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After Benign Neglect, Honda's New Focus on the Frugal Civic is Right on Time

At the New York Auto Show, Honda's spotlight was on the all-new Civic line, as well it should be. The automaker has been taking this cash cow of a product for granted as it focused instead to everything from minivans to sporty hybrids.

With gasoline hitting $5 at the pumps and Americans shifting to smaller cars, Honda would be nuts not to showcase the Civic now. And Honda was never nuts -- just distracted by ill-fated efforts to pioneer new market segments.

Until now, Honda seemed content to leave well enough alone with the Civic. And as it turned out, benign neglect wasn't such a bad thing, because the Civic has carved out a spot in the American consciousness as a pre-eminent economy car. Last year, it was once again a big seller in the U.S. with 260,218 sold (more cars than the entire BMW Group). With new models and increased appetite for small cars, Honda is likely to have an even better 2011.

Meet the lineup
Honda took plenty of chances with the model lineup, especially in fielding no less than three ultra-green models. They are:

  • Civic HF. The new HF model was a smart move, and it joins cars like the Chevrolet Cruze Eco, Ford Fiesta SFE, Audi A3 TDI and Hyundai Elantra in the 40-mpg club (it gets 42 on the highway). And like those others, it's no hybrid, but goes the extra mile with add-ons like a spoiler, lightweight wheels, low-rolling-resistance tires and an underbody tray.
  • Civic Hybrid. The big news here is a lithium-ion battery. Honda is the first Japanese automaker to go this route in a hybrid -- the usual fare is tried-and-true nickel-metal-hydride. This car gets 44 mpg on the highway and in the city, a significant improvement over the previous gen's 40 and 41. But it's still well shy of the Prius, which hits the magical 50. Add in blah styling, though, and we may have a formula for sales stasis. The $24,800 price tag for a well-featured car is attractive, but it zooms $1,500 north when you add the navigation package.
  • Civic Natural Gas. This car has soldiered on as an under-the-radar GX, sold only in select markets and promoted mostly to fleets, for many years. Now Honda is getting serious about the model, and will market it nationwide in 2012. The price of natural gas has fallen while gasoline soared, and that's very attractive to would-be buyers. But there are a bunch of caveats here: The car is pricey at $26,240, there are still very few public natural gas stations, and the fuel has less energy content and thus requires a range sacrifice. Honda says the new model has a seven percent efficiency gain, so that should help with range. Fuel economy is 27 mpg in the city, 38 on the highway.
Take-no-chances styling
Motor Trend reports that Honda "wanted the new model to be instantly recognizable as a Civic." And it is. It's recognizable as the old Civic. The new models look more like a mid-course freshening than a radical rethink. That's likely to be OK with Civic buyers, who are looking for sensible transportation, not styling icons. But Honda let the designers go on vacation, and it could have taken more chances than it did.

The new commercial features ninjas, monsters and zombies at the wheel, advancing the slogan that there's a Civic for everybody, from boomers to Gen X and Y. That's always been true -- it's a people's car. The green ones will probably remain as niche vehicles, though, with the real volume in the budget DX ($16,355), mid-line LX (around $18,000), upscale EX ($22,705) and the performance Si ($22,955). That's OK with Honda, because the bottom line will still be a lot of cars sold on the U.S. market.

The upshot
The new Civic will move, but Honda is quite likely to see sales concentrated in the mainstream gasoline models. The company missed a chance to raise the excitement level for the Civic Hybrid. The new model is almost as dull, visually speaking, as the one it replaces, which means the Toyota Prius will still overwhelm it in the marketplace.

Americans tend to think of the Civic as a world car, but it doesn't play well everywhere, and indeed gets no respect in the home market. After dismal sales of just 452 cars in October, Honda said it would stop selling Civics in Japan, where tiny minivans and ultra-compact cars are in vogue. The Civic is a big car for the Japanese market, and in two recent visits there I seldom saw one on the road.

The ninth generation Civic is not going to set pulses racing. Honda played it safe, but it didn't play it stupid -- the seven new 2012 cars (on sale later this spring) look conservative, but they're bold in their gamble on green.

Hint to Honda: The versatile Fit coupe is lonely on the U.S. market and could use some siblings. The hybrid version you sell in Japan would likely go like gangbusters in the U.S.

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Photo: Jim Motavalli
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