Honda bases Civic Si on European hatchback

SEATTLE — With a sales target of only 15,000 units a year, the high-performance Si version of the Honda Civic will account for a miniscule 5 percent of U.S. Civic sales for the 2002 model year.

It is the type of people likely to buy the car — young , predominantly male, with a good income — that prompts Honda to create a fifth generation of the Civic Si, which goes on sale next spring.

The key selling points for the young, male buyer are engine performance, good handling and sporty styling, said Dan Bonawitz, vice president of corporate planning and logistics for American Honda Motor Co., at a press introduction here for the car.

Europe tapped

Honda found the easiest way to meet those targets was to take advantage of the high-performance version of the latest-generation, three-door Civic developed for European and Asian markets.

Due to capacity constraints at the Civic factory in Ohio, the Civic Si will be built in Swindon, England.

That strategy brings over a stylish, two-box design that is only slightly bigger than the previous Civic hatchback, but it has more interior room. It also has a shift lever mounted high on the center stack of the instrument panel, similar to designs used in rally racing cars. The shift lever design shortens the distance the driver must move his hand from the steering wheel to reach the lever, Honda said.

Honda dropped the hatchback Civic from its U.S. lineup when the compact car was redesigned for the 2001 model year.

Because previous generations of the Civic Si have been offered in limited numbers and have been sellouts, Honda officials expect the new Si to follow the same pattern. The Civic Si was last offered in 2000, in a coupe body style. It sold about 20,000 units.

Crowded segment

But the new Si will launch into a market segment that is being targeted by a growing number of automakers who also crave the attention and loyalty of young, male buyers. Among those already playing in the “hot hatchback” market are Volks-wagen, with the GTI, and Nissan, with the Sentra SE-R Spec V. Ford will have an SVT Focus next spring for the 2002 model year. All those entries are competing at the same $18,000 price point as the Civic Si.

While the hatchback Civic is being transplanted virtually unchanged from the Europe design, two concessions needed to be made.

In Europe and Asia, the Civic carries the Type-R designation. But it carries the Si badge in North America for the sake of continuity and to avoid confusion with the Acura luxury division, which badges the high-performance version of its vehicles as Type-S.

American Honda has been studying using the Si badge on other vehicles in its lineup, Bonawitz said.

Also, the European Civic Type-R carries a 200-hp version of the 2.0-liter, double-overhead-cam, inline four-cylinder engine. But the Civic Si uses a 160-hp version of the engine, to avoid stepping on the toes of the new Acura RS-X, which uses the Civic platform and offers both 160-hp and 200-hp versions of the engine.

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