Home » The 2012 Honda Civic Failed So Hard That Honda Had To Redesign It For 2013

The 2012 Honda Civic Failed So Hard That Honda Had To Redesign It For 2013

Honda Civic Unholy Fail
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Automakers spend decades crafting an image for themselves and reputations for their products. Toyota, for example, is serious about its Camry being a reliable, feature-packed family car. Dodge trades on horsepower. Ford, with the F-150, proudly positions itself as the builder of America’s trucks. And Honda? For a long time, Honda has positioned itself as a fun brand with the Civic as an affordable, practical, reliable car for the everyday driver and for the enthusiast. So, you could imagine the panic caused within Honda when the 2012 Civic hit the road and many felt it was a step backward, an un-Honda approach to a beloved nameplate. Sales began to fall and Honda was so embarrassed that it redesigned the Civic for the very next model year. Like many weird things that happened over a decade ago, we can blame the Great Recession.

The late 2000s were both an exciting and a horrifying time to be alive. On one hand, we got to witness the rise of the modern electric car with the release of the Tesla Roadster. Small cars were also in vogue, as Americans were spoiled for choice from the likes of the Honda Fit, Chevrolet Aveo, Smart Fortwo, Toyota Yaris, Suzuki SX4, and more. Later, we’d get the Fiat 500 and Scion iQ, further padding a diverse range of tiny cars Americans could buy.

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The late 2000s were also a time when diesel cars were making strong headway, the Chevy Corvette C6 got a ferocious ZR1, and automakers were still willing to get weird. Remember the Nissan Cube? Americans got that car starting in 2009! Even Cadillac was pumping out cars that you’d want to buy that weren’t the Escalade SUV.

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Of course, the late 2000s was also known for far darker events. The one that clouded the end of the decade and the beginning of the 2010s was the global financial crisis also known as the Great Recession. A housing bubble burst, banks collapsed, businesses failed, and so many people in Europe, North America, South America, and other places lost everything. Many of the world’s economies fell into a deep recession that lasted for a long time.

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The automotive industry was hit especially hard. Not everyone could afford to splurge on an expensive car anymore, so they either didn’t buy new or went for one of the cheap small cars mentioned above. Perhaps the most infamous event was General Motors filing for bankruptcy and getting saved in part by the government. Sadly, the bailout didn’t come without the deaths of storied GM-owned automakers along the way. Chrysler also got bailout money, too. Today, you may still hear someone say “Government Motors” as a way to describe “New” GM, even though GM paid off those debts.

Why does this matter for a story about Honda? Well, Honda still had to sell cars to the American public, and its response to the financial crisis misread the desires of American car buyers. Honda incorrectly thought that cash-strapped Americans would be willing to buy new-generation cars of worse quality than they were already buying.

The Unlikely Hero

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Part of what made this so bad was the fact that Honda had so carefully built its reputation in America over decades. It’s one thing for General Motors to cheap out – that was almost expected. But Honda was known for building cars that got better with each generation.

The Civic story began in 1970 at Honda’s Wako R&D Center in Japan. The brand was riding on a meteoric rise of fiscal growth. Honda was metaphorically bursting at the seams as it grew over 10 percent a year. This was not a time for the brand to rest on its laurels, because Honda’s customers were craving more. At the same time, Honda was embroiled in a bit of a scandal over N360 defects. Making matters worse was the Honda H1300, released just the year before, was struggling to sell. As Honda explains in its own history, things started looking dire when a factory tour revealed few cars actually getting produced. Honda itself was becoming on the ropes.

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Honda decided the best path forward was a new car. But this car couldn’t just be more of the same. The new car had to demonstrate Honda’s engineering prowess not just in Japan, but on the global stage.

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Honda says that prior to the first-generation Civic, the automaker’s models came from Soichiro Honda. This time, Honda formed two teams of engineers and pitted them against each other. As a result of this competition, Honda expected to have a car that would be equally at home on the streets of Tokyo and the streets of New York City.

The development teams began their research and study, later presenting their reports to each other. Honda says the teams were surprised to find that their ideas for Honda’s future car were largely similar. The engineers also figured out what was wrong with the H1300. Honda focused on its quality of engineering but ignored noise, comfort, and weight distribution. This new “ideal car” would correct that course.

Honda’s Civic history continues by mentioning how the engineers did their own thing independent of Mr. Honda. For example, Honda wanted the new car to have a simple and cheap rigid rear suspension, but Mamoru Sakata, the engineer in charge of suspension design, ignored that and went with an independent strut suspension. Doing this gave the car more interior space, better handling, and less weight.

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Civic Pho 04

Also daring was the decision to make the car a three-door hatch. As Honda explains, the Japanese government was looking to create a people’s car and one of the criteria was an interior no larger than 5 square meters. This wouldn’t become a requirement, but Honda’s dealers were still largely small motorcycle shops, so Honda still made the car small, anyway. Original specifications called for a car no longer than 133.8 inches. However, the engineering team found it difficult to make a car as long and as narrow as specified while still fitting an interior of 5 square meters.

Eventually, the car lost length, got wider, and eventually, even the trunk had to go. The resulting vehicle was a wide trapezoidal shape, something uncommon in Japan back then. Honda says the development team was laughed at by Honda’s sales team, but they stuck with it.

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The first generation Civic launched in 1972 and at first sales weren’t strong. Then, especially as young people discovered the Civic, sales took off, vindicating the development team. The car won Japan Car of the Year in 1972, 1973, and 1974 while it also found strong international success. Honda never slept on the Civic either, eventually fitting its now-famous CVCC engine under the hood.

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Since then, Honda has kept the momentum going, producing generations of stylish, affordable, reliable, and sporty Civics. As Car and Driver writes, Honda’s development philosophy for the Civic was that every Civic improved on the last. This included under the hood, where Honda made sure to make each successive Civic more powerful than the last. Then, something happened in 2012.

Messing With An Icon

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Let’s set the stage. The Great Recession is in full blast and it’s time for Honda to make a new generation of Civic. The world was currently buying the ninth-generation Civic, which set a high benchmark since its release in 2005.

Here’s how Honda introduced the eighth-generation Civic. The automaker positioned the vehicle as stylish and high-technology:

A new generation of fine midsize sedans, the 1.8-liter Civic and Civic Hybrid with its new Honda Hybrid System take both spirited performance and fuel economy to new levels. The new models feature a bold one-motion form design, with a wide stance and extended wheelbase for a more expansive interior. The new Civic will debut on September 22, the Civic Hybrid on November 22, at Honda Primo dealers throughout Japan.

This 8th-generation Civic features improvements in all measures of an automobile’s value, including driving performance, fuel economy, environmental friendliness, and packaging. The latest Civic is designed to surround its occupants with sensuous quality and to provide a ride that everyone will enjoy and appreciate.

[…]

To reduce burden on the driver, the new Civic and Civic Hybrid are equipped with advanced safety technologies introduced for the first time in this category, including IHCC (Intelligent Highway Cruise Control) with vehicle speed and distance control functions, and Collision Mitigation Brake System (CMS) with E-pretensioners, which cautions the driver of the risk of a rear-end collision, and can activate the brakes to reduce vehicle speed to mitigate damage and injuries.

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While that was a lot of marketing speak, it certainly impressed in real life, too. Motor Trend compared it to the Acura NSX and nominated the car as its 2006 Car Of The Year:

Forget what you think you know about this Honda. The outgoing 2005 Civic was a quality automobile—well crafted, capable, a strong value—but it didn’t tingle the fingertips, never moved the “gee!” meter. The new 2006 Civic does. Honda deserves a standing ovation for not playing it safe again, for crafting a compact car that’s edgier and more soulful than it needs to be. The automotive joy that Honda Motor Company was founded on radiates from these new Civics.

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The comments line was perhaps even more positive:

“Wow! This is the most highly styled Civic I’ve ever seen. Maybe the most styled dash since the NSX.”
“Feels like a car in an entirely different class.”
“There’s a velvety fluidity to this car’s every move that sets it apart.”
“Makes you think maybe the fuel-crisis era might be tolerable.”
“Honda has brought many near-luxury tangibles to the affordable compact segment.”
“Easiest speedo on the market to read. Perfect for the Gran Turismo generation.”
“On the Si, I love the rev-limiter warning that flashes alongside the digital speedo. Cool.”
“Si redefines the segment. Quick, tons of fun, rock-solid, and well equipped. Impressive car at an amazing price.”

By most accounts, Honda continued its tradition of making the Civic better with each iteration, so journalists and the public had no expectation that the ninth-generation Civic would be any different. Even the concept sketch below looked promising.

Honda Civic Concept

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When the media got to drive the 2012 Honda Civic in 2011, reviewers soured on the car quickly. The executive editor of Autoweek said:

I feel like the little Civic–emphasis on “little”–has lost its way in the world. What was a top-value small-car champ with nimble handling, sporty performance and smart packaging has descended into a dull, plasticized runabout packed with extra equipment that, in some cases, makes no sense.

The small information screen tucked up high on the two-tiered dashboard seems to have no real purpose in a car with a big navigation/audio screen in the center console. There’s an Eco button, which seems to force the car into a fuel-saving, lesser-performance mode, but this seems hardly necessary in a car that already measures up quite well on the fuel-economy scale. How about putting that money into a six-speed transmission if you’re looking for more efficiency? I think the rub here is that we expect Honda to be the technology leader when it comes to powertrains, all fitted into fun-to-drive vehicles that make you say, “Wow, that’s cool” when you discover yet another smart idea for making the car more functional and easier to live with (see trash-bag ring in the Odyssey minivan, for instance).

Instead, this Civic seems to lack higher tech under the skin where it counts in favor of a lot of unnecessary but highly visible bells and whistles, and not enough attention to the details. I was surprised that the console catch basins lacked rubberized flooring to prevent items from rattling and sliding around in them. This is the kind of thing Honda used to do without thinking, and now the competition is doing it and Honda is not. I don’t get it. And was that a creak I heard in the plastic door sill when I rested my elbow up there? Not in a Honda.

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If you thought that was bad, wait until you read the Wall Street Journal‘s review, which was titled Honda’s Sporty New Civic, Heavy on the ‘Ick’:

And just like that, a giant stumbles. The redesigned 2012 Honda Civic—one of the most successful cars in U.S. auto history, a nameplate burnished with the grateful tears of generations of Americans—is a dud. A sham. A shud. Massive fail, LOL.

[…]

I’ve just spent two weeks enjoying the company of the 2012 Civic Hybrid sedan (see sidebar) and the Si sedan—the sport-tuned version with a 201-hp four-banger, a limited-slip differential, and a six-speed manual gearbox to slap around—and, to damn them with faint praise, they’re actually pretty good cars. Still, they do not burn with Honda’s once-routine overachievement, and the ire the company faces reflects the high expectations and great trust consumers have placed with the brand. In other words, merely decent feels like a betrayal from Honda.

2012 Honda Civic

Those weren’t the only hits against the poor Civic. The Truth About Cars pulled no punches when it mentioned how Honda made the exterior busier and the interior far cheaper. Consumer Reports then removed the 2012 from its recommended list, an insult greater than putting ketchup on a Chicago hotdog. The 2012 Civic also lost comparisons, such as a comparo from Car and Driver between the Civic and the Ford Focus.

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Sometimes, journalists can be a bit harsh to cars, but it appeared that even the public wasn’t very jazzed about the Civic. In the first months of Civic production in mid-2011, when a new model might be gaining sales, the Civic was losing ground. In September 2011, Civic sales were down by 26 percent. The car finished the year 14.8 percent down 14.8 percent year-over-year. Of course, some of the losses can be attributed to shortages caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, but even Honda’s own designers were reportedly admitting the new car had missed the mark.

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On paper, the 2012 Honda Civic wasn’t a bad car. For example, the new Civic Si sported a 2.4-liter four pumping out 201 HP, a four percent gain over the old 2.0-liter four. Meanwhile, the torque got a healthy 22 percent kick to 170 pound-feet. No matter your choice of engine or trim level, your vehicle got a steeply raked, supercar-like windshield, driver-centric controls, and high safety marks.

Things even looked somewhat promising on the track. The old Si made its peak 139 lb-ft of torque at 6,000 RPM, essentially requiring you to use that whole VTEC engine’s range. The new Si peaked at 4,400 RPM. This led to slight improvements mostly across the board. Edmunds sent its 2012 Si to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, ever so slightly better than the 7.2 seconds the publications got in the old Si. Car and Driver somehow got the car to 60 in 6.1 seconds, and in 6.4 seconds with a 5 mph rollout. Quarter mile times were roughly equal with the old car, landing in the high 14-second to low 15-second range.

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The new Civic earned negative marks from some publications for high road noise and lots of body roll. The car utilized struts up front and a multilink setup in the rear, but some felt it was just a bit too soft. Others were disappointed that the car’s 1.8-liter four made the same 140 HP and 128 lb-ft of torque as the last generation, though commented that at least the power came on a little sooner to help the car get better fuel economy. At least the good news is that Honda was able to get fuel economy up from 25 mpg city and 36 mpg highway to 28 mpg city and 39 mpg highway, or 29 mpg and 41 mpg respectively if you chose the Civic HF.

Still, better fuel economy and decent specs weren’t enough.

How Did This Happen?

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As Automotive News reported in 2013, the development of the ninth-generation Civic took a turn in 2009 after the collapse of the economy. By that time, the Civic’s design was almost frozen, but executives decided that the Civic it was working on was going to be too upscale for struggling Americans. Thus, the decision was made to cut content out of the vehicle and bring it down-market. The new Civic would save on costs with lower-grade plastics in the interior and the exterior design was more of a slight evolution rather than the radical departures of the past. In other words, Honda was playing it safe.

The problem came when Honda presented a sketch and concept for the upcoming Civic. Honda quickly realized that while it was cost-cutting on the Civic, its competitors were still moving forward. The Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus, and Hyundai Elantra all promised updated designs and healthy content despite the recession.

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Honda Civic Concept

What Automotive News described next was heartbreaking:

[Senior Product Planner] Jay Guzowski] looked at his calendar – April 2010. Then 33 years old, he had been at Honda only a few years, after stints at Volvo Cars of North America and American Suzuki’s ad agency, Colby & Partners. Guzowski, a former instructor at Art Center College of Design and analyst with Honda R&D Americas, understood when Honda stylists and engineers described their worries about the car. His next task was to steel himself to inform his bosses far up the executive ladder that their franchise car didn’t measure up.

It was too late to save the 2012 Civic. All Honda could do was limit the damage.

“We read the market wrong,” admitted Vicki Poponi, American Honda assistant vice president of product planning and a former executive at Honeywell’s Garrett turbocharging division. “After the Lehman shock, we thought there would be different consumer behaviors. We knew that unemployment would last a long time and that there would be recessional trends. We thought consumers would be more sparse in their needs and be tightening their belts. The Civic was going to reflect that world,” Poponi said.

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Suddenly, executives were faced with a difficult decision. Knowing the vehicle was underwhelming, they could have let the Civic live through its normal three-year cycle before a refresh. Letting that happen would mean spending money to move units while taking a hit on brand image. On the other hand, the executives could issue an emergency redesign, which also costs a ton of money since the existing tooling hadn’t even paid for itself yet. Of course, redesigning a car after a single model year means some very public embarrassment.

The problem was exacerbated for Honda since the Civic was its most important model. The Civic was often a Honda customer’s first car, and now that person might instead buy a Ford Focus. That couldn’t be allowed to stand. So, before designers were even finished wrapping up the 2012 Civic, they were tasked with quickly redesigning the vehicle.

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As Automotive News writes, Honda may have known about the car’s faults even before a single journalist got to drive one. Press drives were in city traffic and included a short autocross course. Then, instead of driving the cars back to the hotel like journalists often do, even today, Honda put the journalists on a bus. But, as said above, designers were already at work redesigning the Civic before a journalist got to drive a single one. The negative reviews just reinforced the idea that redesigning the Civic was a good call.

The designers had 18 months to improve the Civic and had to do so without changes so major that the vehicle would have to be re-engineered and put through crash testing again. Honda also wanted to avoid having to retool the Civic’s assembly line. Still, Honda was able to change a lot, from Automotive News:

2013 Honda Civic Ex L Sedan
2013 Honda Civic EX-L Sedan.

The instrument panel layout was redone to remove clutter and reduce the number of irritating seams between components. The instrument panel’s rice-paper pattern was replaced with a more traditional embossing. The faux “piano-black” surface surrounding the climate-control buttons was made less shiny and plasticky. The swirl pattern of the seat fabric was changed. A black-on-black interior choice — a Honda mainstay left out of the 2012 model — was added. On the outside, the hood and trunk were given sportier designs. More noise-canceling underbody sheeting was added.

To restate the above in fewer words, Honda made the 2013 Civic a bit more like an Accord. Sure, the engines didn’t get any faster, but Honda resolved so many of the complaints about the exterior design and the lower quality interior of the 2012 model.

2013 Honda Civic Ex L Sedan
2013 Honda Civic EX-L Sedan.

As Car and Driver noted in its review, Honda had increased the vehicle’s frontal safety structure and stiffened up the suspension so the car didn’t wallow around turns anymore. The publication ended its review of the 2013 by saying the car was “28 percent closer to the car Honda should have built in the first place.” That’s not a glowing review, but still an improvement.

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One thing was for sure, and it’s that the public ate the refreshed Civic up. Sales reached 221,235 units in 2011 and grew to 317,909 in 2012. Honda then sold 336,181 units in 2013 and sales never dipped below 325,000 units for the remainder of the ninth-generation Civic’s production.

2013 Honda Civic Natural Gas
2013 Honda Civic Natural Gas.

In terms of pricing, the 2012 Civic started at $15,755 for the DX coupe. Meanwhile, the Civic Si started at $22,355 for a coupe. Despite the reviews, these cars seem to hold their value well. You could expect to pay around $12,000 or more for a Civic Si with under 100,000 miles.

The 2012 Honda Civic makes for a different kind of Unholy Fail. By all accounts, the 2012 Civic wasn’t a bad car and it still sold in units that smaller automakers lust for. However, most accounts agree that the 2012 Civic was bad for a Civic. Yet, Honda itself knew that it messed up before the first car even got into public hands. The 2012 Honda Civic is an Unholy Fail because Honda completely misunderstood the American market, then didn’t realize it until it was too late. However, to the automaker’s credit, it then spent the money, time, and other resources to correct its mistake. That in itself is also impressive.

(Images: Honda)

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lastwraith
lastwraith
1 month ago

I enjoy basically every article Mercedes writes (even when the subject matter isn’t particularly appealing at first glance) and this was no exception.

Having said that, it’s late over here and maybe I’m missing something but…. this one sentence seems a bit clunky to me – “Honda itself was becoming on the ropes.”
I had to stop and re-read that a few times.

Superheavyduty
Superheavyduty
1 month ago

This is one of the best articles I’ve read on this site, and this is the best car website online right now today. I have read about and seen in person how much of step backward the 2012 Civic was from the 2006-2010 Civic. I wasn’t aware that Honda was planning a redesign before the Lincoln Civic was even released. I talked an ex into getting a ’06 Si and have ridden in several friends 2012 Civic’s. The 06 was amazing for its day. The 2012 wasn’t, they liked the deal and the Honda reliability. That was reflected in the stripper names they gave their cars; the 06 Si was “Raven”. The 2012 LX was “Rhonda the Honda”, I can’t spell the stripper name my Pakistani friend named his 2012 Civic, but it didn’t sound very sexy to me. The eight/ninth generation section was confusing, but I knew what you meant. 9.75 out of 10.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
1 month ago

The 12-15 Civic is stupid. They should’ve also given us the international 9th gen hatchback.

Also, the muscle car Si is so lame. They should’ve kept the 8000 rpm K20.

The 9th gen coupe looks like a shitty Pontiac. Maybe it was a tribute to Pontiac? (they went away the year before)

JTilla
JTilla
1 month ago

I almost bought one of these but the dealership was sketchy about a seized rear caliper. The other thing is I remember reading the powersteering rack or something had major issues so I decided against it. Got a 2016 accord coupe instead.

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
1 month ago

This is still one of those situations I think was 90% a bunch of overinflated auto journo bunk, no offense auto journos! But sometimes I think they tend to have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees and go with a bit of a herd mentality.

El Jefe de Barbacoa
El Jefe de Barbacoa
1 month ago
Reply to  Shooting Brake

It looked ugly, cheap and didn’t drive well. What exactly do you think was overinflated?

Bassracerx
Bassracerx
1 month ago
Reply to  Shooting Brake

you are probably right. at the end of the article it points out how high the sales were of this “undesirable” model. however one thing we can appreciate is that because of how much bad press this generation civic got Honda accelerated the pace of the release of the next generation civic.

lastwraith
lastwraith
1 month ago
Reply to  Bassracerx

At the end of the article, they are pointing out how good the sales numbers were for the REDESIGNED model. I think the author’s point was that the model as originally introduced did not sell well and that the revamp was necessary in both Honda’s eyes and the public’s.

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