Defiant Honda Civic counters SUV surge

Henry Payne, and Melissa Burden

The sedan isn’t dead yet.

On Wednesday Honda launched its completely remade, 2016 Honda Civic compact car as America’s best-selling compact sedan strains to stay relevant in a market where crossover sales are surging. Built on Civic’s first global platform, the new sedan is larger, sportier, and more digitally-connected than any previous Civic.

“This is our most ambitious Civic yet,” said Executive Vice President of American Honda John Mendel from downtown Detroit, which shared the media spotlight for the Civic’s introduction with a live YouTube event Los Angeles.

While the Civic has stood atop retail compact car sales since 2007, the challenge to its sales growth is evident inside Honda itself, where the Honda CR-V crossover — built on the same platform as the Civic — has become the hottest-selling vehicle in the hottest segment in America. CR-V sales jumped 10.9 percent to a record 335,019 in 2014 and are up 6 percent this year while Civic sales slid by 4 percent.

“The new Civic comes right at the time the (compact) sedan segment is struggling,” says Dave Sullivan, manager of Product Analysis at Auto Pacific. This car is a test as to whether sedans can compete against crossovers. Indeed, can this car hold a candle to the CR-V?”

To prove its relevance, the U.S.-developed, tenth-generation Civic throws everything and the kitchen sink at the market.

It will come in the most diverse packaging in the Civic’s 43-year history: Sedan, coupe, five-door hatchback, performance Si models, and a hot-hatch, 300-horsepower Civic Type-R. A suite of driver-assist features will be available including Collision Mitigation Braking, Road Departure Mitigation, and Adaptive Cruise Control as well as a buffet of digital features from a 7-inch touchscreen to apps for Apple Car Play and Android Auto.

But stung by criticism that the ninth generation, 2012 Civic had grown fat, Honda executives are “emphasizing the sporty element” as Civic returns to its nimble-handling, performance roots, says Mendel.

“Two key words,” he adds. “Low and wide.”

New from stem to stern, the new Civic features shorter overhangs and a longer wheelbase making it the largest car in its class with cavernous rear seat space. An inch lower than the previous model, the car bears a more athletic stance with a meaner, mono-brow front chrome grille accent and edgy, boomerang taillights. The base car will be available with two engines promising 40 mpg on the highway: A 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder mated to a manual or Continuously Variable Transmission or a 1.6-liter turbo-4 — Honda’s first turbocharged engine for the U.S.

“The 10th-generation Civic reflects styling trends emerging in the industry: fastback design elements (Audi A7), bulging fender flares (Nissan Maxima), bold tail lamps (Toyota Prius) and a shrinking front grill (Chevy Volt),” says Eric Lyman, TrueCar’s vice president of industry insights, who suggests that — as gas prices have dropped — styling will be more important to differentiate the car in the compact segment. Honda’s new styling changes to the Civic likely are intended to attract more millennial buyers, he said.

Boasting to be the “world’s best C-segment vehicle,” Honda engineers baselined the Civic’s development to Germany’s best luxury compact sedans — specifically the Audi A3.

“This Civic is an about-face from the last one,” says AutoPacific’s Sullivan.

Built in 11 locations worldwide on the same platform, U.S. Civic production will come from plants in Greensburg, Indiana, and Ontario, Canada.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne.