The cars we loved.
It’s not easy being the leader. The Honda Civic has led a flock of chasers for more than three decades. The car once seen as a benchmark for nearly anyone wanting to build a small car, seems more like a bench warmer lately. In fact it’s been a rough road for the Honda Civic for the last year or so. A big redesign in 2011 did not go over so well with critics and buyers have been increasingly looking at refreshed products from Hyundai, Ford and Chrysler. The Civic was once seen as the leader (along with the Corolla) in small car design and engineering. True to the company’s old tag line for the Accord, it was a “Car Ahead” almost since its inception in 1974. Times have changed and so have the fortunes for what was once America’s best-selling small car. Is it possible that the little car that was once the target for so many for so long has finally been eclipsed? If you were to base the answer on the current car, the answer would be yes. It’s beginning to look like the Civic must now struggle just to keep up with the new kids on the block.
The ninth generation Civic was planned to be a larger car that whats on the market now. Thanks to less than optimal market conditions and higher fuel economy standards, a decision was made to downsize the car slightly while increasing interior space. This seemingly impossible mandate was achieved at the expense of positive attributes that have been associated with the Civic for much of its production life.
As far as motorheads were concerned, the Civic, started its downward spiral when it switched from a double wishbone suspension all around to a MacPherson strut front and torson beam rear suspension. That started in 2001 with the seventh generation car. While the loss of the double wishbone setup made the enthusiasts automotive press moan, the more conservative media like Consumer Choice noticed that the Civic was no longer leading in reliability and safety. So harsh was the fall from grace that Consumer reports no longer ranked the Civic in the top spot for 2012 – a position that it seemed to own for years. No version of the new Civic was even a recommended buy. Honda announced its intentions to make drastic changes, but finds itself stuck with the current model for at least a year. So in what should have been a redesign to last four years will become a stop-gap for yet another redesign of a redesign.
Not that the 2011-2012 Civic is a bad car. It’s actually the most polished Civic ever. In that regard it has become a blessing and a curse. Depending on what media you follow, the looks of the Civic are just too conservative for most tastes, especially up against the hotness of the Ford Focus or Hyundai Elantra. Others lament the loss of handling ability to the McPherson strut front and rear beam setup. A more rigid body aids in stability, although anti sway bars are slimmer than the previous models. Being more polished translates to a more comfortable ride, thanks to a slightly longer wheel base. Many reviewers have implied that the Civic feels heavier and sluggish, more like a full-sized car than a compact. The current car is actually lighter than the previous model, but the car’s dynamics have changed despite having performance like features like a helical limited slip differential.
In all, the Civic has not become a worse car, it simply has not stayed ahead of tougher competition as it did in the past. That in itself is problematic for Honda, because it has invested much to design and build cars in North America. American cars may differ from those in Europe and Japan, to the extent of not being as desirable, thanks to efforts to cater to local markets. In Europe and elsewhere the Civic remains as popular as ever, but they offer unique body styles like the two and five door hatchback. A two door hatchback version of the European Civic Si was offered in the US 2002 to 2005. It likely would have sold considerably more if it were offered in other trim levels. Meanwhile, European and North American Civics’ continue to diverge.
For 2012, the Civic was offered as a coupe or sedan in five variations that run the gamut of gas sipping HF, hybrid and natural gas models to the sporty and powerful Si. No coupe versions are offered in the more efficient trims, as to suggest its sporting nature. The carryover engine from the previous generation continues in all but the Si model. A 1.8 liter 4 cylinder with 140 hp is used in DX, LX and EX models. The high mileage HF has this same engine, but uses a rear spoiler, lower ride height and light weight wheels to optimize fuel efficiency to 44 mpg. The top performance Civic, the Si steps up to a 2.4 liter four-cylinder with 200 hp. All of the Civics’ standard engines use some version of Honda’s variable Valve Tuning (i-VETC) and SOHC (DOHC on the Si).
Once the segment star, the performance oriented Si has finished last in several comparison tests by Motor Trend and Car and Driver in recent years. The latest Si attempted to improved matters with the 2.4 from the Acura TSX. It also uses the TSX’s six speed manual transmission to achieve a 0 to 60 time of 6.3 seconds. That would have been great a generation or two ago, but in todays turbo powered world, it’s well below the leaders in power and performance. With just 200 hp, the larger engine has improved low end response, but lacks the high end punch of a Subaru WRX or VW Golf GTi.
Most buyers don’t care as much about performance as they do looks, comfort and fuel economy. This is where the Si and all Civics’ seem to be losing ground the fastest (interior materials and comfort). Not that Honda interior quality has dropped significantly, but the competition has caught and has started using better materials for more lush cabins. Lately cars like the Focus have really stepped up its game with cloth seats that are sculpted and designed to look exciting as opposed to the standard grey of most low to mid-level Civics. Upper level Civics come with leather like most other small cars, but prices can rise rapidly if options are not chosen carefully. For instance, a loaded Si can approach $28K and still not have leather seats.
All versions of the Civic seem to emphasize fuel economy in some way or another. The dash has been redesigned with a two tier dash system that features fuel economy monitoring displays rather prominently. Oddly, the version of the Civic to garner the most praise is the most expensive. The natural gas model starts at a little over 26k and uses a variant of the 1.8 from the other models. It is the only factory fresh CNG car available to the general public. At 38 mpg on the highway and only 110 hp, it is a less compelling offering when compared to the many standard gasoline powered compacts that claim 40 mpg but with more power (and lower price). Natural gases biggest advantage is it’s lower per gallon price compared to gasoline. Once again, depending on what media you follow, the natural gas Civic is a planet saver or a laborious car to drive at highway speeds when you can save the planet for much less with better gas mileage.
An ongoing gripe against the Civic has been the gradual loss of that which made the car fun to drive in the process of trying to cater to everyone. The Civic was once a distinctly Japanese car by nature has been gentrified to meet to assumed tastes of regional markets. Globally, Hondas look more alike than they ever have, but Honda could easily fix its American problem by simply bringing over some of its Europe or Japan only models like the five door the Civic hatchback. In the meantime Honda must off load the current car, but is not likely to offer heavy rebates and incentives, because it’s not the Honda way (due to it being perceived as damaging to long-term brand perception and resale value). As far as Honda’s small cars go, it’s the Fit that may be the most fun to drive and have the widest appeal. Others like the Civic and CR-Z could use an infusion of fun quickly to retain the Honda faithful and attract new buyers. Although the situation if far from a fire sale over at Honda (Nissan or Dodge would love to have the Civic’s sales numbers) the need for change has become quietly urgent. The next 12 months should be very interesting for the Civic. Will it revert more to it’s roots of being fun and frugal? Now is as good a time as any for Honda to go back to what made the Civic one of America’s favorite small cars in the first place.