DETROIT — Honda, Canada’s king of compact cars, raised the stakes in the auto market’s most competitive segment on Monday.
Honda unveiled its ninth-generation Civic concept compact to the world at the North American International Auto Show here in what is clearly an effort to maintain a stellar reputation of building dependable and fuel efficient cars but shed a longstanding image that they look boring and too conservative.
Masahiro Takedagawa, chief executive officer of Honda, said in an interview that the company’s priority is never to disappoint its core customers but try to expand its appeal to other motorists.
“It’s why it took us a year longer to do this,” he said, pointing at the new model. “We are hopeful.”
In its bid to turn heads, the new sleeker 2012 Civic sedan and sporty Si coupe feature cleaner and sharper body lines, steep windshields, a change in the front grille and wide stances.
Honda executives described the new looks as conveying “a more substantial high energy appearance.”
Furthermore, the company revealed it is trying to expand the Civic’s popularity with the widest array of engine choices in a field where competition is already intense.
Honda officials said the new models embrace the company’s vision of a “Civic for all people, a phrase it used in defining the original Civic new Civics also intend to meet the needs of an increasing group of compact-vehicle buyers with a renewed vision of a “Civic for all people” according to company officials.
Although Honda did not disclose specifications for the Civic or its interior, workers are already building prototypes at the company’s Alliston complex, northwest of Toronto. The company expects the first models to arrive in showrooms by late March or early April.
The popular Civic has led the car market in Canada in sales for 13 consecutive years but it is facing increasing competition in 2011 from a number of players including the Mazda3, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cruze. It is also one of the two top selling compacts in the U.S.
Last year, Civic sales totaled 57,501 and the car held a wide margin over the Mazda3 and Corolla despite the fifth year of basically building the same model.
About 22 per cent of all new auto sales in Canada are compacts. Although sales in the segment dipped last year, industry watchers expect compact and subcompact volumes to increase again because of rising fuel prices.
Critics have lauded many Asian cars models during the last 20 years for superior quality and durability but wondered about their conservative stylings.
Akio Toyoda, chief executive officers for Toyota Motor Corp. told reporters at the show that he agrees the Corolla and other company models need styling changes.
“I think (our) cars need to be better looking,” he acknowledged. “I share the need to improve the styling to appeal to customers.
Among other moves, he said Toyota has given its regional design teams in the U.S. and Europe more autonomy in designing cars.
At the same time, Ray Tanguay, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada, said automakers need to be careful not to alienate their loyal core customer base with stylings that are too edgy or flashy.
“You can’t go too far from the norm,” he said.
Veteran industry watcher Dennis DesRosiers expressed disappointment at the unveiling of the Civic because the company did not show the new model’s interior, safety advances and engine specifications.
In response to the criticism, Takedagawa said Honda will reveal more details at other major auto shows during the next few months.