The only people who will notice that the Honda Civic has been redesigned are current Honda Civic owners. And I think that's largely the point. Last year some 260,000 Americans bought a Civic, making it the best-selling small car in the country (Toyota reported 266,082 Corolla sales in 2010, but that includes the Matrix). I'm willing to bet many of them are repeat buyers. Is Honda resting on its laurels, then? Perhaps, but I'd call it staying in a groove.
Civics are known for offering some very specific qualities -- good fuel efficiency, lots of interior room, smooth driving dynamics, bulletproof reliability, and excellent resale value. This iteration focuses on all those traits. Fuel efficiency has improved across the board to nearly 40 mpg on the highway (with both the Civic HF and Hybrid exceeding that number). From behind the wheel, the car remains competent and capable, if not quite engaging. The interior continues to look like it was conceived by engineers, with functionality taking first, second, and third priority. You get plenty of room to stretch out and, just as important, you feel like you have lots of room to stretch out. The new Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra both edge the Civic in a few interior measurements, but when you take turns sitting in each car -- especially in the back seat -- it still seems as if Honda is pulling some sort of trick. The same applies to the excellent visibility: many manufacturers tell us that modern crash regulations necessitate high beltlines and massive pillars, but somehow the Civic avoids these impositions.
Of course, the engineer's perspective also has a downside. Soft-touch materials, for instance, cover only the surfaces you would normally touch - and none on those you don't.
Again, none of this is new to the Civic. It's fair to assume that the brand's fanatically loyal buyers won't suddenly find the graining on the car's dashboard -- which still doesn't look remotely like anything found in nature -- unbearable. The problem then, is not that Honda is "slipping" or losing ground, so much as it may be missing an opportunity. The highly hyped batch of new small cars, led by the Elantra and the Focus, are not angling to win over Civic owners -- they're chasing a completely new compact car buyer. These are not the thrifty, practical people who have been buying Honda Civics for decades. They are buyers who never considered a compact car until the economy tanked and gasoline soared toward $5 a gallon. They want all the things they used to get in their larger cars -- fancy technology, attractive styling, expensive-looking interiors. The new Civic, with its bland exterior and no-nonsense interior, does little to appeal to these people. Even the Hybrid misses the point by being so inconspicuous that most green-vehicle shoppers will ignore it completely.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor