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Driving It Home

Honda’s Civic improvement project Add to ...

Honda needs a home run in North America. Here’s the question: Will the redesigned 2012 Civic compact car be it?

First, some numbers to put this story in perspective: The Civic is Canada’s best-selling automobile, and has been for 13 years. Last year Honda Canada sold 57,505 Civics, which means sales were down 8.0 per cent from 2009 (62,645 sold). In the United States, the Civic is Honda's second-best seller, behind the larger Accord sedan – and the Civic was the sixth-best-selling vehicle of any kind in the U.S. last year.

In Canada, Honda slapped a decent level of sales sweeteners on the Civic last year to ensure the car retained the best-selling crown. However, Honda Canada executive vice-president Jerry Chenkin points out that Civic incentives were actually richer in 2009. He is also quick to note that virtually all Civics are bought by real retail customers, not fleet buyers.

From the fastest sports cars to the quietest electric vehicles, there’s lots to see at the auto show in Motor City

That’s all well and good, but the fact is, the Civic has been sliding for a couple of years, and it didn’t help Honda’s cause to extend the lifecycle of the Civic for almost another year. Rumour has it Honda delayed the launch to conserve cash during the economic downtown. Regardless, dated products are harder to move off dealer lots than new ones.

Now we’ve had the long-awaited debut of the 2012 Civic at the North American International Auto Show this week. Honda referred to the new Civic here in Detroit as a “concept,” but that’s just Honda’s particular way of confusing new reporters who are unfamiliar the company approach to introducing new models.

You see, Honda and its luxury Acura division have a habit of describing near-production models as concepts, when they’re hardly concepts at all. What we saw on the stand in Detroit will be in dealerships largely unchanged late this spring.

More than a few keen observers are looking to this new Civic as a measure of whether or not Honda still has “the touch.” That is, will buyers want this Civic so much they’ll be willing to pay full sticker price? Or is this once-golden car company really in a slump, struggling to nail new products with features, performance and technology that wow and woo buyers.

Honda, naturally, scoffs at any such suggestion. The company says the ninth-generation Civic is “completely revolutionized” and will raise the standard for innovative technology in a compact car. Hmm.

What’s indisputable is that Honda and Toyota no longer have the lock on the small car market as they once did. Detroit’s auto makers were not really even in the game for decades and at the affordable end of the market neither were the Europeans. South Korea’s Hyundai has been selling boatloads of Elantras and Accents for years and years, but only because they were priced like bargain basement transportation appliances.

Now, Hyundai is about to launch a snazzy new Elantra, Ford has an excellent Focus on the way and Chevrolet just introduced a pretty darn good Cruze. It’s easy to find analysts and critics who will say these three and others, such as the new Volkswagen Jetta, are now completely competitive if not superior to the Civic and Toyota’s Corolla.

What Honda does not want from the 2012 Civic is for the new car to follow in the footsteps of recent new Honda models such as the CR-Z and Insight.

The CR-Z, for instance, is a two-seat, gas-electric hybrid that Consumer Reports recently said scored “too low for us to recommend.” CR criticized the car’s stiff ride, poor steering feel, poorly tuned stability control, and “lousy” visibility.

CR also said the Insight hybrid has a cheap interior, mediocre fuel economy by hybrid standards and a noisy power train. Honda Canada sells barely any Insights at all. Honda has also been targeted with barbs about the Accord Crosstour and the slow-selling Acura ZDX crossover has been juiced with $12,000 in cash incentives.

Honda is still a very, very good engine company and is highly profitable. However, the competition has figured out what it takes to tackle the No. 1 Civic and is coming to the market fully loaded with innovative features and sexy designs.

The Elantra, for instance, looks great and is equipped with an efficient and sophisticated four-cylinder power train lineup. Ford’s Focus is gorgeous, will be sold as both a sedan and hatchback, promises to be entertaining to drive, will be offered with cool technology such as the EcoBoost engine line with direct injection and turbocharging.

The new Civic? It will be offered in regular and sportier Si gas versions, plus a hybrid is planned. Honda says the new gasoline power trains will offer improved fuel efficiency and the hybrid will be Honda's first with advanced lithium-ion batteries.

All of that sounds promising enough. We’ll find out in a few months whether Honda can deliver on the promise. If the Civic fails to deliver, we’ll have more proof that Honda is coasting, as many suggest, having lost the touch of a truly innovative car company.

From the fastest sports cars to the quietest electric vehicles, there’s lots to see at the auto show in Motor City

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

 

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