What Drives Her: Lara Harrington, Honda US Chief Engineer is Focused on What You Want in a Car

Lara Harrington Honda

This is why you love Honda SUVs.

By LeeAnn Radonski

As Lara Harrington looked out over her graduating class at Ohio State University, one thing was clear: out of the 100 Aeronautical Engineers who just received their diplomas, she saw only three women. Did she feel out of place?
“No,” she confidently answers, “I grew up working with my engineer dad, always busy having so much fun, I never really noticed the lack of other women in the field.”

Lara may have developed a love of engineering early on from her father, but she chose aeronautical engineering because she wanted to be part of making cars more fuel efficient through improved aerodynamics. It was soon to be her lifelong career.

From Airplanes to Station Wagons to Pilots

Her first job immediately out of college was at the world’s largest aerospace company, Boeing, near Seattle, Washington. While working on aircraft was a seemingly-perfect fit for an aeronautical engineer, it wasn’t her passion.

“I really enjoyed my job there, but I wasn’t passionate about it,” she says. “I wanted to get back East; I wanted to work on cars.”

And that’s exactly what she did; she went back East and got a job at Honda. Since her first day there over 27 years ago, she has served as a designer on the 1994 Honda Accord station wagon, the Honda Pilots, and recently, the newly-reintroduced 2019 Honda Passport.

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Lara Harrington Honda

Lara Harrington, Honda research and development engineer talks about her new baby, the Honda Passport. Photo: Honda

Listening to the Customer For Honda’s Next Steps

“Decisions are easier if you always take it back to the Target Customer,” Lara said. This is what lead Honda to understand something important about their line of popular SUVs: There was a hole in the SUV lineup. “When we set out to design the Passport,” Lara said, “we were filling a void that we had in the lineup.” Honda’s line included the 3-row full-size Pilot, the compact CR-V and city-sized HR-V crossover.

“Before the Passport, we did not have a five-passenger mid-size SUV” to compete against the Jeep Cherokee, Nissan Murano, Mazda CX-5 and the Chevrolet Equinox. “And we were losing customers over it. They wanted something more personal. Something more about them and their life experience.”

But how did she know exactly what customers expectations were?

“We began by talking to them. We talked to customers who would walk into the dealership and leave without the Honda Pilot because it was a big, eight-passenger vehicle for a family or the people who were rejecting the CR-V because they didn’t think it was big and rugged enough.”

Her team also brought their own life experiences into the mix, taking excursions to get away and brainstorm ways to really build a vehicle that fit the needs of the customer.

“We were constantly asking ourselves, is this something that would benefit that particular customer? I think decisions become pretty obvious if you always take it back to the target customer.”

Listening to the Customer Results in A Gorgeous SUV for Work and For Play

The result, Lara says, was a vehicle that someone would be very proud of taking out on date night or taking their boss out to lunch. This was achieved by really focusing on the premium appeal of the interior.

“I think you make the focus all about the customer; it’s a conversation that everyone can get around. Passion is something that is contagious.”

Lara Harrington on Leading an Engineering Team of Mostly Men:

Now that they knew something different was needed, Lara set out to lead a team of more than 100 talented engineers with the primary goal of exceeding customer expectations. How many of these engineers were men?

Lara assures us that Honda is a company that is diverse in regards to its workforce. “Honda is a company that continues to make strides in that area. Ensuring that we have a diverse workforce is very important in order to have different viewpoints as we’re developing a product.”

Related: What Drives Her: How Margery Krevsky Dosey Changed The Auto Biz Forever

Lara Harrington Honda

Lara Harrington, center, with her team as they work on the new Honda Passport. Photo: Honda

Balancing Motherhood with a Challenging – and Rewarding – Career

While she clearly excels as a chief engineer at Honda, how does she still find time to be a wife and proud mother to a successful 23-year-old daughter? First of all, a strong support system is key, she says. “I will say that, particularly when my daughter was young, it was a challenge to balance this variable working environment with being a consistent mother, but I was able to do that by having a very strong support network.”

Specifically, her police officer husband would step up to cover when Lara needed to work late. Also, there to help were her parents, who lived nearby. And she gives a lot of credit to her daughter, who is now in graduate school.

“My daughter is just a great kid. I never had to worry about her studying, because she would always come home and study. I know my daughter is proud of what I do, I know that she is proud of my work at Honda.”

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What’s Next for Lara? More SUVs? Designing a Race Car?

“I can’t wait to hear what I’m going to be doing next,” she grins as she recounts the accomplishments with the Passport. “I really have no idea what it is and I can’t wait to see what’s coming up next.”

One thing she is very sure about, though: she will be trading in her current daily driver, the Acura RDX, for the new Honda Passport.

What Drives Lara Harrington, Chief Engineer Of Research And Development For Honda Us? The Customer. She'S Focused On Building The Suvs You Want To Drive