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Ford's Focus Edges Up on the Best-Selling Civic

August 09, 2000|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When executives at American Honda Motor Co. in Torrance look in the corporate rearview mirror these days, they're likely to spot a Ford -- closing fast.

Honda's wildly popular Civic is being pressed in the U.S. sales race by Ford Motor Co.'s new entry-level Focus, whose European roots and fresh design are combining to capture buyers' cash and critics' raves.

Executives at the U.S. arm of Honda Motor Co. say it is a bad time to compare the two, as the Focus is a brand-new model -- introduced 13 months ago -- while the 2000 Civic is the last iteration of a 5-year-old platform that will give way to an all-new model in September.

But Honda has no trouble selling its current cars. Indeed, the company's bad-timing argument ignores the fact that July was the best month ever for the Civic -- age be damned -- with 32,111 vehicles sold, a 5.9% increase over the previous July.

Through the end of last month, the Civic led its class with 199,685 units sold and a 1.9% share of the U.S. passenger car market. The Focus was in second place with 175,670 sales, good for a 1.7% share. General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Cavalier (1.4%), Toyota Motor Corp.'s Corolla (1.3%) and GM's aging Saturn small-car line (1%) rounded out the top five.

With numbers like those giving Honda considerable bragging power -- and let's not forget that in California, the aging Civic still outsells Focus by about 3 to 1 -- no one is knocking the car maker's prowess.

The Civic's reputation for reliability, value and drivability are nearly without parallel, and few industry watchers expect the Focus to actually outpace it this year.

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Still, Honda's decision to keep the 2001 Civic looking pretty much like its predecessors in the face of Ford's success with its edgy new design has raised some eyebrows.

"Focus is just hipper and trendier" than other cars in its class, says Wes Brown, an industry analyst with Nextrend automotive consultants in Thousand Oaks. "Just about all of the competition is feeling Focus' impact in terms of lost sales opportunities."

The Civic, the leader in the compact category, has been least affected. But as Honda prepares to launch the 2001 model, Brown and others see it as a vehicle that could suffer a bit by comparison, notwithstanding all the likely refinements that Honda will put in the new car.

The Focus "is a little sportier and is shooting straight for the younger buyer, while the Civic seems aimed at a more across-the-board type of audience," says Jeff Schuster, senior manager for North American forecasting at J.D. Power & Associates, the Agoura Hills automotive marketing consultants.

Schuster is one of the few willing to predict Ford supremacy: His midyear analysis has the Focus outselling the Civic by about 20,000 units this year if supplies of the 2000 Civic dry up at the end of the model run.

But Honda is no slouch at managing model changes and rarely leaves its dealers with gaping holes in the supply line. And Ford, which delights in being able to boast of No. 1 status in any car or truck category, isn't willing to stick its neck out and forecast a time when its car might surpass Honda's.

The folks in Dearborn, Mich., do, however, say they are selling as many Focus sedans, station wagons and hatchbacks as they can make -- leaving open the possibility that they could make, and sell, more if they wanted to.

In fact, in a moment largely unheralded in the U.S., the Focus passed the previous champion, Volkswagen's Golf, to become the best-selling car in the world earlier this year: 228,000 sales in 60 countries from December through April.

One wag has suggested that Ford didn't trumpet the achievement here because it would defeat the Focus marketing message. After all, if it's a car for the young and trendy (and, of course, the wannabes that no Ford dealer will turn away, regardless of age or nerdiness), then how could it also be the car that everybody, everywhere, is buying?

For its part, Honda claims to be aware of but not worried by the success of the Focus.

"Ford is trying some interesting things with their edgy design, but we've been extremely successful with the design of the Civic," says Dan Bonawitz, American Honda's vice president of corporate planning and logistics.

The same consistency that some analysts are now questioning "has helped Civic hold its resale value," he says. "The market is littered with cars that started hot and then cooled. The challenge when you try to make a fashion statement is that fashions change quite quickly."

Where Ford claims a median age of 36 for the Focus--a hefty drop for a company whose average buyer was born before the original Thunderbird was introduced in model year 1955--Bonawitz says Civic's median buyer is a stripling at 29.

"It's all going to depend on consumer tastes" and which company read the tea leaves best, Bonawitz says of the contest for top spot in the compact category.

Right now, Ford seems to have the momentum.

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