Honda has made a quick U-turn.
Just 19 months after its Civic compact hit showrooms and was slammed by critics, the company has revamped the car, giving it a sportier look and upgrading the interior.
It's an unusual and costly do-over. But Honda -- among the auto industry's most highly-regarded brands -- was worried the car's flaws would hurt sales and market share, analysts say.
The 2013 version went on sale Thursday, and Honda has given it a sportier profile, replaced its chintzy dashboard and made the ride quieter. The revamp comes to market in about half the time it normally takes, and shows just how concerned Honda is about falling behind rivals.
"The new consumer coming to the marketplace looking for a compact car doesn't think the Civic is a slam-dunk anymore," says Jesse Toprak, vice president of market intelligence for the TrueCar.com auto pricing website.
The company misjudged the small-car market when it rolled out the Civic in April of last year, analysts say. Small-car buyers used to tolerate cheap materials, noisy interiors, and boxy styling just to get high gas mileage. But they now expect their gas-sippers to have a quiet ride, crisp handling and plush seating. The 2012 Civic lacked those refinements.
It was so noisy, for example, that "I kept trying to put the windows up," recalls IHS Automotive analyst Rebecca Lindland, who says that competition caught Honda off-guard.
To be sure, criticism of the 2012 Civic hasn't dented demand. Sales of the car have risen to 255,000 through October, up 39 percent from last year. The car has passed the aging Toyota Corolla and the Chevrolet Cruze to become the nation's top-selling compact.
But the increase came mainly because Civics were in short supply last year following an earthquake in Japan. Loyal customers delayed purchases until the Civic returned, Toprak says. The Civic also is selling well because of discounts, he says. Dealers are knocking about $2,500 off the sticker price to clear out 2012 models. Civic discounts usually run about $500.
Without changes to the car, Honda probably would keep longtime customers, but it wouldn't attract new ones. "They will eventually start bleeding market share," Toprak says.
When Honda began to develop the 2012 Civic years earlier, competitors still were putting out blasé compacts aimed at budget-conscious buyers. But as gas prices rose, consumers shifted to smaller vehicles. At the same time, companies like Hyundai rolled out sleek, quiet compacts with amenities once reserved for the luxury class.