Civic hatch: exported from Swindon to San Francisco (and many more places the world over)

Civic hatch: exported from Swindon to San Francisco (and many more places the world over)

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Automotive trade between EU countries and the USA may soon enter a strange era. Should the Trump Administration levy duties on imports from the UK, the timing for Honda would be terrible: thanks in part to rising interest in the five-door hatchback made solely in England, the Civic has just become America's best selling car. 

In May, the Civic became the US number one car, outselling the Camry by almost 5,000 units. Ytd, it now lags the larger Toyota by roughly the same number.

We all know that pick-ups and SUVs are the kinds of vehicles which remain wildly popular in the US. Cars are by no means in major decline though, as an examination of the sales charts reveals. As some OEMs bail out of segments, those which remain lap up new business.

SUVs boom in US, cars spiral downwards. Right?

Look at what's happening in the large sedan class: Ford announced that it won't be replacing the Taurus, FCA is dithering over a successor for the Chrysler 300 and GM is saying nothing about a successor for the Chevy Impala. Meanwhile, the new Toyota Avalon is selling strongly and the Nissan Maxima and Hyundai Grandeur will also start to take sales from those who formerly had been loyal to The Detroit Three.

Honda, while enormously popular in the US, never shows outright aggression in the way that larger car makers do. Quiet progress is more its way of doing things. Which is how the CR-V crept up not only other Compact SUVs but also Honda's own Civic and Accord a couple of years ago. It then went on to overtake all comers and become the US' best selling SUV.

Nearly three-year old Civic overtakes new Camry

This year, as the curvy tenth generation model approaches the middle part of what will likely be a five to six year production cycle in North America, the Civic is coming into its own. Not only has it climbed past the newer Accord, itself a massively popular model, but in May, Honda's number one model also became the USA's number one car. In so doing, it outsold the Camry by almost 5,000 units. Five months into 2018, the Civic has closed the gap to Toyota Motor Sales USA's best seller by around the same margin, which is 150,580 versus 144,897 for the Honda.

As May's registrations data show, the Civic has become the default choice for the majority of Americans buying cars. Increasingly, and no doubt influenced by something of a halo effect from the Type R, the five-door hatchback versions are selling at a faster rate of improvement than the sedan and coupe. Numbers requested from and provided by American Honda show this trend.

USA: the rise and rise of the Civic hatch

In CY2017, total Civic sales (sedan, coupe, hatchback, Si sedan, Si coupe, Type R) amounted to 377,286 cars. Of these, 16.4 per cent, or 61,845 units were the hatchback. As for the Type R, which became available in mid-June 2017, 3,099 were sold, representing 0.8 per cent of total Civic volume.

Year to date, Honda (25,051), is ahead of Citroen (23,103) and not too far behind Mini (25,949) in the UK sales charts.

Now, during the most recent month, 34,349 Civics were sold. Hatchback volume was 6,464 units, representing 18.8 per cent, and the Type R rose to 1.2 per cent of volume, its total being 412 cars. So Americans are increasingly falling for five-door hatchbacks in the Compact segment. Also, what should be a very small sales tally for what is an expensive, specialist model with flamboyant wings and other body addenda, is also bringing a good amount of business Honda's way. Those who a few years ago bravely made the decision to keep investing in the Swindon plant west of London will be happy and greatly relieved by these developments.

Europe: finally, Honda climbs out of a hole

Meanwhile, in Britain and other EU/EFTA countries, Honda is at long last seeing an improvement to its sales performance. May was a good month for both: in the UK, the market dipped but Honda did not. Sales rose by 13 per cent, to 3,825 vehicles. Remember though that the brand has fallen a long, long way during this decade. Still, good news is good news. Year to date (25,051), it's ahead of Citroen (23,103) and not too far behind Mini (25,949). Nissan, which is falling all over Europe due to the decision to keep the Juke on sale way beyond a normal life cycle, is now on 50,941 registrations, which adds some perspective.

For the whole of Europe, Honda registrations rose by 5.2 per cent to 11,088 cars, as reported by ACEA. That equated to a 0.8 per cent share of the market. While admittedly tiny, at least the brand finally seems to have bottomed and is at last in an upswing: the equivalent numbers for May 2017 were 0.7 per cent and 10,537 and last month, Honda outsold Land Rover. Those numbers also reveal how reliant Honda Motor Europe is on the UK market.

Swindon-built diesel new for Civic hatch and sedan

It won't be a major seller but Honda Motor Europe's decision to import the Civic sedan from the US is a good one. It lands in Britain in August and gives the brand's dealers fresh ammunition as they wait for a new CR-V. That's not due in Europe until year-end - two years since its US debut - and the hybrid will be added in 2019.

Once that sixth generation CR-V finally reaches Europe, Honda will have wound up build of the outgoing model at Swindon. That means only five-door Civics will be built there. It's a risky strategy and one which yet again makes many wonder if the factory will survive, especially given all the potential pitfalls ahead. Some of those might include currency volatility between the pound/euro/dollar, a potential sudden slowing of inward investment to Britain and/or anxious consumers delaying non-essential spending.

UK manufacturing - Honda says it's here to stay

Honda's UK MD Ian Howells recently insisted at a Brexit event organised by the Financial Times that even if Britain crashed out of the Union with no customs-free deal agreed with the remaining Member states, Honda would not be shutting up shop. Swindon produces 600 cars a day and some 3,500 workers rely on it for their income. His words were in contrast to those spoken by BMW Group's head of customs compliance. Speaking to the same newspaper earlier this week, Stephan Freismuth stated something which, chillingly, could easily happen: Mini and Rolls-Royce production in England might end if the parts supply chain is interrupted. The company then stated that his comments had been taken out of context and that no plants would be closing. BMW does not want to cause panic amongst its workers and suppliers yet the suspicion remains that all car makers operating in the UK may have some deeply challenging times coming soon.

There are so many fantastically over-engineered things about the Civic Type R.

Let's hope that it doesn't come to the nuclear option for Honda. As with BMW's Cowley works, it's good to see that Honda's site at Swindon is churning out ever more examples of the Civic. This is one of the C segment's sleeper models, at least in European countries. It really does deserve to be better known and bought in greater numbers.

Type R: the £34,000 Honda Civic that's a future classic

The Type R in particular is a sensation. Having spent some time driving one last year, I needed no excuses when given the chance to get back behind the wheel. You have to keep reminding yourself that it doesn't have four-wheel drive, so good is the car's ability to rocket off the mark and corner with such finesse. The looks might not be everyone's cup of fermented rice but you cannot fault Honda for continuing to build up the cult of the Type R.

Nobody who saw the car during my week with it blanched when told it cost GBP34,000. Even those who thought it too unsubtle to be parked in their middle class neighbourhoods knew something of the name's heritage. But yes, in Britain, there is also that image. To some, it's all a bit Fast and Furious. To me though, the appearance of those cars in the first film of the franchise only supports how cool any super-Civic is.

Many of us love the Type R for its mad rear wing, the deep front apron, red seat belts and racing-style seats. It looks sensational in red but perhaps less so in white or grey. If you're going to have a car which looks outrageous, why order it in anything other than a dramatic colour?

You can also tell that the Type R has been designed to remain a practical hatchback: there is lots of room in the back, luggage space is vast and even the outsized tailgate wing has a dual-purpose nature by being easy to grab hold of and pull the boot closed with.

Banzai? Yes. Boom-box? No.

There are so many fantastically over-engineered things about the fastest Civic, just one of them being the exhaust outlets. There are three of these, the one in the middle being used in light-throttle conditions. Don't think this is one of those tuned Japanese cars which is all boom-boom and irritatingly buzzy at higher revs. Honda has cleverly had its suppliers' engineers design the path which the gases must follow in such a way that they are slowed as they reach the smallest tailpipe. These are then forced out of the other two, either side of it, each of which has a large muffler. There is no speaker, no electronically generated noise, and no opening or closing of flaps. Which explains the lack of bassy boom. Yes, a Civic Type R is civilised. Most of the time.

Multi-country production and another still to come

Honda of Canada Manufacturing remains the lead global plant for the tenth generation Civic. This meant that Alliston in Ontario was the first site to launch the current model into mass production. Further, HCM was responsible for developing the manufacturing processes and tooling trials that form the base at all global locations which build or assemble Civics. The sedan and coupe came first, followed by the hatchback and then a five-door Type R. There is no wagon with this generation.

There will also be a 1.5-litre petrol hybrid later in the car's lifecycle.

As well as at Alliston 1 and in Swindon, the 2SV series Civic is made in Japan (Saitama), Wuhan 1 (China), Greensburg (USA), Sumare (Brazil), Gebze (Turkey), Prachin Buri (Thailand) and Manga Mandi (Pakistan). Indian assembly will commence later this year, once the facelifted model has been announced. That should be soon.

Here in Europe, aside from the imminent arrival of the sedan for the UK market, the most recent news was the addition of a 1.6-litre diesel for the hatchback (February), with automatic transmission to become available in August. There will also be a 1.5-litre petrol hybrid later in the car's lifecycle. This will be the same powertrain as features in the CR-V Hybrid.

Civic duty?

With luck, Honda of the UK Manufacturing will continue to enjoy strong demand for its cars, especially in the US. Will there be import duties slapped on the Civic? And what of the other threat - components being held up at British ports post-Brexit in 2019? We don't know the answers to these questions right now. For Honda it has to be a case of lobbying national governments and supranational authorities to keep the business of cross-border trade flowing with low or no duties.

It would be way worse than a shame - it could be disastrous - if the future of the Swindon plant became perilous just as things are looking the best which they have done for many years. 

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