With so much at stake, where’s the sizzle?

Warren Brown
Columnist June 24, 2011

Anonymity in a crowd is great in a city where disappearing is sometimes desirable. But it does not work for the 2012 Honda Civic HF sedan or its other Civic siblings.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

The low visual impact of the new car best explains Honda’s use of nonsensical television commercials featuring mummies, poorly costumed “action heroes” and other entities you’d rather not see in the morning, or after the late-night news.

It is an uncommonly silly marketing approach for Honda — a mistake reminiscent of a smart but otherwise boring third-grader engaging in hyperactive goofiness to attract hoped-for favorable attention from classmates.

Alas, it does not work in the classroom. Nor does it work in the marketplace.

Honda’s problem has much to do with Honda tradition. The company that “makes it simple” should have made it less so in what is now a hypercompetitive market for small, fuel-efficient automobiles.

That market is demanding more than miles per gallon. It’s also asking for more than reliability, safety and, in an economy car, some aspect of “fun-to-drive.” The 2012 Honda Civic HF, a front-wheel-drive sedan, has all those things. But it lacks standout style in a retail segment increasingly populated by pretty cars.

Take a look at the Chevrolet Cruze, Chrysler 200, Fiat 500, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra or Kia Forte. They all have a visual “Wow!” factor, an attractive swagger that the new Civic lacks.

Civic aficionados might scoff. They shouldn’t. A two-word truth: Sex sells.

All other things being equal, or reasonably so, as has become the case in the segment for compact automobiles, sex will beat you — or at least take valuable market share — every time.

It is as if in their ninth-generation rework of the Civic, a car first introduced in 1972, Honda executives decided they would do only what was practically necessary to make the car better. Better engine? Yes, particularly in the more powerful Civic Si model. Better fuel economy? Yes. Throw in better technology (onboard navigation, telecommunications and the use of low-friction, more fuel-efficient tires on the HF model driven for this column).

But should anyone venture to make the new Civic better-looking than any of its predecessors? The apparent answer at Honda was a resounding “No!”

It is as if Honda’s executives didn’t bother to examine the competition, as if they wrote off that growing population of attractive car bodies and equally attractive automobile interiors as so much meaningless puffery. They made a mistake.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying the new Civic is ugly. I am saying it does not turn many heads in a car segment filled with rivals that do. I am not saying that beauty speaks to drivability and reliability. It goes beyond that. It speaks to the soul. It elicits smiles. Nearly all of the Civic’s rivals have commendable affordability, drivability, durability, reliability and safety. Those items are no longer points of contention in the small-car segment.

The battle for consumers’ minds in the small-car segment is over, largely aided by the Internet and publications such as Consumer Reports magazine. Any shopper desiring a rundown on car reliability and safety, including on the newest models, can get it. As a result, no car company worthy of the name would dare introduce a compact economy car that fails to meet basic consumer demands and needs.

The current battle in the small-car segment is for hearts. As nutty as it might seem to more practical sorts, it literally is for the consumer’s love. Italy’s Fiat, which has introduced the lovable little Fiat 500 on these shores, knows this, and it is working hard to get through its first year of Fiat 500 sales in the United States without any embarrassing quality problems.

That is not something that Honda has to worry about with its 2012 Honda Civic HF. The car is impeccably well-constructed and engineered. It is the perfect city automobile in terms of parking, fuel consumption and maneuvering through urban congestion.

But the new Civic has the personality of a mummy, one that has been reincarnated as a household appliance. Its exterior is aerodynamically efficient but woefully lacking in anything approaching artistry. Sexy it is not. Its interior is akin to a chapel in a convent — simple, sparse, functional, devoid of anything that would lead you to an occasion of sin.

That’s too bad. As many Honda Civic rivals are discovering, a little sin can bring big profit.

SECTION: {section=cars, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=3, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=15, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=3, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=3, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=3, max_items_to_display_top=15, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=3, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=15, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=3, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=cars, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=3, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=15, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=3, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=3, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=3, max_items_to_display_top=15, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=3, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=15, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=3, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments