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After decades of building a reputation as an affordable compact car with pep and styling, the Honda Civic went astray five years ago, Pafumi said. The design became conservative. The Civic Si sport version fell short on performance.
"There was an uproar," said Pafumi, a 35-year-old Duke University graduate whose first car was a used Civic. "A lot of the enthusiasts were really screaming: 'What the heck are you doing? We love your products, but you've let us down.'"
Pafumi and the rest of the Civic team appear to have listened. After a redesign for 2006, the Civic earned Car of the Year honors earlier this year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It's also won back the love of Honda enthusiast Web sites.
Sales have followed, too, up more than 20 percent through the first four months of the year with 110,000 vehicles. Two hours south of Toledo, the East Liberty, Ohio, plant that makes the four-door version of the Civic is humming again.
Production on the previous Civic had slowed for more than a year. But since production on the new Civic started in September, the plant, which normally runs Monday through Friday, has operated on four Saturdays to meet increased demand. Extra days are scheduled for this month and July.
"Once it got out on the lots and people got more familiar with it, we knew what was coming," said Lori Clary, a 39-year-old worker at the plant. "We knew we were going to have Saturdays."
The turnaround of the Civic is significant for Honda because the car was on the verge of being passed by competitors and losing its loyal customer base.
For more than 30 years, the Civic had been at the core of Honda's success, helping the company in Japan and abroad. Honda has sold 16.5 million Civics worldwide and 7.3 million in the United States.
Most of the U.S. Civics are built in East Liberty, in a rural section of central Ohio that locals call the land of milk and Honda. The Civic facility is part of a sprawling 8,200-acre conglomeration of Honda plants, research centers and test tracks. The Accord and Element also are made in Ohio.
In the United States, though, the Civic was Honda's first hit. Introduced to U.S. customers in 1973, it gained a strong following in the '90s with tuners -- mostly young buyers who tweak the power and looks of their vehicles. The Civic was a cheap car with solid underpinnings, perfect for teenagers who wanted to create custom street-rods.
Pafumi, an engineer at Honda's Raymond, Ohio, R&D center assigned to the Civic team, knew first hand what was at stake. Thin and energetic, Pafumi has become known as the Civic geek because of his passion for the car. He still owns and frequently drives his first car, a 1984 Civic with 219,000 miles.
Like many young buyers, Pafumi said he was attracted to the Civic as a teen because it was affordable and fun to drive. But by 2001, the Civic had become a victim of its own success, he said. After gaining mass appeal, Honda was wary of pushing design too far for fear of turning off customers.
In the United States, Honda also was starting to lose the tuner market. In 2001, Honda dropped the Si sport version, sold almost exclusively in North America.
When Honda brought the Si back in 2002, many enthusiasts were disappointed. It lacked the signature high-revving engine and came with standard-size, all-season tires -- great for the average driver but not for a tuner looking for increased performance.
In the mean time, competitors, such as the Mazda3 and Toyota Scion line, were moving in on Civic turf with cool, inexpensive sports cars that also had strong appeal with the tuner crowd.
Honda didn't fully grasp the importance of these young buyers decking their Civics with race-car tires, side-panel graphics, lowering kits and over-the-top audio systems. Honda didn't design Civics for tuners in the first place, so why start now?
"It was kind of like we're going to design it for our requirements," Pafumi said. " What people do in the aftermarket is their own business. All that voids the warranty anyway."
The tuners felt ignored and underappreciated by a company they helped make popular. After the 2002 Si, they were ready to give up on Honda and the Civic, said Jeff Palmer, founder and editor of the Temple of VTEC ( www.vtec.net ), a Honda enthusiast Web site started in 1994. VTEC refers to the high-performance engine found in some Hondas and Acuras.
"It seemed like the company was operating in a vacuum," Palmer said. "They went away from the nature of what the Si had become."
As Honda set out to develop the 2006 Civic, the company took drastic measures, both worldwide and in the United States, Pafumi said.
First, the global Civic team came up with a bold design -- a steep-slanting hood and windshield. Focus groups were freaked out by the dramatic look, but Honda stuck with the design.
Pafumi, who led the Si team, took this design and set out to create a sport version that would win back the tuners. Instead of pushing enthusiasts aside, Pafumi and his team sought them out. Although they represented only a fraction of all buyers, he knew they would create a buzz that helped buoy the entire Civic line.
Pafumi's team attended custom-car shows in Atlanta and California. Before introducing the Si to the media, the team brought in tuner Web sites and after market parts specialists, giving them a head start on designing custom parts for the new Si.
Honda added features specifically to impress this group. The Si team reinforced parts of the frame and suspension so the car could hold up better to after-market upgrades, such as rear stabilizer bars, and the tight turns of harsh race track conditions.
A limited slip differential was included in the transmission, improving tire traction in cornering. High-performance tires were added as a factory option. And to show off the return of the high-revving engine, a special air duct was wrapped along the front wheel well to amplify the engine's sound.
"We realized we needed to overshoot," Pafumi said. Tuning "still voids your warranty, but it's like, you know, we're going to give you a little extra edge."
Enthusiasts were skeptical at first, but the new Civic design and Si edition have won back much of the hard-core Honda crowd, Palmer said. It's hard to find a major gripe, he said. It handles well and looks cool.
"It's a huge hit," Palmer said. "It's definitely gotten a lot of the mojo back for Honda."
For his efforts in helping revive the Civic, Pafumi was named in January by Motor Trend magazine as the 14th most influential person in the auto industry -- just two spots behind Honda CEO Takeo Fukui.
But Civic followers already are wondering what Honda will do with the next generation.
"What's the follow up?" Palmer asked. " Is Honda committed to its enthusiast base for the long haul, or is this just throwing us a bone to keep us quiet for a while?"