Honda Civic, a Canadian love storyJul 8th, 2016
Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Jul. 07, 2016 5:00AM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Jul. 07, 2016 12:01PM EDT
The word “dynasty” instantly conjures up names such as the New York Yankees, Montreal Canadiens, Dallas Cowboys, Boston Celtics and Edmonton Eskimos – unless your mind naturally bends toward Ming, Han and Duck.
As successful as those dynasties have been at times, all but the Ming pale in comparison to a Canadian juggernaut that is on an unprecedented 18-year winning streak.
The Honda Civic has been Canada’s bestselling passenger vehicle since 1998. In that time, pretenders such as the Mazda3 and Hyundai Elantra have knocked at the door and even grabbed quarterly leads. But in the end, the Civic has won out, with Canadians buying 1.2 million of the compacts in that period.
That’s a lot of metal.
“It really is a remarkable feat,” says Tony Faria, an auto-industry expert at the University of Windsor. “It’s not that it ekes out the lead, either. Every year, it outsells the next best by 10,000 to 20,000 units. It’s the clear leader.”
However, just a year ago, the picture wasn’t as rosy. The previous generation model’s design and quality was widely criticized and, faced with the fast-rising popularity of crossovers and sport utility vehicles, Honda had to act. The Civic was overhauled for 2016 and the move has paid dividends. Honda Canada reported record Civic sales in May, a 10-per-cent increase over the previous May. In June, Civic sales were up 3.3 per cent over June 2015. In 2016 so far, sales are up 12.2 per cent, year over year. Let the good times roll. Again.
Just like the aforementioned sports dynasties, there’s not one obvious reason for the Civic’s winning streak.
There are plenty of them, but first and foremost, you don’t sell that many cars unless people believe they’re making a good investment.
“A lot of it has to go to the equity of the product,” says Dave Gardner, Honda Canada senior vice-president of operations, noting that the streak has endured a few years when the models “weren’t that great.
“I can’t remember talking to anybody about Civics and having anything but positive comments come up,” he says.
Of course, a Honda executive might be a tad biased. So we leave it to an independent observer to talk about the Civic’s quality.
“Most everyone who owns a Civic really loves it,” Faria says. “It gets good reviews all the time, just like the [recently released] 10th generation has gotten wonderful reviews.
“The car is astoundingly reliable. It maintains really strong retail value. It drives very well. And you can buy it for under $20,000, which is a wonderful price for a vehicle like that.”
There are plenty of quality compacts on the market, such as the Mazda3 and Elantra, but they haven’t been able to solve whatever magic it is that has kept the Civic on top.
One key could be the way Honda keeps upgrading the model, such as the improvements made to its latest generation of Civics. According to reviews, it’s sportier and more comfortable to drive with significant upgrades.
“They renew it often enough to keep it fresh and jam-pack it with all the goodies,” industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers says. “They’ve been very smart in doing that.
“It never gets stale, and it drives people to think about getting a new model.”
But while Japanese car makers used to be well ahead of the domestic boys in reinventing their products, that gap has narrowed, even though the gap in sales hasn’t.
Frequent updates may help, but the key to the Civic’s success in Canada may be the loyalty Honda has ingrained in its buyers.
The main reason for that may be the fact that the Civic has been built at Honda’s Alliston, Ont., plant since 1988.
“Canadians are far more loyal in this regard than most other buyers,” Faria says. “It’s made in Canada and Canadians show a lot of loyalty to vehicles made here, just as they make the Chrysler minivans the dominant bestselling minivan in Canada with well over 50-per-cent market share year after year. A big part of that is that like the Civic, they’re built in Canada.”
The fact that no other country has made Civic No. 1 with any regularity supports that claim.
Finally, there’s the Civic’s rare ability to appeal across generations, with Civics driven by twentysomethings – accompanied by a set of migraine-inducing speakers – sharing the road with Civics piloted by grandparents grooving to Sinatra.
“With the reintroduction of the five-door hatchback this fall and the Si models coming back next spring and, after that, a type R version, I think it’s going to widen that appeal even more,” Gardner says.
That cross-generational appeal has many faces. Take the case of 12-year-old Aidan Moore, of Kitchener, Ont., who won one of two Civics given away at Toronto Blue Jays games last year. (Two more were awarded on Canada Day this year as part of Honda’s 39-year sponsorship of the team.)
While father Michael claimed the car for obvious reasons, Aidan applied one condition to the deal: He gets the car when he’s old enough to drive.
If there’s a threat to Civic’s reign, it isn’t other compact passenger cars – it’s the compact SUVs that have begun to dominate the market.
“It will be interesting to see if that hurts Civic sales in the future,” DesRosiers says.