Next-generation Civic is mission critical for Honda

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LOS ANGELES — The Honda Civic has been a staple of American motoring for nearly 50 years — but more than that, it has been a cornerstone of Honda Motor Co.’s popularity with U.S. consumers.

Now, despite an onslaught of small crossovers intent on digging into the compact car’s coveted sales base of mostly young, first-time buyers, Honda is moving to keep its Civic franchise fresh.

To continue capturing the shrinking but passionate pool of U.S. car buyers, Honda is rolling out the 11th-generation Civic sedan next year. A nearly finished prototype, presented last week, offers an evolutionary upgrade from the current generation, which has been a sales success despite some questionable styling cues.

“We know that passenger cars have been shrinking — and maybe even more during the coronavirus with a huge rise in the popularity of SUVs,” Gary Robinson, American Honda Motor Co.’s vice president of automobile product planning, said during a product presentation last week. “We do believe that passenger cars are going to stabilize and actually do quite well over the next five or six years.”

It is a critical mission in a changing market.

The sedan, which will go on sale in the spring as a 2022 model, is the nameplate’s more mature offering compared with the Civic’s racer hatchback. The quirky coupe has been discontinued after the 2020 model year, as sales have waned. Also exiting the U.S. after 2020 is the Fit subcompact hatchback.

In addition to trimming back its car offerings, Honda has announced a product plan to beef up the looks of its light trucks, starting with the Ridgeline midsize pickup. But company executives say the brand’s car classics, the Civic and Accord, have a healthy future. The Accord midsize was just freshened for 2021.

“Civic truly is our global people’s car,” said Robinson, “We have sales in over 170 different countries and global sales of around 26 million units” since the 1973 model year. The U.S. is responsible for 11.9 million of those sales over the years, and most of those Civics were built at Honda factories in North America.

“It is not meant to be a revolutionary change,” Robinson said of the redesign. “We definitely didn’t want to rethink Civic or change it dramatically. What we wanted to do was take the strengths of it and take them further.”

One reason for optimism, Robinson said, is the Civic offers a better mix of features than crossovers in the low-$20,000 range.

“It’s really hard to offer an SUV that young people are really looking for” at that price, he said. The hatchback, in particular, “is much more compelling for them than switching to an SUV.”

The Civic franchise remains strong, in part, because it remains the top vehicle — including crossovers and pickups — among first-time buyers, Gen Z and multicultural consumers, Robinson said. Many Civic buyers are also car people who want the styling and driving experience that inexpensive crossovers don’t offer.

Among auto brands, Honda has traditionally found much of its sales strength in cars. Although light trucks are now responsible for about 60 percent of U.S. deliveries, the Civic was tied with the CR-V compact crossover as Honda’s bestselling vehicle as recently as the 2017 model year, according to data from Edmunds.

“The car market isn’t completely dead, and fewer competitors in the space allows Honda to grab a larger piece of a smaller pie,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights at Edmunds. “Civic makes up nearly 26 percent of the compact car market compared to 15 percent a decade ago, so it’s a good business.”

Karl Brauer, executive analyst at iSeeCars.com, concurred.

“For Honda, the Civic and Accord are like the Corvette and Camaro for Chevrolet. These nameplates have attained an awareness level few nameplates ever achieve. And for that reason alone, Honda can’t abandon them,” Brauer said. Plus, there’s still significant volume in the compact and midsize car segments.

The next-generation Civic builds on a strong showing for the 10th generation, which was offered as a sedan, a hatchback, a coupe, in sporty Si and Type R trims and with a mix of manual and automatic transmissions and turbo and nonturbo motors.

Honda sold 222,806 Civics through October this year.

Robinson said the next-gen sedan and the hatchback, which will go on sale later in 2021, have styling revisions that draw on earlier Civic designs, including the first through fourth generations.

“Those older Civics were characterized by clean, simple and human-centered design,” he said.

Honda released photos of the prototype, which is very close to the final design, in Solar Flare Pearl orange, along with a design sketch of the interior. No mechanical information was provided, although Robinson did say there will be “more powerful and sporty powertrains.”

Pricing was not announced.

Inside, the Civic will offer a bigger infotainment screen, at 9 inches, and its first all-digital instrument cluster, Robinson said. There’s also a honeycomb accent panel that runs across the dash that’s both decorative and functional, since air vents sit behind it. Honda has kept physical knobs for the most-used features.

Brauer said the cleaner look of the next-gen Civic is a step forward.

“The new Civic should appeal to mainstream, practical shoppers while still offering appealing design elements for enthusiasts,” he said. “The chunkier, cleaner body lines on the newest version give it a premium look.”

In some trims and body styles, the current Civic can be a little too aggressive for mainstream buyers, he added. “The styling likely drove away some potential customers that were simply looking for a dependable compact car without broadcasting a ‘Ricky Roadracer’ message,” Brauer said.

The design upgrade is also critical for Honda because it is not the only automaker playing the long game on cars.

Hyundai, for one, has an aggressive product plan that includes cars in multiple segments, trim levels and price points. Hyundai just launched the stylish redesigned Elantra compact sedan, and it’s looking for greater market share.

“The all-new Hyundai Elantra also offers a distinctive exterior design and premium cabin with clean lines and integrated air vents,” Brauer pointed out.

“It will be interesting to see how the market reacts to this new Civic,” he said. “But I expect it will continue to be a top seller within the compact car segment.”

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