It’s hard to overstate the popularity of the Honda Civic in Canada. It’s actually not too far a stretch to say if the Honda Civic were entirely Canadian, it may have appeared on a stamp or a coin by now.
That the Civic is yet again the most popular passenger vehicle in Canada shouldn’t come as a surprise. It has done this for 19 years running. And it’s really a remarkable feat, considering the Civic’s humble beginnings.
Honda Canada Manufacturing (HCM) introduced the first Civic in 1973, four years after establishing a Canadian foothold for its power equipment and motorcycles.
The Civic Coupe featured a four-cylinder engine generating 50 horsepower. Its quirky styling and efficient use of space saw the Civic win numerous international awards. By the time 1976 rolled around, the Honda Civic was the best-selling import car in Canada, a distinction it held on to for more than two years.
1985 Honda Civic
Subsequent versions proved just as popular, with the second-generation Civic winning Motor Trend magazine’s 1980 “Import Car of the Year”; and the addition of four-door, five-door, and Si versions attracting a wider range of buyers.
In spite of all that success, the Civic became known for a flaw that threatened to derail its momentum: it rusted at the first sniff of road salt. It was a problem even as late as 1989, the year Dave Gardner joined Honda Canada as a district sales manager.
Visiting a small Honda dealership in Ottawa during his early days on the job, Gardner, now senior vice-president of operations, noticed a large number of rear-quarter body panels in the shop. Dealers were instructed to replace, free of charge, panels exhibiting the early onset of rust.
“We overcame that perception [of Hondas rusting] by taking ownership of the problem and taking action for it,” Gardner says. “It helped build loyalty with our customers.”
It can be argued the Civic’s penchant for rusting proved a blessing in disguise. The vehicle was an otherwise reliable mode of transportation, widely available on the used car market and, because of the rusting problem, at prices that made it a favourite for anyone looking for an inexpensive ride.
2000 Civic Coupe
There was also a generational hand-off of the Honda Civic. Parents would pass on their Civic to a child heading off to university or their first job.
The fourth-generation model introduced in 1987 saw the first SiR version with its high-performance DOHC VTEC engine, a powerplant that would attract the tuning crowd.
Any car company executive will tell you getting consumers to try a brand is the most important step to getting them to stick with your brand. As more Canadians got behind the wheel of a Honda Civic, more and more would stick with it.
In 1998, over 50,000 Honda Civics were sold in Canada, handily beating the Chevy Cavalier for the title of best-selling passenger vehicle in Canada, and beginning the Civic’s streak of 19 years at the top. Rusting issues, now a concern of the past, were supplanted by a strong new reputation for reliability, safety, and value.
Customer loyalty and reputation were now so firmly in place, the Honda Civic would enjoy its most successful year in Canada at a time of economic instability. In 2008, as global capital markets tumbled and consumer confidence crumbled, 72,463 Honda Civics were sold in Canada. That’s just over 6,000 cars per month, or nearly 200 per day.
2012 Honda Civic sedan
The vehicle’s success in Canada has not gone unnoticed in Japan. HCM is the only Honda division worldwide that enjoys the distinction of leading an entire category (passenger vehicle sales) in its market.
When Honda scaled back its investment in the Civic to deal with challenging economic conditions, the underwhelming reception of the redesigned 2012 Civic forced the company to put the vehicle through a series of refreshes that were uncommon so early in a vehicle’s life.
“Our perception now is such that we have a certain high level to maintain,” says Gardner. “If we don’t, people get disappointed.”
To say the Honda Civic is a Canadian success story is an understatement. Since it was first introduced in 1973, close to four million Civics have been manufactured right here in Canada at HCM in Alliston, Ontario, for markets in Canada, the US, and beyond. The company estimates over one million Civics still drive on Canadian roads today.
So it’s pretty safe to say you can expect to see Civics around here for some time to come. At the rate it’s going, Canadians may yet see a Honda Civic stamp or coin in their lifetime.