Honda is scrambling to revamp its Civic just eight months after a new version hit showrooms, and critics say it's an admission the compact car fell short in quality and handling.
The revamp, to come by the end of 2012, is rare because new models aren't usually overhauled for at least three years. Honda executives say they're simply trying to stay ahead in an increasingly competitive small-car market.
The move comes as small car sales are on the rise in the United States and more people choose them because of worries about gas prices and car payments. Compacts are no longer the cramped econoboxes of the 1980s and 1990s, and they have many of the same amenities as larger cars.
The new Civic was panned by critics when it started arriving at dealerships in April. Consumer Reports magazine said it was less agile than its predecessor and that its interior quality was worse. The magazine refused to give the Civic its coveted "Recommended Buy" rating, saying the braking distances were long and it suffered from a choppy ride. The car's sales ranked fourth among U.S. compacts from May through November.
The previous Civic, which came out in 2005, was known for its sporty driving, high-quality interiors, lack of noise and excellent braking, says David Champion, senior director of auto testing for Consumer Reports.
"The new one seems to have fallen apart in those areas," says Champion, who thinks Honda cut costs with the 2012 version.
Honda also recalled more than 1,000 of the 2012 Civics because a fuel line could leak due to a manufacturing error.
Honda has told dealers a reworked Civic will arrive before the end of next year. The car starts around $16,000, and a base model with automatic transmission gets 32 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving. Its price and fuel mileage are about the same as its competitors.
American Honda President Tetsuo Iwamura said Tuesday the company will improve the Civic's drivability, but he stopped short of saying exactly what the company will do to the rest of the car.
"It's about, how do we get two or three laps ahead of the competition?" says American Honda Executive Vice President John Mendel.
In the past two years, the compact-car race between the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla became a free-for-all that included high-quality entries from Chevrolet, Ford and Hyundai.