Consumer Reports Stunner: Thumbs Down to 2012 Honda Civic
There's probably a huge crossover between Honda Civic owners and pragmatic Consumer Reports readers. So it's a really big deal that, after decades of love, the magazine has turned on the super-reliable Civic, giving the $20,000 LX model a bottom-dragging score too low to earn a recommendation.
Since it first appeared in 1973, the Civic delivered a car just made for CR's checklists -- affordable pricing, good fuel economy, decent (if not sporty) handling, good quality materials, an ample trunk and rear legroom, topped off with stellar reliability. It was always too boring for Road & Track gearheads, but that's an entirely different demographic. Year after year, the Civic made the Top Picks list, leading to oft-repeated charges that CR was soft on Japanese car makers.
The cut-rate Civic
But the Civic is all new for 2012, and it scored a mediocre 61 out of 100 (down 17 points from the previous generation) in a test of a dozen small sedans. Like the Volkswagen Jetta (the only small sedan to score worse in CR's ratings,) it was built down to a price. It's not a winning strategy, especially in an increasingly crowded and competitive small car market. Even the styling is bland, representing too mild a design departure from the previous generation. To both VW and Honda, I have only one thing to say: Hyundai. The Elantra GLS was the top-rated small sedan.
David Champion, senior director of CR's auto test center, told me:
The old Civic was quite fun to drive, was nimble and had really nice steering. The new one is very numb feeling, with overly light steering, no feedback, and body lean in the corners. The Achilles Heel is that braking distances are long and the grip gives up in corners. The overall handling is bleeeech. We weigh things like that very heavily because we want cars to be safe for consumers. Plus, the interior now feels very cheap, with hard plastics that don't fit well, cheap material in the headlining and no trunk trim.Champion says that the VW/Honda strategy of squeezing profits out of small cars is counter-productive. He points to the Elantra as a better car for less money, and adds that consumers could move up-market to a larger Hyundai Sonata for about the same price as a Civic EX.
It's a good car, really
Not surprisingly, Honda doesn't agree that its Civic line is regressing:
In virtually every way, the completely redesigned 2012 Civic is a step forward. The new Civic excels in areas that matter to small-car customers, including fuel efficiency, safety and reliability.But even Honda acknowledges that the small sedan segment "is more competitive than ever." So going the cheap route when resurgent cars like the Ford Focus, Chevrolet Sonic and Kia Forte are nipping at your heels seems (sorry for the clich?) penny wise, pound foolish. Ford and GM are out to prove that they can build competitive small cars, sometimes even in the U.S., so Honda's timing couldn't be worse.
Honda recently posted a $292 million profit for April-June, and also raised its sales forecast. It's finally got cars to sell again, following really severe tsunami-related supply problems. But Honda may have to re-run the outlook numbers. Having cars in the showrooms is only part of the battle -- they have to actually be good vehicles that present good value for the consumer. It's hard to believe that Honda needs to re-learn this lesson, because it played the role of teacher for the Big Three, and made no missteps for a really long run.
Honda quality slipping
It's not just the Civic, either. Honda quality and value have been slipping for years. As Champion points out, CR rated the 2009 Honda Pilot lower than the previous generation, dissed the Acura TL and TSX, and also slammed the Insight and CR-Z as too low-scoring for a recommendation. And it first stopped recommending the 2011 Civic last October because consumers couldn't get electronic stability control without also ordering the leather interior package.
Champion hints that the magazine's forthcoming review of the Civic Hybrid won't be all that positive, either, because the car suffers from many of the same handling and cheap-interior issues (though fuel economy is improved).
Honda isn't about to give its new Civic an immediate brake and handling makeover, but it could probably improve the car's rating with a set of higher-quality tires and rear disc brakes -- features that actually appear in the next model up, the EX. And it could add trunk liners and other quality trim easily enough. There's room for some damage control here, but Honda would have to abandon its bottom-line thinking.
Honda points out, with some justice, that the Civic has a "stellar reliability history," based on CR's owner surveys. But the 2012's ratings may be based on a smaller sample, because the magazine's readers now have plenty of reasons to buy something else.
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