If there's a perfect customer for Honda Canada Inc., Neil Woodcock might be the one. In just 10 years of driving, Woodcock has owned seven Honda Civic models.
In every year he has been driving – and even before then – the Honda Civic has been the best-selling passenger car in Canada.
Since wrestling the title from the Chevrolet Cavalier in 1998, Civic has grabbed top spot in the annual car sales rankings every year and is on pace to win comfortably again in 2013 when final sales results are released Friday. The car has hung on to first place through a major and a minor recession, three redesigns of the vehicle and a devastating natural disaster that disrupted Honda's supply chain and led to production cuts in 2011.
Strong challenges by Hyundai Auto Canada Corp., Mazda Canada Inc. and other auto makers in the compact-car segment, which is the biggest and one of the most competitive slices of the market in Canada, have fallen short of knocking the Civic out of the top spot.
There is no magic formula that has kept the car ahead of the Hyundai Elantra, Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla and there appears to be no "wow" factor that makes Canadian drivers drool at the prospect of piloting a Civic on the country's roads.
"I think Civic has always created the image of a safe choice in terms of durability, quality, reliability, value, fun to drive, safety," said Honda Canada president Jerry Chenkin.
Woodcock makes similar comments about why he stayed in the Civic family and bought new models after driving used ones for several years.
"They've never treated me wrong," says Woodcock, who lives in Milton, Ont. "I've never had any reliability problems; I've never been stranded or anything when it wasn't my fault."
The 26-year-old artist is an example of how auto makers in their wildest dreams would like the vehicle ownership life cycle to work: win over customers when they buy their first vehicle and hang on to them for life as they move up the ladder to more expensive and more profitable vehicles.
The first car Woodcock purchased at age 16 was a used, white 1992 Civic with more than 300,000 kilometres on it. He paid about $600 and slapped pieces of wood on the floor to cover up the holes and keep out the snow during winter drives.
His most recent acquisitions have been new Civics, including a white, 2007 Si model that he's driving now.
His next car? "I'm not sure it's going to be a Civic, but it's probably going to be some type of Honda."
Auto makers engender this kind of loyalty by producing excellent products at good prices, said Chris Travell, vice-president of strategic consulting for Maritz Research.
Honda has a reputation for quality, reliability and dependability, he noted, "plus the fact that [Civic] tends to have a high resale value, which factors into the buy equation for many Canadians."
Success breeds success, he said, so if a customer is trying to decide between a Honda and something produced by a competitor, the fact that Civic has been the passenger car leader for that long could sway the decision.
The car has also been a favourite of the tuning crowd who like to spice up their rides with powerful engines, spoilers, racing suspensions and other improvements.
Woodcock joined that group, ordering a specially built engine from California to install in a 2000 Civic SiR he owned.
The new engine generated 450 horsepower, but he found it was too powerful for city streets.
Honda has sold 1.7 million Civics in Canada since it began selling the car here in 1973. About one million of those are still on the road, Chenkin said.
The company's manufacturing arm has cranked out 3.6 million Civics since production switched to that car from the larger Accord model in 1988.
Whether Honda hangs on to the crown will be up to consumers, Chenkin said, acknowledged that the compact segment will be even more competitive than usual next year with the Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla both redesigned for the 2014 model year.
The Civic has been refreshed with some exterior styling changes and a new transmission.
In the 2013 sales race, Elantra is on pace to finish second, Corolla third and Mazda3 in fourth spot.
Staying no. 1 is a source of pride for Honda dealers, employees and the 4,000 workers in Alliston, Ont., who build the cars, but it's not Honda's goal, Chenkin said.
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Correction: Honda has sold 1.7 million Civics in Canada, not 1.8 million, as stated in an earlier version of this story.