When the Experts Hate a Car—And It Sells Well Anyway

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Experts like to think that their opinions matter quite a lot, especially for reviews of big-ticket items like cars. But consumers have been showing lately that, if the price is right, they’re more than willing to disregard those expert opinions.

In a Consumer Reports’ review published in the summer of 2011, editors noted that the Honda Civic has “long ranked among CR’s top small sedans.” And yet, because the 2012 LX model “feels insubstantial with a cheap interior,” the “ride is marred by frequent short pitches,” “road noise still remains an annoying companion,” and several other reasons, the vehicle’s scores were too low for the magazine to recommend it to buyers.

This alone was news. The Civic had been a regular presence on “best” and “top pick” lists, and here it was in a form not even good enough for a basic recommendation. The vehicle was even dubbed “a loser.”

A Wall Street Journal review went over the top in its assessment:

The redesigned 2012 Honda Civic—one of the most successful cars in U.S. auto history, a nameplate burnished with the grateful tears of generations of Americans—is a dud. A sham. A shud. Massive fail, LOL.

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Later in the story, though, the reviewer acknowledged that the 2012 Civics are “actually pretty good cars,” but that “merely decent feels like a betrayal from Honda.”

To restore the Civic and Honda brands, a so-called “emergency redesign” was launched, with an all-new 2013 model introduced roughly a year and a half after the reviewer-bashed model surfaced. Dealerships offered big incentives and rebates to boost sales on the supposedly hated 2012 model as well. These sales brought to light the fact that many drivers are OK with a “merely decent” Honda Civic, especially one with a marked-down price.

An Automotive News article summed up the curious turn of events:

Once customers heard about the great deals on the ’12, as early as last spring, they started flooding dealerships. Critical comments in the press be damned — there were deals on the Civic to be had.

Even with new 2013 models on the way, Honda dealers kept trying to get more and more 2012 Civics. Last fall, it was noted, “criticism of the 2012 Civic hasn’t dented demand. Sales of the car have risen to 255,000 through October, up 39 percent from last year.”

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Honda dealers didn’t necessarily want the older model to disappear, according to Automotive News:

“It was a strange situation,” said Art Wright, a Honda dealer in Lehigh Valley, Pa., since 1972. “It was panned by experts, but the consumers loved it. Some dealers were sorry to see the old one go. Those deals made them a pretty easy sell.”

The 2012 Civic situation is somewhat reminiscent of the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta. It too was bashed in reviews, yet sold quite well, thanks in no small part due to cheaper prices. (VW dropped the base price by $2,400 that year.) The Consumer Reports’ review of the Jetta stated, “Handling is less agile, and interior fit and finish, formerly world class, is now unimpressive.”

Still, Volkswagen’s total sales were up 35% last year, mainly thanks to the strength of its core lineup of smaller cars like the Jetta. So the reviews didn’t seem to matter much, as one VW executive quoted by CNN Money said:

“I think at the end of the day, customers are the ones that make the final decision,” he said. “They’re the ones that put money on the table and they’re certainly voting with their checkbooks at the moment.”

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At least in terms of the 2012 Honda Civic, customers can no longer “vote” in its favor. The model year is all but sold out at Honda dealerships, and the automaker is not expected to offer incentives on 2013 models anytime soon.