Developing the 10th-Generation Honda Civic

The 2016 model is all-new. As in platform and everything else. And the platform—which will have global use—was developed in North America.

Gary Evert says that he feels like he’s gone full-circle.

One of his early jobs with Honda, following obtaining a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Washington, was in Japan, working on the Civic.  He says that he “designed a little bracket on the suspension.”

Now Evert is the North American Development Leader for the 10th generation Civic.

And there’s an interesting aspect of the development of this Civic.

Historically, Honda and other companies that were once referred to as “transplants” in the U.S. worked hard to develop their own local design and engineering capabilities.  Sure, they built plants in places like Marysville, Georgetown and Smyrna, but by and large the products produced in those factories were developed in places like Tochigi, Toyota City and Yokosuka.

With time, there has been more design and development transferred to places like Raymond, Ohio, and Ann Arbor and Farmington Hills, Michigan.

But Evert admits that in the case of Honda vehicles, the development responsibilities have pretty much been focused on work for vehicles that are North American-centric, vehicles like the Pilot crossover and the Odyssey minivan.  As these are vehicles that are predominantly for the North American market, it makes sense to have development work done there.

The Civic is a global vehicle.  A vehicle that has been purchased more than 35-million times since the first car went on sale in 1972.  Of that number, U.S. sales have accounted for about a third.  And when you drill down into the people who are buying Civics in the U.S., it turns out that it is exceedingly popular with an age segment that is highly desired by all OEMs: the under-35 group.  The Civic was the most-popular car for that cohort from 2007 to 2013.  In 2014 the Honda Accord bested it.  The point here is that the Civic is a gateway into the Honda brand.  And potentially into Acura, as well.  Which elevates its importance.

So when they set about to develop the 10th-generation platform for the two body styles that are fundamental for the car in the U.S. market—the sedan and the coupe—a platform that has global use (those two styles will be complemented by a third, a five-door, which was developed in Japan), the decision was made to base the development program in the U.S.

Said plainly: the global development for the global car is being done by a team that is not located anywhere near global HQ.

The global leader for the Civic is Mitsuru Kariya.  Evert reports to him.  Kariya relocated to Ohio for the program.

For those familiar with the Honda engineering position nomenclature, the person in charge is designated the LPL, or “large project leader.”  For the first-generation Acura RDX crossover, Evert was the LPL.  He points out that the RDX was primarily focused on the U.S. market, and the first-gen vehicle was built from 2006 to 2012 in the Marysville plant in Ohio.  So that, in large part, explains that.

LPLs have people working for them on various subsystems, like body and chassis.  These people are designated “ALPLs”—with the “A” signifying “assistant.”

So although the North American team—the car’s global launch occurred on October 20, 2015, at Honda of Canada Mfg. in Alliston, Ontario, underscoring that this is a North American, not just U.S., development, as Manufacturing is certainly part of the input—was responsible for the development of the platform, Evert says that in this case he’s really the ALPL, as Kariya is the person who has primary responsibility for Civic the world over.

But given the fact that Honda has had a non-trivial presence in the U.S. for more than a quarter century, one might well wonder why it has taken so long for design and engineering responsibility of this magnitude to be given to the U.S.

And Evert answers, “There needs to be a maturing of an organization.  And now it is time for R&D [as in the U.S. team in Ohio and California] to take that step.  The level of difficulty when you take something from a North American product to a global product is unbelievable.  You have so many variations coming off of it.  It is phenomenal.  You have to understand the different features and requirements from around the world—and the factories around the world.  So it was felt that now it’s time for U.S. R&D to take the next step in developing a global vehicle.”

Presumably, this means that going forward, there will be more responsibility for that R&D team.

Historically, when Civics were developed, they were given thematic nicknames, Evert says.  So the generation-two car was the “Super Civic,” followed by the “Wonder Civic,” “Grand Civic,” “Sports Civic” (for which he designed the little bracket), and “Miracle Civic.”  The sixth-generation Civic was the last to have a nickname.

The ninth-generation Civic, model year 2012, was roundly criticized, so much so that the company did a non-trivial refresh for model year 2013.  It was fairly evident to people inside and out of Honda that the ninth execution was something that they didn’t want to repeat.  Countermeasures were taken.

Evert recalls of what had happened, “Somewhere along the line, we lost those exciting names and the character of some of those vehicles.  We began to focus on the North American mass market competitors like the Corolla.”

Whereas the Corolla was arguably a car for young families and thrifty transportation, the Civic had come to develop a reputation for sportiness and had great appeal to driving enthusiasts.  But that reputation was dented.

And that wasn’t lost on Evert and his team.

He goes on to say, “We wanted to make something truly special.  So we started the development differently.  We started with the goal to simply make the very best compact class car in the world.  We were going to do this by going back to the roots of a sporty, fun-to-drive car that is still affordable, spacious and efficient.”

In other words, they were pretty much going back to where the Civic once was in the market.

But they wanted to do a little more.

Rather than checking out the standard suspects in the compact segment in the U.S. market, “We started by benchmarking the best C-class vehicles in the world.  This means that we went to Europe and drove not just our competitive set, but C-segment luxury vehicles from BMW, Mercedes 
and Audi.”

While it is probably not all that likely that someone would cross-shop an Audi A3 and a Honda Civic, Evert and his team wanted to make sure that the vehicle they were developing would be up to the comparison.  Yes, an Epic Civic.

“The Europeans are very good in terms of sporty handling and excellent road manners, including confidence-inspiring, high-speed stability.  That’s what we wanted of this Civic,” he says.

Remember: Not only is this Civic meant for U.S. highways, but it is intended for other places, including the autobahn.

Speaking of which. . .

“To get buy-in on our new direction”—remember, the ninth-generation Civic, fundamentally, was developed with something less-lofty than an A3 in mind, and certainly not high-speed motorways, “we took an early development prototype and had our top global executive drive it and its European competitors at autobahn speeds.  We created one truly world-class Civic platform that would satisfy global customers and underpin all Civics—the two-door, four-door and five-door versions.”

To put into context what they did to achieve the 10th-generation car: “What did we need to change?” Evert asks, rhetorically, then answers with great understatement, “Besides the chassis, body, interior, and two new powertrains, not too much.”

He explains, “We focused on power, fuel economy, handling, packaging, styling and cabin quietness.”

Yes, they had their work cut out for them.

Full disclosure: Not everything in the 10th-generation Civic was developed in Ohio or California.  Yes, the engines—a 1.5-liter direct-injected turbo and a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four—are being manufactured at Honda’s engine plant in Anna, Ohio (which, incidentally, is the largest engine plant that Honda has anywhere in the world).  But the engines were developed in Japan.  They had the resources.  They have the expertise.

The base engine is the 2.0-liter.  The previous model had a 1.8-liter engine.  The new one (which is related to both the European Civic Type-R 2.0-liter turbo, which isn’t surprising when you learn that Yuji Matsumochi, who is the Powertrain Development Leader, worked on that engine, and the 2.4-liter engine in the Accord) provides more horsepower (158 vs. 143), more torque (138 vs. 129) and better fuel economy (31/41/35 vs. 30/39/33 mpg city/highway/combined).

But the engine that provides what Evert considers to help provide a “leap-frog over the competition” is the 1.5-liter turbo, the first turbo that Honda has had in a car in the U.S.  The engine provides 174 hp @ 5,500 rpm and 162 lb-ft of torque @ 1,800 to 5,500 rpm.  Evert says that because they wanted the 2016 Civic to be a sporty, dynamic car, “We wanted that power.  We needed that power.”  But, he adds, “Honestly, fuel economy is a huge focus for our company, so in order to get power and fuel economy, we needed the turbo.”

The turbo provides an estimated 31/42/35 mpg city/highway combined, so even though it is more powerful than the 2.0 liter, the fuel economy numbers are on par.

What is interesting to note is that Evert says that in terms of the product development sequence that was underway at Honda, the turbo was not going to be timed coincident with the launch of the 10th-gen car.  However, the team wanted to make sure that it was ready, so they advanced the efforts to get the engine ready to go.

The Civic is available with continuously variable transmissions (CTVs), assembled in Russells Point, Ohio, one specific to each of the engines.  Both CTVs offer what is called “G-design shift logic.”  Essentially, this helps provide immediate acceleration response, such as when accelerating from a steady-state speed.  Rather than having the rubber band-like feeling lag that is characteristic of some CVTs, the Civic CVTs are engineered so that power is immediately sent to the drive wheels while the gear ratio is being adjusted so that there is more of a linear feel.  A six-speed manual is available on the LX trim, which is the base grade.  The EX, EX-T, EX-L, and Touring grades all come with a standard CVT.

The exterior styling of the sedan was done by Jarad Hall.  The two-door was done by Guy Melville-Brown.

In both cases, Evert says that the objective was to create a car that is low and wide.  And it is.

                            ’16 Sedan           ’15 Sedan         Difference

Length (in.):                 182.3                179.4                 +2.9

Width:                            70.9                   69.0                 +1.9

Height:                           55.7                   56.5                  -0.8

Wheelbase:                  106.3                105.1                 +1.2

Front overhang:             35.2                   36.6                  -1.4

Rear overhang:              40.7                   37.8                  -2.9

 

What is interesting to note, however, is that there were some ramifications regarding low and wide that occurred in the development program, one related to the design of the instrument panel and the other to safety.

As for the interior, Evert says that when it came to the exterior design review in Japan—remember this is a case where there needs to be buy-in by various constituencies, such as sales, engineering and manufacturing—there was agreement across the board.  But for the instrument panel design, things weren’t quite as smooth.  There were two approaches presented.  One that Evert describes as “traditional sporty.”  Like the two-level instrument cluster that appears in the 9th generation, perhaps?  “No.  More Gundam style,” Evert answers, referring to the anime robots that are exceedingly popular in Japan.  And one of the global executives really liked it.

Meanwhile, there was another constituency that was interested in what Evert describes as “more of an elegant style.”  While it had been presented and didn’t get the nod, there was a group of development personnel from both Japan and the U.S. who really liked that approach.  Evert admits that compared to the “traditional sporty” IP that had been presented, the “elegant” variation wasn’t as fully developed for the presentation.  So the designers and engineers went “underground” for a few weeks, and refined the IP property.  Chief engineer Kariya agreed that it was better.  Then he had to make the case for that IP.  Which is what he did and which is in the car.

Evert explains the role of the large project leader not only in instances like this, but in all important aspects of the development program: “The LPL always has to propose to the overall executives what the plan is, what the intended vehicle will be.  He has to set all the targets: It is going to look like this, perform like this, and this is its price.  The LPL creates the total package.”  Then he has to get that plan agreed to by the upper executive team.

While getting that agreement was undoubtedly challenging (after all, changing people’s minds isn’t easy), it probably wasn’t quite as challenging as what shorting the front overhang did.  This means that there is less space for crash energy management.  So what the engineers in Raymond did for the new Civic is design a “crash stroke structure” that, in the case of a frontal accident, causes the front frame to hinge such that the engine goes down and rearward, so that the crash energy is channeled to the floor of the vehicle and the cabin intrusion is minimized.  Notable about this development is that although the front overhang is reduced by 1.4 in., there is an addition of 3.2 in. to the energy-absorbing crash stroke.

While on the subject of the floor, it is worth noting that they’re using a 590-MPa steel to produce it.  And while on the subject of steel, the 10th-generation Civic’s body uses 59% high-strength steel (HSS) by weight and 14% ultra-high-strength steel (UHSS).  While the amount of HSS is up from 55%, the quantity of UHSS is up from 1% in the previous-generation Civic.  One consequence of this is that even though the new car is bigger than the outgoing, the unibody is lighter by some 68 lb.

What’s more, the 2016 Civic is more rigid than the 2015: its global bending rigidity is up 19% and the torsional rigidity up 23%.  This leads to a structure that lends itself to better ride and handling, which is what they were looking for in a sporty vehicle: light, strong and stiff.  (The use of hydraulic bushings—on the front suspension of all models and on the rear, too, on the EX Turbo and Touring models—also help provide a sporty yet smooth ride.)

Stiffness is also enhanced by the use of short-pitch welding in critical areas of the unibody: rather than placing the spots 40 to 45 mm apart, they are located just 20 mm apart.  In addition to which, they’re using T-direction welding on the forward edge of the front door hinge pillars in place of overlapping welded joints.  The use of a longitudinal welded seam instead works better in IIHS narrow offset frontal collision tests, where the wheel moves rearward and strikes the pillar.

But before leaving the subject of safety and steel, there is the use of what they call “soft zones” in the otherwise UHSS structures.  Evert explains these zones improve crash energy management in both the B-pillars and rear frame rails.  The components are produced with 1,500 MPa hot-stamped steel.  Sections of the B-pillar are annealed at a different rate so that they have a material strength of 550 to 650 MPa rather than 1,500.  This softer area allows the B-pillar to bend during a side collision, thereby channeling the energy away from the passenger compartment.  Similarly, the soft zones in the two rear frame rails (two zones per rail) are at 700 to 800 MPa.  Should a rear impact occur, the rails fold in a controlled three-bend manner.

Not only do these soft zones contribute to improved safety characteristics, they save weight, too, with a 6.8-lb. savings for the B-pillars and 8.8 lb. for the rear frame rails.

Safety, of course, is not all about steel and structures.  Sensors play an ever-increasing role.  According to Evert, the 2016 Civic is available with “the most-robust version of 
Honda Sensing yet.”  That’s as in safety and driver-assist technology.  The system makes use of both millimeter-wave radar and a monocular camera.  The suite includes collision mitigation braking, lane departure warning, lane keeping assist, road departure mitigation, and adaptive cruise control with low-speed follow (with low speed going all the way down to zero).

Clearly, the development team worked to go above and beyond, to create something that is truly world class, given their charter.