Honda Looks to Regain Compact Crown With New Civic

DEXTER, MI – After being eclipsed last year by its longtime rival the Toyota Corolla, Honda is looking to take back leadership in the compact-car segment in the U.S.

It believes it has just the vehicle to do it in the 10th-generation Civic, the first variant of which, the sedan, goes on sale next month in the U.S.

“I think in time we will get back to No.1 in segment,” Michael Willrich, product planner for the new Civic, tells WardsAuto here during a media preview of the car.

Willrich bases his belief on the car reembracing its athletic roots for ’16, in a larger, stylish and more technologically advanced package.

While Civic sales were down just 1.5% through September, the Corolla has seen a 7.7% increase in the same period, thanks to 278,742 deliveries this year, roughly 20,000 more than the Civic.

That volume makes the Corolla No.1 in WardAuto’s Upper Small car segment through September. The Civic is No.2 and the Hyundai Elantra, with 193,962 sales, is No.3.

Focusing too heavily on the notoriously softer-riding Corolla and the North American market in general is partially why the outgoing ninth-generation Civic got watered down, says the car’s assistant chief engineer, Gary Evert.

“Somewhere along the line something happened,” he tells media here. “We lost the vehicle’s character, and we began to focus only on the North American mass-market competitors like the Corolla. We wanted to change that. We wanted to make something truly special with this new Civic,” he says of the development team targeting sportier European luxury C-cars, including its benchmark, the Audi A3.

Honda also has cited the post-recessionary mood of the country for the ninth-gen Civic’s less-than-stellar interior materials and ride and handling. That version debuted in spring 2011, two years after the Great Recession.

Despite New Turbo, LX Still Seen as Best Seller

Willrich’s contention the Civic will again be the top-selling C-car in the U.S. “in time” refers to the sedan being just the tip of the iceberg.

The next-gen Civic coupe goes on sale this coming winter, while a 5-door hatchback, the Civic’s Si sport variants and a Type R, a competitor to the Ford Focus RS and Volkswagen Golf R, debut later. Honda promises the wait won’t be too long.

Type R launch timing for the U.S. reportedly is 2017, although a Honda spokeswoman suggests 2017 could mean the ’17 model year.

In the meantime, Honda will have five grades of the sedan to sell: LX, EX, EX-L and the new EX-T and Touring models. The EX-T has Honda’s first turbocharged engine in the U.S., while the Touring is being billed as the highest-end Civic ever.

Willrich says the LX model, which replaced the DX discontinued with the launch of the ’13 Civic, has been the most purchased grade, with a 50% take rate since the recession ended.

He expects that to continue initially, but notes the mix will change with the launch of the forthcoming variants.

Honda continues to offer a manual for the LX grade, which has a 2.0L 4-cyl. Willrich estimates 5%-7% of ’16 Civic buyers will opt to shift their own gears.

While manuals are declining as a transmission choice – automatic-transmission fuel economy typically is better than that of manual-equipped models and younger drivers don’t know how to drive a stick, Willrich doesn’t foresee a day the Civic won’t offer a manual.

“The market’s moving that way, but if I had my way we’ll always have a manual,” he says.

The Civic Hybrid is discontinued with the close of the ninth-gen model and Willrich sees buyers who might have opted for another migrating to future Honda green cars, such as forthcoming dedicated plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.

Young and Young at Heart

Honda is targeting “young-at-heart” buyers, projecting two generations will opt for the Civic, Generation Y and older empty-nesters with a youthful mindset.

For Gen Y, buyers will be split 50/50 between along gender and single/married lines, with a median age of 29 and an annual household income of $63,000.

Consumer research done earlier this year in Texas convinced Willrich Honda has a winner on its hands, as about 400 people cited the car’s unexpected styling and its image shift from practical to “distinctive and exciting” as alluring attributes, along with Honda’s longtime lures of dependability, quality and reliability.

“We want to continue building lifetime owner loyalty, we want to continue conquesting sales and we want to improve the overall opinion of the Honda brand with this car.”

Honda executives previously have stated they don’t see the rise in CUVs impacting compact sales, expecting the new Civic to light a fire in the segment whose 2% growth through September lags Small CUV growth of 43% and Middle CUVs gain of 11%.

Honda isn’t talking sales expectations for the Civic in the U.S., but last month one of the automaker’s top American executives cited a company goal to maintain 800,000 global sales.

The U.S. has long been the top market for the Civic. The car reached its pinnacle in 2008, when unleaded gasoline prices hit $4 per gallon in the U.S. and Honda sold 339,289.

If Honda wants to outpace Toyota it may have to hit that number again. Toyota sold roughly 340,000 Corollas in the U.S. last year while Honda delivered 325,981 Civics.

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