LOS ANGELES -- Jay Guzowski was getting more nervous by the day.
As senior product planner for the redesign of the 2012 Honda Civic, Guzowski was shepherding the compact car from design freeze to market. But as he listened to others around the American Honda conference table -- with a year to go before the car's on-sale date -- he heard a disturbing refrain: The upcoming Civic was not good enough.
He had heard it before, but now there was a drumbeat from corporate managers, r&d engineers and dealers.
In 2009, Honda had witnessed the wreckage of the global economy after the Lehman Brothers collapse. The Civic's development had almost reached design freeze when Honda executives decided the car would seem too upscale for an entry-level offering. The content level needed to be reduced to reflect cautious consumer tastes. Honda Motor Co. CEO Takanobu Ito's decision to take content out of the 2012 Civic would delay the car's launch by nearly six months, from late 2010 to early 2011.
In the interim, though, industry scuttlebutt was that the competing Hyundai Elantra, Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus redesigns weren't cutting back on equipment and content just because consumer confidence had taken a hit.
The photos, renderings and prototypes confirmed just that. The new Civic looked cheap by comparison. The interior materials and fabrics chosen may have cut costs but were clearly inferior. The layout of the instrument panel and center cluster was cluttered and jumbled, with too many cut lines and low-grade plastics. Changes to the exterior styling were barely discernible from the outgoing model.
"The feedback we heard was loud and clear," Guzowski said. "I was taking the temperature and making sure it wasn't a one-off we were hearing."
Guzowski looked at his calendar -- April 2010. Then 33 years old, he had been at Honda only a few years, after stints at Volvo Cars of North America and American Suzuki's ad agency, Colby & Partners. Guzowski, a former instructor at Art Center College of Design and analyst with Honda R&D Americas, understood when Honda stylists and engineers described their worries about the car. His next task was to steel himself to inform his bosses far up the executive ladder that their franchise car didn't measure up.
It was too late to save the 2012 Civic. All Honda could do was limit the damage.
"We read the market wrong," admitted Vicki Poponi, American Honda assistant vice president of product planning and a former executive at Honeywell's Garrett turbocharging division.
"After the Lehman shock, we thought there would be different consumer behaviors. We knew that unemployment would last a long time and that there would be recessional trends. We thought consumers would be more sparse in their needs and be tightening their belts. The Civic was going to reflect that world," Poponi said.
But after internal study teams expressed concern that the 2012 Civic was underwhelming, Honda executives faced a big decision.
Honda could let the Civic run for the traditional three model years of the five-year cycle before implementing midcycle improvements. Or the company could deem the car's problems so deep-seated that they needed attention sooner.
The former would involve heavy incentive spending and hurt the brand's image. The latter would require replacing machinery and tooling before they were amortized and would strain Honda's r&d resources. Making big changes to a car before three model years also waves a red -- or white -- flag to the rest of the industry.
But the Civic is Honda's most crucial car. Although the subcompact Fit is beneath it in the lineup and the mid-sized Accord is often a bigger seller, the Civic is the main entry point to the brand.
The Civic was key in the trend of modified tuner cars among young buyers in the '90s. The United States represents almost half of Civic worldwide sales. Nearly one in four Americans who buys a Honda buys a Civic.
Through mid-2010, a few meetings with top management at American Honda -- including CEO Tetsuo Iwamura and sales boss John Mendel, as well as Honda R&D Americas President Erik Berkman -- showed that Honda couldn't wait. The possibility of damaging the brand was too great. A proposal to quick-change the Civic was sent to Toshihiko Nonaka, head of Honda R&D in Japan, who concurred.
"We saw that it wasn't going to be best in class," Poponi said. "We saw that we didn't go far enough. There was no wait-and-see, no gnashing of teeth or debates about what we have to do. Everybody was right on board."
Because Honda is a proudly lean organization, blame for the 2012 Civic could be assigned to many people. But after the car was unveiled with a thud, Ito publicly accepted the blame at the Tokyo auto show in November 2011, saying, "The ultimate responsibility rests with me."
The intimation was that Ito was ensuring that the 2013 update wouldn't fall short.