Despite initial criticisms, the 2012 Civic is still the top-selling car in Canada. (Honda)

Cover story

Canadian car buyers are practical and brand-loyal

Special to The Globe and Mail

‘The ultimate responsibility rests with me,” Honda Motor Co. CEO Takanobu Ito said last year at the 2011 Tokyo auto show.

Responsibility for what? For the raspberries that greeted the redesigned 2012 Honda Civic when it arrived in dealer showrooms in the late spring of 2011.

So at the Los Angeles auto show, which starts this week, Honda is showcasing a face-lifted Civic. The fast-tracked re-do of Canada’s best-selling car for 15 years – and headed for a 16th and more, says Dave Jamieson, Honda Canada assistant sales and marketing vice-president – has a new interior, better cabin materials and re-engineered handling, says Honda. There’s a slightly new skin, too, as we have seen in teaser photos of the 2013 Civic.

Honda has weathered the chorus of boos that greeted the 2012 Civic. Weathered them well. The Civic remains Canada’s top-selling car by a wide margin. Through the end of October, Civic sales were up 24.5 per cent and the Civic’s sales lead over the No. 2 Hyundai Elantra comes to nearly 10,000 cars – 53,235 to the Elantra’s 43,661. In the United States, Automotive News reports that Civic sales were up 39 per cent through October to 254,716.

Jamieson expects the updated Civic to crash from the gates like a three-year-old at the Kentucky Derby. Despite Ito’s Tokyo mea culpa – Automotive News says he told his engineers to de-content the 2012 car in response to the global recession – the Civic remains a hit with Canadians and Americans. Honda clearly took a misstep by changing the Civic’s course in mid-stream. The call from Ito came just as work on the 2012 was nearly complete.

Ito’s change of plan delayed the launch of the new Civic by six months. Worse, that blunder was compounded by a new Civic that “looked unfinished and shoddy,” notes the industry publication. Consumer Reports went so far as to pull the Civic from its “recommended” list for a time, saying the car had lost some of its trademark agility and refinement. Criticisms included a noticeably choppy ride to longer stopping distances and to increased road noise.

Honda dealers, says Jamieson, are thrilled with the crash course of Civic improvements. But Canadian and U.S. buyers have remained loyal despite the bad press. There are many lessons here, not the least of which is that, when it comes to their favourite models, Canadian car buyers are loyal. Perhaps even forgiving.

“We do have a well of support,” says Jamieson at a preview of the 2013 Civic. He adds, though, that you can’t draw from that well too often, or buyers will feel snubbed and sales will suffer. Consumers, once they do walk away, are hard to pull back into the fold.

But they don’t stray easily or often. The list of top 10 best-selling cars in Canada this year looks almost identical to 2011’s. Only the Hyundai Sonata mid-size car has dropped from the top 10, replaced in 2012 by the Toyota Camry mid-size car. On the light truck side, the top 10 list for this year is also identical to 2011’s, with one exception: the Toyota RAV4 crossover SUV has supplanted the rival Chevrolet Equinox.

“With few exceptions, each of the top 10 passenger cars and light trucks have fairly significant volume cushions above and below them, so there is very little competition for position within the top 10 ranks,” DesRosiers Automotive Consultants says in a note to clients. “This speaks to the strength of Canada’s mainline brands and the loyalties of their customer bases.”

Buyers are steadfast, most certainly, but they are also sensible. Perhaps they’re loyal because they are sensible.

In any case, of the 10 best-selling cars in Canada, only the Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Ford Fusion are not “recommended” by Consumer Reports based on road tests and reliability rankings – and the 2013 Fusion is all-new, so its reliability remains unqualified. We do know that the Fusion is the top-ranked mid-size car in J.D. Power & Associates long-term Vehicle Dependability Study and that last year CR said the 2012 Fusion Fusion Hybrid sedan “remained outstanding, and other Fusion versions were above average.” Canadians buy cars that don’t break.

Light trucks, too. Of the top 10, the Dodge Grand Caravan is not a CR-recommended model based on reliability data, and it’s the same for the Dodge Journey. Ford’s Escape and Hyundai’s Santa Fe are all-new for 2013 and not recommended due to a dearth of reliability data, not to mention past issues with refinement and reliability. On the whole, though, Canadians shop for quality here, too.

And a good price, of course. All the top 10 cars and trucks are very competitively priced and many are even more attractive thanks to deep discounting that slashes the MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) down even further. Take the Civic. A basic 2012 $14,990 Civic with manual transmission is being sweetened by a $1,500 factory-to-dealer rebate. A $15,895 Mazda3 GX manual sedan? The 2012 version has at least a $2,000 incentive in play. On the light truck side, how about the $8,000 discount on a $27,995 Grand Caravan SE, or up to $14,000 in rebates in play on a $48,385 2012 GMC Sierra SLT Crew Cab pickup with four-wheel drive.

Canadians, then, don’t look for sexy rides with high performance, at least not in big numbers. The best-selling vehicles in this country can be bought for a good price and can be relied on to start each and every morning.

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

 

Companies & investments Mentioned In This Article (1)

Company Price Change Volume
Honda Motor
HMC-N
35.84 -0.50 % 1,322,923

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