unique front end.

Powering the fourth, 2009 generation of the Wgn was the R-series, a 2.0-litre, 150 PS engine only available with the five speed CVT[1]. A complete redesign saw the Wgn grow to a length of 4,690mm with height another 50mm. Those diagonals deleted for a recess following the sliding doors. Three years on the facelift brought with it some new wheel rims, rear parking camera and front end highlights. 

Image: The author.

The fifth Wgn arrived April 2015 heralding yet more awkward naming. In attempts to lure yet more families into Stepwgn use and ownership, Honda introduced an asymmetric door to the rear. Named Waku Waku gate (Japanese for exciting), this 60/40 split door came with three opening angles to allow either in and egress in those perennially tight parking spaces or the ability to toss in the school bags or shopping  without unlocking the whole car. The third row of pews could magically disappear into the floor space. Wiggling hips and stooping, one could then attempt the fabled Waku Waku, the rear glass aping the Land Rover Discovery’s angle of incidence.

Those sides now offered a minimal wheel arch blister whilst keeping the eight windows. Wheelbase measured 2,890mm with a length of 4,690mm for standard models, Spadas gaining an extra 50mm. The engine line-up comprised a 1.5 or 2-litre hybrid, with middle aged spread tottering the scales around 1,700kgs. Two years later, the facelift heightened the Wgn’s aggression for its DRG; more chrome and the featured car positing a (possibly aftermarket) chromed license plate area.

Honda had given the Wgn an odd air of entitlement by fusing beauty and utility, “often found in the Northern European design stable” with Beautility Living. This insipid blunder apparently included relaxing shapes, colours and materials, visibly comfy seating along with “casual and smart” storage areas. Honda also revealed the standard Wgn was designed from the Waku Waku forward with its Spada brethren from its bling grille, backward.

But that exciting gate had been expensive to design and build and its weight put paid to future plans. Thus, the new for ‘22 Stepwgn became more upright, boxy even. Keeping the eight lights, this almost Minecraft-esque looking vehicle appears a 21st century version of the original. Laced with usual forms of technology, the model lines are named Air, Spada and Spada Premium Line. The plain Jane yet powered tailgate itself now sensitive to opening angles. 

Image: The author.

Also sensitive being Honda, losing ground to rivals over recent times, the admittedly novel Waku Waku gate clearly not enticing enough choosers into the buying channels. And aside from those brave, or possibly foolish importers we may not know the fate of this or any future incarnations. 

Returning to the old premises a few weeks later to collect forgotten items, the Stepwgn remained, no fuel pump had yet arrived, hampering this Sword being released from the garage scabbard.

Data Sources: Motor1.com, Honda Global

[1] Internet rumours abound of this set-up’s underpowered nature; poor fuel economy, woeful acceleration along with poor quality materials both inside and out as well as uncomfortable seating. This hardly puts a positive case forward as a family moving machine.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

19 thoughts on “Waku Waku?”

  1. I do adore these articles about vehicles that are lesser known to us in the West. As a family that has long owned an RL3 North American Odyssey, it is interesting to consider that this would be the equivalent in Japan to fit the smaller size and speed requirements needed there, to speak nothing of the larger LaGreat and Elysion models that were too large and thirsty for the JDM. I have to say, though, reading the generous description you provide of each generation leaves the mind wandering without some visual aid! I understand the trickiness of sourcing web images in regards to fair usage, so hopefully as a commentariat I can provide a few Google Images for our viewing pleasure:

    Firstly, a helpful diagram from Honda showing generations 1-4 (4 as the subject captured above)

    Then gen 5 with the (in)famous Waku-waku gate!

    Cute, but practical? Hard to say.

    Finally, the latest gen. It is almost entirely a reinterpretation of the first model, right down to the full-height rear taillights. I really do enjoy these 80s-esque wheels that appear on the Air base model.

    It may be a bit uninspired, but I do commend Honda on revisiting its past with these cleaner, even ‘retro’ designs as they are a breath of fresh ‘Air’ after the really vile and overstyled Civics and CR-Vs that we have been dealt over the last decade.

    1. Thanks for those images. The re-working of the final model recalls Suzuki´s latest Jimny. It´s retro but not as we know it from the late 00s. I congratulate Honda for the user-friendliness of the designs. The photo showing the rear tailgate opening only partially plus the sliding door gets across the utility/usefulness concept. I would imagine it´s a really handy kind of car. For anyone pining for the robust usefulness of a Volvo 240 or 740 this might be the answer. Volvo´s are exceptionally good cars but they´ve become way too nice to be used for more than parking on photoshopped driveways of Malibu mansions or architectural statements (along with a lot of other cars, note). The same problem applies to the latest Kangoos – too heavy and bulky. The test of a car like this is if it feels happy thrashing over bad country roads and slamming into muddy potholes.

    2. I do think it’s simply a matter of moving goalposts for the ‘retro’ movement; where the 2000s were all about reviving the ’50s and maybe early ’60s, now it is much more the late ’70s to the early ’90s (like Renault’s new EV 5, et al). I enjoy the idea of the Waku waku gate but wonder how practical it really is since I assume the third row is still forward facing, so unless it maintains an aisle configuration I do not really see how it would be a true access point. I can attest to the extremely convenient nature of dual powered sliding doors, though.

      I do see how the latest generation of vehicles from most manufacturers verges on the ‘flashy but fragile’ side of things. I daily a 2012 XC70 (a relatively recent Volvo, though already a decade old) I find it to be a hugely robust and chunky thing that I have no issue with bashing over dirt roads and towing heavy loads, but it certainly has lost a bit of that airiness and squareness of the 740s of yore. I do hope for excellent longevity, though, as the Bridgend six has a relatively good reputation for reliability (if deeply thirsty) and there’s nothing I really see as a fit replacement for my current stage in life.

      I have to wonder if the CUV movement is a response of sorts to the reduction of practicality of the modern car. Where even base E30s offered relatively comfy suspension and decent ground clearance, the latest 3 series has rock-hard springs and scrapes on speed bumps, so it’s perhaps no wonder that especially Americans gravitate toward something less fragile and prone to damage. There is also the issue of model bloat making cars more laborious to maneuver in general with loads of expensive sensors to destroy in a light scrape, though safety regs see to it that those are mandatory these days.

  2. Good morning Andrew. Like Alexander, I enjoy reading about vehicles such as these, ones that we in the West might regard as oddities, yet are perfectly practical and sensible in the context of Japan’s crowded urban environments. The latest iteration is a pleasingly chunky and robust looking thing, although I could do without the white highlights. I would choose this Spada variant:

    Sadly, the ‘Waku Waku’ tailgate is no more, replaced by a (no doubt cheaper) conventional top-hinged single-piece door. Not being someone who finds tailgates especially exciting, I won’t mourn it too much!

  3. Do you guys get access to the forward control vans and trucks from Japan? In these vehicles the driver sits right over the front wheel and its associated suspension assembly with the engine placed slightly behind him and on the mid-line of the vehicle. They are a different driving experience from anything else featuring a good view of the road ahead, a slightly odd ride (which is there for a reason I could elaborate on if anyone is interested enough to ask) and a strange articulated steering shaft set up complete with bevel box. So, have you driven them? What did you think?

    1. We did get quite a lot of the forward control vans in the seventies and eighties – the Toyota Hiace, indeed, was pretty much the default small business van in my neck of the woods, Ireland, at one point. Never drove one, but used to go to school on a Hiaces or a Nissan Urvan sometimes when the bigger minibus was needed elsewhere by the owner. In so far as I ever thought about the ride I suppose it was a little different, but I think I wrote it off to the weight’s being distributed differently about the vehicle. The vans faded out once the Citroën Berlingo and its clones arrived to provide a driving and load experience more suited to European conditions. The light forward control trucks, however, are still popular, especially with local authorities who need small and manoeuvrable flatbed and tippers.

    2. In the 1980s, I drove a number of Hiaces, primarily minibuses, as the company I worked for at the time also ran a car rental business. I enjoyed driving them. They did have a pleasant loping gait and the column gearchange was very precise. By far the most memorable Hiace experience I had was driving a Hiace minibus from Christchurch New Zealand to Queenstown, circa 1997 – not because it was particularly eventful, but because it was from Christchurch to Queenstown. In New Zealand…

    3. These things don’t come to Europe any more do they? Presumably because of the proximity of the driver to any collision that might occur. British commercials used to be like this – I remember a 500+ mile drive in a forward control Commer van in the 70s, and you can get used to it…

    4. The demise of forward control light vans is undoubtedly down to safety legislation and probably unintended consequences. It is now seemingly universally accepted that if you drive a vehicle you will be involved in a collision and therefore your vehicle must be built in such a way that you walk away uninjured. And human nature being what it is, avoiding collisions in the first place now plays second fiddle to infotainment and behaving like a prat because it doesn’t matter anymore…..

      Driving forward control vans like the Commer Mervyn mentions concentrated the mind wonderfully as it was very obvious that any collision would likely result in serious injury. All the techniques of defensive driving were employed; leaving yourself enough stopping space ahead, being ready to take evasive action to avoid the idiot heading straight for you, etc., etc. As for the vans themselves, the ride qualities of all when empty were atrocious. The BMC J2 was probably the worst with narrow front track and softly sprung – a seriously unstable machine. The J4 was marginally better. Almost as bad was the Standard Atlas – but that was so underpowered that it didn’t matter so much. But the whole point of such devices was not to give the driver a good time, it was to cram as much load space into the vehicle footprint as possible – which is why the Transit was initially considered to be a retrograde step by managers but instantly loved by drivers!

  4. Thanks Andrew. Strangely, the Wikipedia page on Ercole Spada doesn’t mention these Hondas…

    I rather like the most recent iteration as well, although the type of vehicle isn’t my cup of tea. I wouldn’t have thought the exciting doors hinged in the middle, I was more imagining a conventional side-hinging set up. Not a builder’s van then.

    Thankfully Honda has stopped paying their designers per line drawn (or whatever scheme they had, maybe something in the coffee) so their designs are calming down. The newest Civic is a nice car, though maybe a bit derivative. Better than a driving Gundam suit though.

  5. Good afternoon, Andrew. I like to spot cars that are rare in my neck of the woods, even though they may be regular sights elsewhere. Here’s a 2006 Odyssey I spotted two years ago. Haven’t seen it before or since.

    1. Hah! There’s our family wagon, right down to the spec and color! Back when Hondas were robust and simple, if a little dull looking.

    2. Seriously? What are the chances of that happening? This is the only Oddyssey I’ve seen in the metal here in the Netherlands. This particular example comes from Canada and was registered here in 2008, so it spend only two years there.

    3. Indeed. I find it crazy how Europeans can import whatever they like whereas we’re subject to the ’25 years or older’ law, but I’d imagine tax/fuel for the 3.5 V6 would be a nightmare over there!

  6. Another fascinating aryicje Andrew, thank you. Nope, never seen one, but I do like the Waku Waku tailgate. I can understand though why it was dropped for the following model.

  7. They may be uncommon choices these days, but the Isuzu Grafter and Fuso Canter are still available in the UK as 3.5tonne light trucks, so can be driven on a standard car licence. Both are available as tippers or as a bare chassis-cab and with a choice of wheelbases (and width for the Canter), as well as having automatic or manual options, and power-take-off on some versions.

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