This is a story of survival, perseverance, brand strength, owner loyalty, wicked criticism and a commitment to push the reset button. Meet the latest chapter in the Honda Civic saga – Canada's best-selling car for 15 straight years.
That's no small boast. Canadians have great options if they want a compact car – from the Ford Focus to the Chevrolet Cruze to the No. 2 seller in the country, Hyundai's Elantra. And many more: Mazda3, Kia Forte, Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Jetta, Dodge Dart, Nissan Sentra, Mitsubishi Lancer. You cannot find a dud or a dog among them. Not one. Yet in the face of that competition, last year Honda Canada pushed through 64,962 Civics. Every other Honda sold in this country last year was a Civic. Honda Canada points out with little modesty that the Civic outsold its closest competitor – that Elantra – by 14,012 units.
Honda will tell you that this "remarkable feat is a testament to the durability, quality and reliability that Canadians have come to expect from Honda and the delicate balance of safety, fuel efficiency and fun-to-drive attributes that Civic delivers, year after year." There's truth there. But Honda managed a small miracle of crisis management in keeping the 2012 Civic on top while at the same time racing to remake a compact car that had been largely panned by many influential critics – including a shockingly damning road test by Consumer Reports, which for a time even dropped its "recommended" rating for the Civic.
CR, like so many other critics (me included), found that the redesigned Civic, which arrived in the spring of 2011, had lost some of its trademark agility and refinement. It was "cheap" and "insubstantial." The ride had become noticeably choppy, stopping distances had increased, road noise was up and the quality of the interior had gone backward. Autoweek, a popular enthusiast publication, said the Civic "has lost its way in the world." The Wall Street Journal called it "a dud" and "a betrayal." The car at the heart of Honda Canada's lineup was being clobbered for a long list of issues. Why had Honda stumbled so badly in reinventing this most important model?
"The ultimate responsibility rests with me," Honda Motor Co. CEO Takanobu Ito said in late 2011 at the 2011 Tokyo auto show.
Ito was the Honda leader who chose to pull back on investment in re-engineering and restyling the car. It was, we've learned later, a choice he made to ensure the survival of Honda during a period of extreme crisis – to conserve cash in the wake of the 2008-2009 economic crisis that gutted the world's economies with few exceptions.
As Automotive News reports, the Lehman Brothers collapse was the final trigger that sent the global economy into a tailspin – and changed thinking inside Honda about the 2012 Civic remake. With the world's economy in tatters, "Honda executives decided the car would seem too upscale for an entry-level offering. The content level needed to be reduced to reflect cautious consumer tastes." Thus, Ito decided to take content out of the 2012 Civic, delaying the car's launch by nearly six months. What had been planned for 2010 was pushed to early 2011.
Not long afterward, Civic sales in 2011 were further hammered by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in the summer of 2011. Supplies of crucial parts were cut to a trickle in the wake of the Japanese crisis. The tragedies at home in Japan devastated assembly lines thousands of kilometres away in Ontario and Indiana. Honda found itself struggling to keep its factories working at even partial capacity. All that at a time when sales of the Civic have been sliding for years, not just in 2011. The Civic was in crisis and that meant Honda was on the verge of panic.
Which seems hard to believe. Going all the way back to 1973, more than 3.6 million Honda Civics have been manufactured by Canadians at Honda of Canada Manufacturing in Alliston, Ont. More than half of those (1.7 million) have been bought by Canadians in these 40 years. For so many Canadians, the Civic had come to be a truly "safe" choice – a reliable, fuel-efficient small car that always nailed crash tests and held its value better than any other compact car. For a lot of buyers, purchasing a Civic has long been a "no-brainer."
But by late 2011 and through much of 2012, many had begun to have doubts – about the Civic and even about Honda. To its credit, Honda did not whine or make excuses or, most important of all, panic. To keep Civic sales percolating, Honda Canada (and Honda in the United States) slapped on incentives, the sales sweeteners that were yet another sign of desperate times. Honda has always been loathe to juice sales by tossing money and other goodies on the hood, in the trunk and into the glovebox. That most definitely has not been the Honda way. But this was different.
Meanwhile, Honda's engineers, designers and product planners were frantically at work fixing the 2012 Civic – working at a fever pitch. By the end of last year, Honda was ready to unwrap an updated 2013 Civic. The cheap interior of the 2012 has been utterly and thoroughly updated and is now among the very best in the segment. The new instrument panel is a huge step forward. The crash structure was improved, the driving manners were tweaked and the stale styling was addressed with, among other things, new front and rear fascias and sportier designs for the hood and trunk.
Better still, the original advertising used to launch the 2012 Civic in the spring of 2011 – advertising that did its part at nearly fatally wounding the Civic – has been buried. How someone at Honda, and its ad agency, could believe that the "To Each Their Own" campaign explained the thorough versatility of the then-new Civic – available as a coupe and sedan, with powertrain choices that included a gasoline-electric hybrid layout – remains a great mystery.
Indeed, almost no one could make sense of the stars of the ads – the lumberjack, zombie, ninja, monster and masked Mexican wrestler. Not only were the ads silly, they were confusing and they failed to showcase the car itself.
Consumers, though, decided to stay with the Civic right through 2012. Critics may have slammed the car for its shortcoming, but buyers stayed loyal, keeping the Civic atop the sales charts both here in Canada and in the United States. Yes, the Civic outsold the Elantra, the Corolla, the Mazda3, the Focus, the Cruze – all of them, and by solid margins.
As one U.S. dealer told Automotive News, "The '12 was a great car. Only the press disliked it. The buyers loved the car and bought it in big numbers. We would have done fine with no change at all."
But the changes came and they are welcome. Honda cut the clutter of the 2012's instrument panel and dressed it up with a richer covering. Designers cleaned up all the seams between all the cabin pieces and took the shine off the climate-control buttons. The seat fabric was changed and seat comfort was improved, too.
To quiet the ride, Honda added noise-cancelling underbody sheeting. And perhaps most important of all, Honda incorporated its well-regarded ACE II body structure into the Civic – ACE, which stands for Advanced Compatibility Engineering II, involves adding longitudinal braces in the front crash structure. This stiffens the structure, allowing ride engineers to focus on fine-tuning the ride and handling to a much greater degree.
So this 2013 Civic is, indeed, a much better car. Honda dug in and made fixes aimed at calming the critics and re-assuring loyal Civic buyers. It was not small feat to accomplish all this at lightning speed.
Yet even during these worst of times, Civic Nation remained loyal, snapping up discounted Civics in big numbers. That leaves Honda Canada looking ahead to 2013, a year during which the Civic will – well, it should remain No. 1 for a 16th year. So much work just to stand pat.
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