Is the new Civic a ‘game changer’?

Three tough challenges the all-new Honda Civic will have to overcome.

If you’ve somehow just woken up from a six-month hibernation, Honda Malaysia has been busy readying itself for the launch of the tenth generation Civic. Last week, it circulated a release notifying the public that its dealers are ready to accept bookings, and that the all-new Civic is set to be a ‘game changer’ that will ‘revolutionise the segment’.

We get the fighting words. After all, the new Civic has a lot going for it – an outwardly sporty silhouette (I guess the Honda designers were sufficiently rested after falling asleep over the last one), a new turbocharged powertrain with ‘top in class features’ that include Remote Engine Start, Walk Away Auto Lock (isn’t this already found in various Renault models including the C-segment Fluence?), and Electronic Park Brake with Brake Hold (similar to the HR-V’s).

Game, set and match then? Not quite. Unlike the HR-V which courted new buyers and actualised the potential of crossovers/compact SUVs by chalking up impressive sales numbers, the Honda Civic has the unenviable task of redefining the middle-class family sedan. We think there are three key challenges that stand in its way.

The dwindling C-segment

The quintessential family car and mainstay of mainstream brands, the C-segment sedan has over the last decade quietly shed the kingmaker status it once enjoyed in Malaysia. The rise of more affordable B-sedans such as the Toyota Vios and Honda City negated the need for middle-class families to spend anything more than RM90,000 for a dependable daily runner.

As a game-changer – we take that to mean a car that will transcend segments (like the HR-V) and restore lustre to the C-segment – the Civic will have its work cut out. The C-segment share of the TIV has dwindled to around 5% of the TIV over the last few years, barely half of what it used to command. The segment no longer generates as much excitement as other body-styles, even pick-up trucks outshine C-sedans in terms of buzz, not to mention sales numbers. Fact is, families have ready solutions to what a three-box sedan offers. Being a brand new model and seemingly loaded with features, the Civic will wrest the C-sedan crown back from the Toyota Corolla Altis, but it remains to be seen whether it can revive a segment in decline.

Everyone seems to want an SUV

Ironically, the biggest enemy to the Civic could be Honda themselves. As it stands, the soon-to-be-replaced Civic is already way down its in-house sales pecking order, lagging far behind the City, HR-V, Jazz, CR-V and Accord. Assuming Honda Malaysia manages to retain the current on-the-road prices of the Civic from RM116,400 to RM135,900 (no mean feat with that new engine), the issue of cross-shopping won’t go away.

At the lower end of the price spectrum, customers are going to choose between the new Civic and the very well-packaged HR-V. The fact that both have the same powertrain (1.8-litre four-cylinder with continuously variable transmission) muddles the issue. So the choice facing many could well end up to be the top-spec HR-V (now with 17-inch alloys) against an entry-level Civic. Which one would you pick?

The 2016 HR-V has been updated with new 17-inch alloys and ‘ride enhancements’. This or the new Civic?

Moving to the other end, the top dog Civic will have at least a new turbocharged engine to distinguish itself, but it’ll face competition from the evergreen CR-V at RM142,900 –a RM7,000 gap before discounts are factored in (or RM4,334 after factoring the current cash promo of RM2,666.100). Given how resilient the CR-V has been in light of its many direct rivals, and factoring its superb flexibility, the decision won’t be a simple one.

The downsized engine factor

While the Germans luxury brands don’t seem to face much resistance in terms of packing their cars with small capacity turbo-charged engines, the same can’t be said of mass market brands. Yes, engine capacity is a perception issue, but for the big three Japanese brands, this is an untested territory (except for turbo-charged diesels on pick-ups and frame-based SUVs), so it will be very interesting to see whether buyers (non-enthusiast majority) will be dissuaded by the prospects of a 174hp/220Nm 1.5-litre engine in a C-sedan, turbo-charged or otherwise. It doesn’t help that for a little bit more money, you can get yourself into a swankier 2.0-litre Accord at RM141,100, or under RM140K after discounts.

Will the downsized turbo engine finally gain mass acceptance?
And then there’s the economy…

The dip in consumer confidence is impacting big ticket items such as properties and cars. In fact, weak sentiments are already bamboozling just about every other new model being launched this year, and the Honda Civic won’t be immune to this. If Honda’s past practices are of any indication, the pre-launch booking period of the new Civic should last around a month before its official unveiling. Suffice to say, we’ll find out soon enough if the market finds the Honda Civic to be the ‘game changer’ it is touted as.