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Honda tries to regain its stride with upgraded Civic

Art St. Cyr, Vice President Product Planning and Logistics American Honda Motor Co., speaks about the 2013 Honda Civic at the 2012 Los Angel
Art St. Cyr, Vice President Product Planning and Logistics American Honda Motor Co., speaks about the 2013 Honda Civic at the 2012 Los Angel

By Bernie Woodall

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Honda Motor Co introduced its redesigned Civic sedan only a year-and-a-half after a major model change of the best-selling compact car in the United States.

Even Honda admits that the 2012 Civic, introduced in the spring of 2011, missed the mark. For a company that prides itself on rock-solid reliability, it was a shock last summer when influential Consumer Reports ranked the Civic dead last in a field of 12 compact sedans it tested.

Sales of the new Civic, a 2013 model, will start this week and the refreshed car was shown off on Thursday at the LA Auto Show.

Honda produced a Civic that is upgraded inside and out, featuring a sleeker look, better quality interiors and improved steering feel and a rear view camera that comes standard, said John Mendel, executive vice president of sales for American Honda.

Mendel said that Honda has no plans to compensate owners of the 2012 Civic, and that he has only heard from a few customers upset that they bought a car that was upgraded so soon.

He said he would equate it to the owner of a year-and-a-half-old Apple IPod when Apple comes out with a new version.

"You still got a great vehicle, with a lot of capability. The new one is just improved," said Mendel, which is what he tells customers, who, he said, are satisfied with their cars.

"I don't want to be too flip about that but at the same time it's not as if we duped them into buying something that was not good and then all of a sudden said we fixed it," said Mendel. "You got the broken one and now we got the real one. It's not the case."

Mendel said that there is a 45-day supply of 2012 Civics remaining, which should take a few months to sell off. Honda is offering three-year leases on those cars for $149 a month and $1,999 down.

HONDA GOT ITS MOJO BACK

Jake Fisher, director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports, says that the magazine will test the new Civics soon. He could not predict if the Civic will return to its "recommended buy" list, but he said that Honda seems to be making the right moves after some questionable quality in some of its models in the past several years.

"They have gotten their mojo back," Fisher said on the sidelines of the LA Auto Show. "They've had problems. They had a whole series where every new redesign was worse" than the car it replaced.

Fisher said the new Accord, which went on sale a few months ago, "is a really impressive vehicle" and much-improved over its predecessor.

"Hopefully, the improvements they've made in the Civic will help bring it up over the line and we can recommend it again," Fisher said.

The Civic LX sedan with automatic transmission is priced at $19,755 including destination charges, and a manual transmission version is $800 less. All versions of the 2013 Civic that go on sale this week are $160 higher than the 2012 models.

Mendel, as he has said several times this year, said on Thursday that Honda miscalculated the market after the Lehman Bros. collapse in 2008 and the beginning of the recent recession, which was when the 2012 Civic was being developed.

"We had anticipated," said Mendel, "that consumers would have a little bit different and more conservative view about driving. We underestimated the expectations. We zigged a little bit to provide them with the content that we thought they would want."

Mendel said that by the time the 2012 Civic was introduced, Honda executives were already saying they undershot the target and needed to upgrade the car.

The biggest changes, Mendel said, including a softer touch of the dashboard, and sheet mental changes to the exterior, were planned to be made at a later date, but were pushed ahead after the 2012 Civic was introduced and missed the mark.

He said that the fact that the Civic has maintained its position as the best-selling compact car in the U.S. market shows that Honda has not misstepped too badly.

Sales of the Civic through October were up 39 percent at 254,716, according to Autodata Corp.

PACE OF REFRESHED MODELS

Mendel said that buyers should not expect such quick turnarounds in upgrades to Honda models in the future.

What this one shows is positive for Honda, he said. It shows that the company can pivot quickly when the market demands changes. However, he said, the amortization and tooling costs for a refreshed model requires Honda and other automakers to wait two-and-a-half years or so between changes.

(Reporting By Bernie Woodall; Editing by M.D. Golan)

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