LOS ANGELES - In the past decade, the Honda Civic has become the Generation X equivalent of the '57 Chevy: ubiquitous, inexpensive transportation that is modified easily into a cruisin' hot rod.
A devoted performance-oriented subculture has grown up around the car. It is the vehicle of choice among product-savvy youths who often spend thousands of dollars to modify it with suspension and engine tweaks, and custom paint jobs.
That franchise appears to be losing some of its enthusiasm, though.
A stroll through the SEMA/NOPI aftermarket-parts exposition Feb. 9-11 in Long Beach, Calif., found widespread dissatisfaction with the redesigned 2001 Civic among aftermarket suppliers and buyers, the very gearheads who give the Civic its halo.
Significantly, exhibitors who pride themselves on building cutting-edge performance updates had three times as many previous-generation Civics on display as the 2001 model. More Ford Focus upgrades were on display than new Civics.
That's because Honda has lost touch with the following it created, observed Oliver Rathlein, director of marketing for Eibach Springs, a supplier of high-performance suspension parts in Irvine, Calif.
'The new Civic is more like a Toyota Corolla, a multipassenger daily driver,' he said.
Many young buyers criticized the new Civic, too.
Doug Kikuta, a 26-year-old resident of Arcadia, Calif., said he bought one of the last 2000 Civic Si models. He's glad he did.
'A lot of my friends waited for the 2001 Civic, and now they regret doing it,' Kikuta said. 'God, it's ugly, especially the sedan. The front end slope is too short, and it's not proportional to the back.'
While the numbers of such enthusiasts are small relative to Civic sales, their importance to Honda cannot be overstated. By their ripcord impact on trends and culture, the young enthusiast buyers have a nationwide impact on Honda's image in general - and on Civic's marketability specifically.
Last year, the company sold 30 percent of its 325,000 Civics to buyers younger than 25 and another 27 percent to buyers aged 25 to 34. Civic also was the best-selling car in trendy California, accounting for about 25 percent of Civic's nationwide sales.
Honda's target audience for the new Civic sedan is a couple starting a family; the target for the coupe is a young woman newly graduated from college.
Sales of aftermarket parts for Hondas and Acuras represent nearly half of the so-called 'sport compact' segment, which has mushroomed from $295 million in annual sales in 1997 to $1.2 billion in 2000. Civic has been by far the most popular car for modifications, a spokesman for the Specialty Equipment Market Association said.
But Tony Schultz, product manager for Crane Cams in Daytona Beach, Fla., wonders if that dominance will last.
'My distributors think Honda killed the whole program,' he said.
'Honda swayed so far to appeal to the masses that the loyal buyers are going to go somewhere else. It's not what performance buyers would consider playing with.'
Honda spokesman Art Garner acknowledges that the company paid more attention to areas that appeal to mass-market buyers than to enthusiasts, such as a five-star safety rating and ULEV emissions. But Honda engineers are working on getting parts for enthusiasts into the pipeline, he said.
'There's so much that's new - the engine, the platform and the suspension - so the go-fast stuff will take a little longer to develop,' he said.
'No question it's more challenging than the same platform they've had for the last 10 years. But the end result is that it still is a better car.'
To be sure, sales of the new Civic aren't wildly out of line with the previous generation. From September, the first full month of sales for the new model, through December, Civic sales were off only 4 percent from the same period a year earlier.
For January, though, the gap widened to 6 percent. The slight decline could be accounted for by inventory shortages, Garner points out.
But that doesn't mean the new model is a winner with the hip and the restless.
The kids aren't all right
'The new one just doesn't look right,' said Brian Pinchon, a 20-year-old from Chino Hills, Calif., who owns a 1998 coupe with $8,000 in modifications.
'It looks like a step down from how Honda makes cars. Lowering the old one was easy with the double wishbones. You'd just throw on some springs, and you'd be set.'
Logan Honma, owner of a 1995 Civic coupe with $5,000 in modifications, worries about Honda's commitment to performance.
'They got rid of the Si and the hatchback. I wish they hadn't done that. The new Civic is taller, and I don't like that either,' said Honma, the 31-year-old vice president of Hyper Motorsports in Torrance, Calif.
Kikuta, who has done some light modifications to his Civic, thinks the 2001 model fails to uphold the sport-compact attributes of its predecessors.
'It's not as performance-oriented as it used to be, especially with the struts (in the front suspension) instead of the double wishbones. And the horsepower gain is negligible because it's a heavier car,' Kikuta said.
Jason Bruce, manager of international performance for Holley Performance Products in Bowling Green, Ky., is not as hard on the new model.
'Civic is still the dominant car. The (aftermarket parts) segment is still 60 percent Civic, 10 percent Acura Integra, and the rest split up among everyone else,' Bruce said. 'It will take a year or so for engine mod kits to arrive for the new Civic, and then you'll see some quick reaction. Just wait for the wing and body guys to get to it.'
No more dominance
Meanwhile, the competition is starting to horn in on Civic's stomping grounds.
Pam Olson, a 29-year-old graphic designer from Westminster, Calif., decided on a silver Toyota Celica instead of a Civic.
'Everybody has a Civic, and the Celica is different, with performance that's a lot better than the old one,' said Olson, who has $3,500 worth of modifications to her car.
Olson is a big reason other companies are spending money to gain the affections of the youth sport-compact buyer. The perception that the segment belonged to Honda is disappearing, as evidenced by Ford releasing the SVT Focus as well as Toyota selling both TRD and Kazuma lines of aftermarket parts.
'Focus has put some lifeblood and enthusiasm back in our car line,' said Paul Russell, Ford manager of global marketing for brand enhancement and alliance.
'There's a definite street-level buzz, even though the actual percentage of modified Focuses is between 10 and 20 percent. But we realize the potential is there. We're pursuing it and going for it.'
Honda is ready for the challenge, Garner said.
'A lot of people are talking about running circles around Civic, but no one has done it yet,' he said. 'Quality is a big concern with these kids, and they don't want to keep going back for recalls and warranty concerns.
'A year from now, when the kids see what's out there (on the aftermarket) for the Civic, we won't be having this conversation.'