I heard it many times in reference to icons like the E-Type and the Miura on the British car shows I watched as a child: just imagine how it would’ve been seeing one when they were new. At the time, you had an idea of how a car looked, often like an Austin A40 or a Humber, when all of a sudden one of these new designs would roll up, looking like a prop from a Sci-Fi flick. You almost half expected an astronaut to step out. I experienced something similar, although in a much more commonplace package.
You can make a very solid case that to succeed in the most important segments requires car manufacturers to try and be as inoffensive as possible. Cars like the Toyota Corolla and the Honda CR-V can base their success and repeat buyers on such a principle. People who bought their first Corolla back in 1978 simply stroll to a Toyota dealer every six years or so to pick up another one unless they feel especially adventurous, in which case they’ll step up to a Camry or a RAV4. It works for manufacturers, as they can keep on the conservative side on design and powertrains and let their brand reputation do the rest. It also works for consumers who can be completely sure of what they’re getting come purchase time. It’d take a lot of guts to just ditch a proven formula and invest in a revolutionary design, because of the risk in sending your customer base running to any number of less challenging rivals. Yet that’s exactly what Honda did when launching the eighth-generation Civic.
The seventh-generation Civic was as traditional as traditional cars come. Design-wise, it was an evolution of its already timid predecessor. Not even the ricer crowd gives it much attention outside the Type-R hatchback, which was unavailable in North America. It was mechanically quite competitive and sold like hotcakes, but if I were a betting man I’d say there were several meetings in Japan about how they had been far too cautious and needed the following model to make a stronger impression.
And so the 2006 Civic was launched. The moment I saw one I was struck. With squinty eyes, a narrow grille, a clean and glassy side profile and Kamm-like tail, it was a very unique sedan in its segment. The impression it gave me was not unlike those described by the reviewers when discussing other landmark designs. The hybrid model, as driven by our very own Jim Klein, most exemplified the aero-futurist ethos of the new design with wind-cheating machined alloys and a subtle deckled spoiler. You may think I’m being far too romantic about these cars; surely, a mere Civic is not really worthy of the grand comparisons I’ve been making. But let’s not forget that at the time of its release the average car in its class looked like this…
…and had interiors like this.
By comparison, with its sleek shape and that two-tier dashboard, the new Civic had a distinct flying saucer vibe. I’ll admit that the 1.8-liter engine mated to a five-speed automatic was not particularly ground breaking, but considering all the risks taken in this car’s design, it’s completely understandable that there couldn’t be anything challenging about its mechanical operation and with an always likable Honda four, you could certainly have done worse.
Honda’s ambition paid off, with the Civic winning selling no fewer than 259,000 units per year during its tenure and maintaining its reputation as a fresh and modern, but always safe, choice. Honda must have decided that it spent enough money on the 2006, however, and that there was no need to be as enthusiastic in creating its ninth-generation successor.
The results were a disaster; when the 2012 model was released, the compact segment had moved towards better things, with competitors ready to take the newcomer head-on and beat it to an oily pulp. Direct injection engines, dual-clutch transmissions and even mainstream acceptance of hatchbacks presented Honda with a new reality. No longer could the Civic claim to be more efficient than the Impreza or Mazda 3, and the days in which the Cobalt was GM’s stiffest competition were over. Commercially, the consequences were few but the redesigned car was a critical failure. It was uncompetitive to the point Consumer Reports took the Civic off of their recommended list despite proven reliability and top-notch safety
Honda scampered back to the workshop and did a quite thorough refresh on a car that hadn’t even been on the market for a full year, slapping on some soft touch surfaces in the interior, stuffing in some sound insulation and refining the most glaring deficiencies in chassis tuning, but there was only so much improvement to be made. Luckily, the Civic is enjoying the same sales success its predecessor could count on, but this time it’s been achieved without a hint of verve or sass and in the process, creating an entirely new kind of Honda: an also-ran. Will the next Civic rectify these shortcomings, or will Honda be content to let one of its best nameplates go stale? While the current Accord has marked a return to form, the latest Fit doesn’t give much reason to be hopeful and if Honda is lazy, the eighth-generation car may be remembered as the last truly competitive Civic.