Shortly after the 2012 Civic went on sale, in the spring of 2011, the influential magazine Consumer Reports refused to give it a coveted "Recommended Buy." The magazine's chief auto tester said that the car was a step backward, and it appeared Honda tried to save money by using cheaper parts.
Company executives get prickly when asked if criticism was the reason they moved so fast to update the Civic. They'll say only that they wanted to keep the car ahead of the competition.
"We're not reacting to negative criticisms," says Art St. Cyr, Honda's chief product planner in the U.S. He says that Honda started revamping the Civic even before the 2012 model came out. "We weren't embarrassed. We weren't trying to make excuses for what we were doing."
Yet Honda did something startling with the 2013 model. Instead of making a few cosmetic changes that normally come in the middle of a car's life, the company did an overhaul. It added insulation to cut engine noise, put in thicker glass to reduce wind, and made the brakes larger to stop the car faster. The seat material was upgraded, and Honda added a softer dashboard with two colors. Outside, the car got a more aerodynamic look with a new hood, trunk lid and lights.
The improvements are so vast that Honda must have started working on them even before the 2012 went on sale, Lindland says. That's before the criticism came from Consumer Reports and others.
Lindland, who drove the 2013 Civic in advance of its Thursday debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show, says it's far better than the 2012. "I was really impressed with how quiet it was," she says. "It's just a more refined and more elegant small car."
Toprak says the new Civic looks like an expensive luxury car, especially when compared with its predecessor.
The revamp is costing about $500 per car, Honda estimates. Toprak says the spending was necessary to attract new buyers. Many people who would have bought larger cars are now looking at compacts because they're in fashion, he says.
Compact car sales now account for 14.6 percent of the U.S. market, up 2.2 percentage points from just five years ago, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank.
Honda will get part of the revamping cost back by raising the base price of the Civic LX by $160 to $18,965 with an automatic transmission. But the company eliminated the stripped-down DX version, which started at just over $17,000 with automatic.
The quick do-over puts the Civic back among the top cars in its segment, Lindland says. But it doesn't mean that all automakers will upgrade their cars every 19 months."It's expensive to do these," she says. "I wouldn't say this is a trend -- yet."