Honda Deflects Criticism Of 2012 Civic

Japanese automaker Honda has had a tough time recently. The earthquake and tsunami disrupted production. And now flooding in Thailand is causing more trouble. There are concerns that the quality of Honda's cars may be slipping.

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The Los Angeles Auto Show begins today. It's the first of America's car shows and it's where manufacturers put their best foot forward or try to reinvent themselves. One those carmakers is Honda. Honda's production was badly hurt by Japan's earthquake and tsunami, and as it was getting back on track, the floods in Thailand crippled production again. But as NPR's Sonari Glinton reports from the L.A. Auto Show, natural disasters may be the least of Honda's problems.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: I'm here with David Champion, he's director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports. Hello David, how are you doing?

DAVID CHAMPION: I'm doing fine, thank you.

GLINTON: What are we looking here?

CHAMPION: This is the new 2012 Honda Civic. The Civic used to be a great car. The new really doesn't match up as well.

GLINTON: Champion says Honda's Civic was once the gold standard for quality in the auto industry but now...

CHAMPION: They just look really cheap the way it's put together. And if you're paying, you know, getting up to $20,000 for a car, you want something that, you know, that's got a bit of quality to it.

JOHN MENDEL: It's always, you know, when you have a championship team that's been kind of the Super Bowl winner for 40 years, there's only one way you can go.

GLINTON: John Mendel is executive vice president at American Honda.

MENDEL: I mean everybody wants to focus on Civic. Is it as exciting as some wanted? No. But, you know what? We've been sold out of Civic basically since we bought the car out. I'll give you the caveat on that, is that we haven't had enough, but we've been sold out.

GLINTON: The reason that Honda has not had enough cars to sell? First, there were supply chain disruptions after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. And then when the company was nearly back to 100 percent came the floods in Thailand. That cut supplies to vital computer components among other key parts. Mendel says after the Japanese disaster Honda has been better able to manage parts shortages.

MENDEL: It's certainly frustrating nonetheless, you know, just we're back to production, we get back and suddenly get hit with something else again. Unlike the earthquake and tsunami, we know where the end of this is, we can see it. We know where bottom is and we've got a good handle on what we need to do.

GLINTON: To be clear, Honda is still one of the best selling brands in the U.S. And according to Consumer Reports and other agencies that rate cars, Honda is still near the top, quality-wise. Jessica Caldwell is an analyst with the car website edmunds.com. She says Honda is still associated in the minds of consumers with quality, reliability and value.

JESSICA CALDWELL: And those are strong terms for that segment, for compact cars, especially when they're so many new entries in the market. Sometimes people want something that they recognize, something that they trust, and you never have to explain why you own a Honda Civic. It's something that it's universal.

GLINTON: Meanwhile, David Champion with Consumer Reports says without a doubt Honda has a valuable name. But he says in this car environment your reputation only gets you so far.

CHAMPION: It takes a long time to gain that reputation. You know, five to 10 years to gain a reputation like that. Unfortunately in this fickle market if you don't meet that reputation it may only take you two or three years to lose it and to become, you know, a second class player.

GLINTON: Champion says all the car companies here at the auto show want to take Honda's customers. He says Honda only has a short time to fix its problems whether they're due to natural disasters or self imposed. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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