Through 10 months of this year, no compact car has sold better than the Honda Civic. Not the Toyota Corolla, the Ford Focus, the Chevy Cruze nor the Hyundai Elantra.
That's nothing new for Honda or its popular economy car, long a favorite of car critics. Such are the royalties earned from years of consistent reliability, fuel efficiency and strong resale value.
And yet Honda on Thursday trotted out a thoroughly updated Civic at the Los Angeles Auto Show, hoping in part to appease auto critics who almost universally panned the 2012 redesign. The hard plastic interior was called cut-rate, the road and wind noise excessive, the handling sloppy. Consumer Reports, the endorsement perhaps most prized by automakers, stripped the Civic of its “recommended” label in an increasingly competitive small car segment.
The company was caught off guard by the rapidly improving quality of the Civic's peers.
"We underestimated the expectations ... that [customers] had for Honda," said John Mendel, executive vice president for Honda America. So the company scrambled to make the Civic competitive, Mendel said.
Acknowledging the car's weaknesses, the company recently invited reporters to drive the before and after versions at its U.S. headquarters in Torrance, using the current car as the foil to highlight the virtues of its replacement.
If a short preview drive is any indication, Honda can expect continued sales success.
The quick update speaks most clearly of Honda's chagrin and its eagerness to protect the Civic's well-earned reputation. The typical timeline for refreshing an existing model is about three years. Honda didn't have that long. And so the automaker quickly overhauled the car, tackling many of the complaints head-on.
The overhaul was in the works even before the 2012 model hit dealers, Mendel said.
"We were already in the throws of saying, 'Hey look, we got that wrong, we got this wrong, we're going to need to upgrade a few things to keep pace with what customers were going to want,'" said Mendel.
Consumer Reports, which knocked the 2012 version for a sub-par interior and poor handling and braking, has warmed to the updated version. “It looks like they addressed the problems. Our early impression is that it rides better and handles better. The changes are more than skin deep,” said Jake Fisher, automotive test director for Consumer Reports.
From the moment you climb inside the revised version, you wonder how last year's version ever got out of the factory door.
On paper, the cars are identical. Both have an an inline 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine producing 140 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. Buyers can still choose either a five-speed manual transmission or a five-speed automatic. The revised car's fuel economy remains impressive at 28 mpg in the city and 39 mpg on the highway, despite an additional 100 pounds in new sound-deadening and crash-structure upgrades.
The car's sheet metal gets subtle but substantial changes all around: a new hood, a redesigned grille with chrome trim and an updated bumper. More extensive updates to the rear of the car include new taillights, a trunk lid and a rear bumper.
But it's the interior where Honda transformed the Civic, creating a quieter and more comfortable cockpit. Thicker glass on the front windows and windshield works in concert with additional sound-deadening material in the doors, floor and firewall. The doors and trunklid now close with a resolute thud.
The seats and headliner are covered in softer materials. The center console is more cleanly integrated. The dashboard has been redesigned with fewer visible seams and covered in soft-touch, leather-grained plastic.
Honda also threw in additional standard features, including a backup camera, Pandora and Bluetooth connectivity, SMS text notification and automated response, and an ambient temperature gauge. The more up-market Civic Hybrid models will now come standard with a forward-collision warning system and a lane-departure warning system.
On the road, the cabin is quieter and the ride smoother, after Honda updated the Civic's spring rates and stiffened the chassis. The steering feels quicker and more linear. The car no longer feels true to its economy-minded roots; much like its competitor the Chevy Cruze, the Civic now carries itself with the poise and quality of a mid-size sedan.
So serious is Honda about getting this new version into customers' hands that these 2013 models are rolling into dealerships now. Despite the upgrades, Honda says the price of this Civic rises by just $160 for any model.
You can't help but pity the 254,716 people who bought the 2012 Civic.
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