Honda Motor Co. (NYSE:HMC) pulled off a big surprise in New York on Wednesday when it unveiled an all-new -- and dramatically styled -- Civic compact.
Honda describes the new Civic as a "concept," but it's making no secret of the fact that it intends to put this concept car into production. It is scheduled to arrive at U.S. Honda dealers this fall as a 2016 model.
So what is it like? Well, that was part of the surprise.
A new twist on a dependable mainstay
For nine generations, the Honda Civic has been a great car for buyers on a budget who want dependable and safe transportation. It has never been the plushest or sportiest car, but it's a good, reliable buy.
But lately, Honda has had a harder time defending its compact-car turf. It's not that recent Civics have been bad, but that rivals across the board have raised their games. Ten years ago, a Civic was clearly a better choice for most value-minded buyers than a Ford Focus. But now? With its solid feel, plush interior, and reliability that is no longer far behind the Honda's, the Focus has become a much more compelling alternative.
As are many of the Civic's other rivals.
Clearly, Honda was feeling some pressure to tweak the Civic's formula. And it has done so: The new Civic will surely continue to be comfortable, reliable, and affordable transportation, but now it's got something else: sporty charisma.
A new turbo engine to back up the Civic's newly sporty look
The new Civic isn't significantly larger than the old one, but it has a longer wheelbase. That should improve its handling a bit, and it definitely improves legroom for rear-seat passengers. In front, the Civic's new face is still friendly, but it's also a bit aggressive.
Under the hood is a choice of two four-cylinder engines, including Honda's new 1.5-liter VTEC turbo. Those engines can be mated to a six-speed manual transmission or a new continuously variable transmission that Honda describes as "more sporty and efficient."
Honda executives touted the new car's stiff body structure, which should give the Civic a quieter interior and tauter handling. That body structure will be offered in three styles: the traditional sedan and coupe, and what Honda calls a "five-door" -- a four-door hatchback.
I wasn't able to see the new car's interior. (That could be why Honda is describing the Civic as a "concept" right now -- the interior might not be finalized.) But recent U.S.-market Hondas like the Accord and Fit suggest the new Civic's interior should be well-executed and competitive, likely a step up from the current car.
A surprisingly stylish response to fierce competitive pressure
Buyers might be moving away from compact cars in favor of crossovers these days, but the Civic remains hugely important to Honda in the U.S. The company sold just under 326,000 Civics in the U.S. last year, about 26,000 a month on average.
But that was down from the 336,000 it sold in 2013, and clearly Honda is feeling the competitive pressure. Now we know how it's going to respond -- with style. Will it sell? Don't bet against it.