Honda has made a quick U-turn.
Just 19 months after its Civic compact hit showrooms and was slammed by critics, the company has revamped the car, giving it a sportier look and upgrading the interior.
It's an unusual and costly do-over. But Honda -- among the auto industry's most highly regarded brands -- was worried the car's flaws would hurt sales and market share, analysts say.
The 2013 version goes on sale Thursday, and Honda has given it a sportier profile, replaced its chintzy dashboard and made the ride quieter. The revamp comes to market in about half the time it normally takes and shows how concerned Honda is about falling behind rivals.
"The new consumer coming to the marketplace looking for a compact car doesn't think the Civic is a slam-dunk anymore," says Jesse Toprak, vice president of market intelligence for the TrueCar.com.
To be sure, criticism of the 2012 Civic hasn't dented demand. Sales of the car have risen to 255,000 through October, up 39 percent from last year. The car has passed the aging Toyota Corolla and the Chevrolet Cruze to become the nation's top-selling compact.
But the increase came mainly because Civics were in short supply last year following an earthquake in Japan. Loyal customers delayed purchases until the Civic returned, Toprak said. The Civic also is selling well because of discounts, he said. Dealers are knocking about $2,500 off the sticker price to clear out 2012 models. Discounts usually run about $500.
Instead of making a few cosmetic changes that normally come in the middle of a car's life, the company did an overhaul. It added insulation to cut engine noise, put in thicker glass to reduce wind, and made the brakes larger to stop the car faster. The seat material was upgraded, and Honda added a softer dashboard with two colors. Outside, the car got it a more aerodynamic look with a new hood, trunk lid and lights.
The improvements are so vast that Honda must have started working on them even before the 2012 went on sale, Lindland says. That's before the criticism came from Consumer Reports and others.
Lindland, who drove the 2013 Civic in advance of its Thursday debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show, says it's far better than the 2012. "I was really impressed with how quiet it was," she says. "It's just a more refined and more elegant small car."
Toprak says the new Civic looks like an expensive luxury car, especially when compared with its predecessor.
The revamp is costing about $500 per car, Honda estimates. Toprak says the spending was necessary to attract new buyers. Many people who would have bought larger cars are now looking at compacts because they're in fashion, he says.
Compact car sales now account for 14.6 percent of the U.S. market, up 2.2 percentage points from just five years ago, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank.
Honda will get part of the revamping cost back by raising the base price of the Civic LX by $160 to $18,965 with an automatic transmission. But the company eliminated the stripped-down DX version, which started at just over $17,000 with automatic.
The quick do-over puts the Civic back among the top cars in its segment, says Lindland. But it doesn't mean that all automakers will upgrade their cars every 19 months.
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