NEW YORK » If a sporty lime-green metallic coupe shown at the New York auto show is any indication, Honda isn’t playing it safe with the Civic anymore.
When the company last rolled out a new Civic four years ago, it took no risks. The car was panned for unremarkable looks and a cheap interior, with a chintzy plastic dashboard and bed-sheet thin seat fabric.
The next-generation Civic unveiled Wednesday has dramatic creases, a longer hood, 20-inch wheels and a big rear spoiler clearly designed to jettison the current car’s dull appearance and handling.
"This, ladies and gentlemen, is the return of the sporty Civic," Executive Vice President John Mendel said at the car’s introduction.
Honda says the new car was redesigned top to bottom, with U.S. engineers and designers taking the lead. It’s got single-line LED tail lights and a mean-looking front grille. The distance between the front and rear wheels is longer, and the car will get all-new engines and transmissions.
Honda was short on details about the 10th-generation Civic. Executives did say higher-end versions will get a 1.5-Liter turbocharged engine, a first for Honda in the states. The Civic will debut in the fall with a sedan, followed later by the Coupe and an R-Type high performance version. A five-door hatchback and other unspecified variations are planned as well.
Mendel said Honda is confident the new versions will attract people of all ages worldwide. The cars also will have refined handling as well as a spacious quiet interior, he said.
The Civic will get new engines and transmissions, including a turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder motor in higher-end models, Honda said. It will have new six-speed manual or continuously variable transmissions.
After the last Civic roll-out in 2011, critics said Honda cut costs to take profits at the wrong time — just as Ford, Chevrolet, Hyundai and others were coming out with improved compacts.
As a result, Honda was forced to revamp the Civic in 2012 after just 19 months on the market in an effort to match the competition. The do-over gave the Civic a sportier profile, replaced its chintzy dashboard and seat fabric and made the ride quieter. The revamp came to market in about half the time it normally takes.
The Civic’s sales still grew in the past five years as U.S. auto sales returned to pre-recession levels, but the car was unable to gain any market share against the competition. The Civic’s share has remained constant at 2.2 percent, according to Autodata Corp. Sales last year fell 3 percent to just under 326,000, but the Civic was still the second-best selling compact. Toyota’s Corolla was first.
Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said Honda had to discount the current Civic in order to keep sales going. The new version appears to do everything that Honda needs to do to regain leadership in the compact segment.
"I think they definitely knew that they had kind of lost their mojo in terms of a fun-to-drive stylish compact car, which had really been what had made the Civic so increasingly successful over the past 30 years," Brauer said.
Mendel promised that the new version would be fun an exciting, true to the Civic’s history.
"Everybody’s upping the ante. We can up the ante too," he said. "Taking this step will keep us ahead and hopefully drive some of that business back to Honda."