The Honda Civic just got its mojo back

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VERNON B. SARNE

VERNON B. SARNE

When I became an automotive journalist in 1995, one of the hottest models in the Philippine market was the Honda Civic. We had the fifth-generation model then, whose legendary hatchback version had been used by Honda Cars Philippines to take advantage of the government’s “People’s Car” program to be able to open shop on our shores.

Back then, the Civic was the fifth-best-selling vehicle in the country with 8,610 sold units, next only to the Corolla, the Tamaraw FX, the Sentra and the Lancer.

Things peaked to incredible heights when HCPI released the sixth-generation Civic in 1996. I still remember the media test drive organized by the company like it was only yesterday. I even remember the venue: Caylabne Bay Resort in Cavite. I don’t recall most other events I attended in the ’90s. This just shows how special this Civic was in my eyes.

That year, the Civic climbed to the number two spot on the sales chart, moving a total of 15,899 units. Only the Corolla had sold more, with 17,686 units.

And when Honda introduced a more powerful edition of this particular model—the Civic SiR, with some 160hp on tap—the Civic’s status as the ultimate favorite car among driving enthusiasts and tuning hobbyists was cemented. This sedan was so desirable that car owners began painting their rides with the best possible imitation of Passion Orange. Ask any college student, young professional, businessman, racing wannabe or playboy what car they wanted and 80% of them would cite the Civic.

While the Civic dropped to fourth in the 1997 sales rankings, it reclaimed second spot in 1998 and held this until 1999.

Then Honda dropped the ball with the supremely bland seventh-gen Civic. During its product cycle in the first half of the 2000s, Civic sales in the Philippines nosedived to a miserable 1,852 units (2003). By this time, the sedan had plummeted to 10th place on the list of best-selling cars in our market. Heck, even the L300 and the Adventure sold more units. By 2005, the Civic had been kicked out of the top 10.

Honda was able to give its erstwhile bestseller a much-needed revival with the arrival of the stylish eighth-generation model, enabling the sedan to climb back to fourth place in our market in 2006. The following year, the Civic was already up to third place with 7,603 units.

Alas, the renewed popularity was short-lived. In 2008, the Civic was relegated to sixth place with 5,174 units. By 2009, it was out of the top 10 once more. Clearly, Honda’s once-mighty sedan had lost its relevance, with the likes of the smaller Vios and the do-it-all Innova now dominating the market.

During this time, Subaru had supplanted Honda as the best Japanese carmaker when it came to technological innovation. It seemed as though the latter had become just another run-of-the-mill car company trying to meet its sales targets. It had ceased to be a trendsetter.

The ninth-generation Civic that came after was a decent model, but it still lacked the mojo its much-revered sixth-gen ancestor had possessed before it. It could never hope to get ahead of the Altis and even the Elantra even if Honda threw all the marketing money it could. As far as most buyers were concerned, Honda’s days as a premier compact-sedan maker were gone.

And now we’re here.

In April this year, Honda Cars Philippines unveiled the much-awaited 10th-generation Civic. The buzz that preceded it had been electric. The global press had almost unanimously praised it. The local motoring journalists, for their part, had a sense that they would agree with the verdict—that the plaudit was just a matter of formality. Seven months later, this Civic is crowned 2016 Car of the Year in our market. This duplicates the 2016 North American Car of the Year citation the Civic won early this year.

Unfortunately, it won’t get the same honors from the Japan Car of the Year, but not because it lost to another car. You see, the Civic is no longer sold in Honda’s domestic market. The car had been so underwhelming—so uninspiring—that Honda decided to stop selling it in Japan altogether after the eighth generation. Word has it that the new 10th-gen model will be made available in Japan in 2018.

Needless to say: The Civic is back, and it’s back in a big way.

The styling is trippy, no doubt. It doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before on the road. From the front to the rear, Honda designers went to work on this one. It’s original, imaginative, exciting. Whether the design will stand the test of time remains to be seen, but the fact people have been responding positively to this model says a lot about its potential place in history.

But far more than the car’s cosmetic appearance, it’s the technology under its sheet metal that has been the subject of exhilarating chatter on showroom floors and online forums. The 1.5-liter Earth Dreams turbo VTEC gasoline engine, in particular, is a winner. This small-displacement motor produces 171hp and 220Nm. It’s a technological tour de force, to say the least.

And don’t forget the generous assortment of toys: the electrostatic steering wheel, the electronic parking brake, the vehicle stability assist, the hill start assist, the cruise control, the paddle shifters, the TFT instrument cluster, the seven-inch touchscreen audio display, the multi-view reverse camera. This Civic simply won’t be ignored on people’s car-shopping lists.

The past couple of years saw the rise of Mazda in the subcompact and compact segments. It’s Honda’s time again, thanks to the all-new Civic. Honda Cars Philippines’ marketing spiel goes something like this: “The rebirth of an icon.” And they’re right. The Civic is a mythical figure in the automotive world, and it has rediscovered its vim and vigor.

Will this resurgence translate to actual sales? Hard to say for now. I hope it will, but the market currently has its eyes on small cars and compact SUVs. Honda’s very own stable alone already features such models as the Brio, the HR-V and the BR-V. Frankly, buyers may now have a hard time looking past these cars to even consider the Civic, especially with the pricing.

Still, just the fact we’re talking about this now should be welcome news to Honda. Suddenly, it’s hip to mention the Civic again. It’s cool to tell your friends again that the Civic is on your wish list. Nobody is going to laugh at you.

Once upon a time, the Civic was the most sought-after Honda. Those days are long gone. Thankfully, a new model worthy of the legend is finally here. If nothing else, you can bring your kid to a Honda dealership, show him the new Civic and tell him how its progenitor was your fantasy back in college. You might get a weird stare, but it would warm your heart knowing the automobile of your youth has returned.

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