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Published: Wednesday, 11/1/2006

Off-roading in Jeep influenced area native, Honda head engineer

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Frank Paluch with the 2007 Acura MDX sport-utility vehicle, introduced at U.S. dealerships on his 42nd birthday Frank Paluch with the 2007 Acura MDX sport-utility vehicle, introduced at U.S. dealerships on his 42nd birthday
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RAYMOND, Ohio - Frank Paluch investigated Toledo-area auto parts factories while growing up, admired the descendant of the famed World War II vehicle that had perched atop the former Jeep Parkway plant, and bought a 1985 Jeep CJ-8 Scrambler.

But aerospace engineering is what fascinated the 1982 graduate of suburban Oregon's Cardinal Stritch High School - until a job interview a decade later with Honda Motor Co.'s operations in central Ohio made an impression.

That is when Mr. Paluch traded in a design engineering job with the former McDonnell Douglas Corp. The move meant not only a return to Ohio from California, but also the chance to work on cars instead of relatively impersonal commercial jets.

"All you know is your little seat," said the 1986 Ohio State University graduate. "But everybody has a very personal relationship with their car - and everybody has an opinion about your car."

Fourteen years later, Mr. Paluch estimates he has touched millions of lives with the five models he has worked on, from the Honda Accord V-6 to the Acura MDX, for which he was chief engineer. And now, the recently named vice president of engineering for Honda R&D Americas Inc. near Raymond, Ohio, will oversee all vehicles that Honda designs in North America.

Ironically, it was Mr. Paluch's 1985 Scrambler that helped propel him to chief engineer for the first version of the full-size MDX sport-utility vehicle, which made its debut for the 2001 model year.

His Scrambler, which he keeps as his "fun car," along with an Acura TL and MDX, had given him plenty of off-roading experience.

Although the first-generation MDX was developed as an off-road-capable truck, styling and performance were important for its 2007 successor, Mr. Paluch said. He went off-roading at 13 parks nationwide to help develop the first version,

but the second called for visits to race tracks, especially in Germany, he said.

Dealers last month began selling the redesigned MDX on Mr. Paluch's 42nd birthday after he suggested moving the sale date by a day. The luxury SUV's starting price has remained at $40,000.

"It's a huge improvement on the original," he said last week in an interview with The Blade at Honda's tightly secured 1,000-employee technology center.

Auto analyst Joseph Phillippi agrees. The redesigned MDX has more amenities, is designed to look more like a car without sacrificing interior space, and it will appeal to drivers looking to ditch truck-based SUVs, he said.

"They've taken the vehicle and made it much more carlike," the analyst said. "It's got the three rows of seats but it's car-based, so it gets pretty decent fuel economy."

Improving on its predecessor, the redesigned MDX has a 300-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6 engine that gets 17 miles a gallon in the city and 22 on the highway.

Other upgrades shepherded by Mr. Paluch include technology that detects when fog is about to develop on windows, capability to tow 5,000 pounds, more luxurious leather, and improved audio and video systems.

Listening to customers provides the impetus for some upgrades, he said. Other improvements he has worked into vehicles are inspired by his wife, their three children, and other family members.

His 12-year-old daughter, Jaclyn, loved the Volkswagen Touareg simply because it had heated rear seats, a feature that wound up in the redesigned MDX. When Jaclyn and her sister, 9-year-old Trevor, were younger, ketchup that spattered all over a Dodge Durango prompted the addition in the Honda Pilot of a second-row tray with a special place for fast-food sauce containers.

"I really pushed for that," he recalled.

Mr. Paluch said some advances born in Ohio will be used on Honda vehicles elsewhere, such as the redesigned MDX's active suspension that controls motion by stiffening the front or back as needed.

Unlike other so-called transplant automakers, Honda does research, design, and development for vehicles in North America, including building full-size prototypes.

"This isn't something that's done over in Japan or somewhere," Mr. Paluch said. "This is all done in Ohio."

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at:

jmckinnon@theblade.com

or 419-724-6087.



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