- `More dynamic and sporty than past Civics,' consultant says
- Competitors have improved while Corolla remains stalwart
Honda Motor Co. unveiled the all-new Civic on Wednesday, revealing a sporty car that the company hopes will get its mojo back after a decade of selling a pragmatic compact that has lost ground to rivals.
The company calls the new car “the most radical redesign” of the Civic in its history. Edges chiseled into the side panels are a departure for Honda’s tame design studio. Options will include an Si coupe for younger buyers, a high-performance R-type version for enthusiasts and the most powerful engine in the model’s history. Gadgets like lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control give it semi-autonomous capabilities.
Honda needed to spice up the car. For more than a decade Honda has drifted away from the Civic’s sporty roots as the company tried to take on rival Toyota Motor Corp.’s Corolla by selling a car that was engineered to shave costs and offer a lot of value. Honda hopes that a bolder look and some added horsepower will give its car the edge it once had.
“Every generation of the car rested on the assumption that buyers were blindly loyal and that every competitor was asleep like they were in the ‘80s,” said Eric Noble, president of CarLab, a consulting firm in Orange, California. “This car will be far more dynamic and sporty than past Civics.”
Honda rose 2.9 percent to 3,941 yen at 10:42 a.m. in Tokyo trading. The benchmark Topix index advanced 1 percent.
Even though American car buyers favor crossover sport utility vehicles, the Civic is vital for Honda. The Tokyo-based company sold almost 326,000 of them last year in the U.S. and 613,000 worldwide. In Honda’s lineup, only the Accord family sedan and CR-V sport utility sold more. It is the second-best selling compact in the U.S. after the Corolla.
With more horsepower and Honda’s first-ever turbo engine for the U.S. market, the company thinks it can recapture the swagger that the car once had.
“This Civic returns the car to its iconic, sporty roots,” said John Mendel, executive vice president of sales for American Honda Motor Co. “It is the most ambitious remake of Civic the company has ever done.”
Mendel said the car also will get more than 40 miles (64 kilometers) per gallon of gasoline and as much as 46 mpg depending on which engine is in the car. It will also match rival models from Chevrolet and Hyundai by offering Apple’s Car Play and Google’s Android Auto system to link smartphones into the infotainment system.
“The way it drives, handles and feels, it’s more upscale,” Mendel said. “It will provide a lot of pressure to the rest of the segment because it’s a hell of a nice car.”
The car is completely new from the ground up, Mendel said, with development led by Honda engineers in Ohio. They looked at expensive sporty models from BMW and Audi to get some ideas of what the car needed to generate more excitement. When drivers climb into the Civic, they will be seated as close to the road as if they were in an Audi TT sports coupe, he said. It will also have the most interior space in the compact segment.
The Civic is still one of Honda’s top sellers, but competitors have been creeping up for years. Last year, the Corolla, Chevrolet Cruze and Nissan Sentra all posted big sales gains in the U.S. while Civic sales fell 3 percent.
This year, Civic sales in the U.S. are down 4.2 percent through August for a 10.3 percent share of its segment, according to Autodata Corp., a research firm based in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey. That’s down from 10.4 percent for all of last year and 11.2 percent in 2013.
The car first went on sale in the U.S. as the CVCC in 1971. Its fuel efficiency made the car a cult hit among a generation of Americans who started driving when the Arab oil embargo sent fuel prices soaring in the U.S. Later, the Civic added to its popularity with younger buyers because of its sporty handling and advanced engines.
Honda had been pretty conservative when it comes to styling and needed to step out with the new car to stand apart from the likes of Toyota and Hyundai, Mendel said.
“The car targets younger buyers, whom Honda’s competitors are also trying hard to lure with models such as Corolla and Elantra” from Hyundai, said Yoshiaki Kawano, a Tokyo-based analyst at IHS Automotive. “The competition has definitely got fiercer.”
One problem, said Noble, is that by straying from its sporty roots Honda lost young car enthusiasts and the Civic was selling based on fuel economy and reliability, which Toyota can also claim. With General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., and Hyundai all making improvements to their compact cars and seeking the same kind of buyers, Honda was more exposed to competition. Mazda made inroads, as well. he said.
“The Mazda 3 has crept up on Civic and stole away any buyers who cared about driving pleasure,” Noble said.