Honda needs to fix focus on building desirable, sporty cars

It’s impossible to overstate the chill that ran through Honda when the new Civic flunked Consumer Reports’ compact car comparison test last week.

The Civic is Honda, in much the same way that the F-150 pickup is Ford. It’s the cornerstone of Honda’s reputation and the best-selling car in the company’s history.

I’d say that Honda gets pneumonia when the Civic catches a cold, except that this is the first time the Civic has even sneezed in its 39-year run as the company’s icon-in-chief. It was an unquestioned bastion of dependability, efficiency and value.

So Honda had a problem when Consumer Reports’ headline proclaimed, “The Honda Civic rolls backward while the Ford Focus pulls ahead.”

Consumer Reports’ respected director of automotive testing David Champion squeezed a little lemon juice into that paper cut: “While other models like the Hyundai Elantra have gotten better after being redesigned, the Civic has dropped so much that now it ranks near the bottom of its category.”

This isn’t the first sign of trouble at Honda. It’s been years since the company launched a real hit. The strongest vehicles in its U.S. lineup are arguably the Odyssey minivan and Pilot SUV. That sounds more like a description of Chrysler in the bad old days than the inventive little company that became Japan’s best automaker.

The technical leadership and innovation that once distinguished every Honda have been in short supply. Competitors from Ford, GM and Hyundai to Volkswagen have surged ahead in drivetrain technology. That should have been a wakeup call to one of the world’s great engine makers, but Honda didn’t seem to notice as leadership slipped from its hands.

Honda defined affordable, efficient performance for a generation. Its reliable, efficient, responsive and sporty cars became the smart choice for practical buyers and cost-conscious enthusiasts.

It needs to refocus and buckle down to regain that status.

Instead, Honda went into denial.

“We fundamentally disagree with their suggestion that Civic doesn’t rank among their recommended small cars,” Honda sales boss John Mendel wrote in a memo to dealers.

Two quick points:

• Consumer Reports didn’t “suggest” the new 2012 Civic is inadequate; they flat-out said it, declaring the new car worse than its competitors, and in fact, worse, than the previous-generation Civic.

• Only CR gets to decide which cars earn its coveted “recommended” status. Honda is free to dislike the result. It does not get to re-order the results of CR’s tests. The bottom line: Honda recommends the Civic; Consumer Reports doesn’t.

Honda also complained that CR tested only one Civic model — the LX, the best-selling Civic. The memo says “customers can literally find a Civic that meets a variety of needs and interests.”

As endorsements go, that ranks with, “Of all the people I’ve ever met, you’re one of them.”

You may think I’m nitpicking Honda’s choice of words, but words matter, especially when they tell you how a company responds to a problem.

Ford was the last automaker on the receiving end of this kind of ire from CR when the magazine slammed the Explorer SUV earlier this year.

“We take all feedback — including Consumer Reports’ — seriously and will use it as we continuously improve all of our vehicles,” Ford said at the time. Since then, the company has made several software updates to improve the system. More are in the works.

Honda should take notes.

Mark Phelan/Detroit Free Press