SANTA ROSA, CA – The next-generation Honda Civic will arrive later than expected due to new U.S. corporate average fuel economy regulations, a top American Honda Motor Co. Inc. official says.

“Two-and-a-half years ago, we made the call to reevaluate (the design goals) on the next Civic” as regulators debated pending CAFE and carbon-dioxide emissions requirements, Honda Executive Vice President John Mendel tells Ward’s here in an interview during a media backgrounder for the new CR-Z hybrid coupe.

The move means the ninth-generation Civic will arrive a few months beyond its usual 5-year product cycle in early 2011. The current Civic debuted in fall 2005.

“It was either (delay) or blindly go in and do what you were going to do anyway and see how it plays out in light of a completely different circumstance – which would have been silly.”

As one of Honda’s top sellers, along with the Accord midsize sedan and coupe, the Civic will shoulder a hefty portion of the burden under the new CAFE regulations.

Beginning in 2011 with ’12-model vehicles, auto makers must take incremental steps leading toward a U.S. CAFE of 34.1 mpg (6.9 L/100 km) by 2016. Each year, federal targets increase about 4% between 2011 and 2016. Add in regulations on CO2, and U.S. fleet fuel-economy requirements rise to 35.5 mpg (6.6 L/100 km) in 2016.

However, CAFE varies for each OEM based on the attributes of its sales mix and physical footprint of each model in its lineup. Honda’s fleet average target for 2016 is 37.4 mpg (6.3 L/100 km).

Mendel won’t divulge Honda’s fuel-economy target for the new Civic but “if you do the math, 50% of our volume comes from Civic and Accord. They’ve got to pull an awful lot of weight.

“For every mile over 37.4 mpg (6.3 L/100 km) they get, you can go under one mile on everything else you build,” he adds. “So it’s a big balance.”

Fuel economy of the ’10 Civic varies by trim line. But the bread-and-butter non-hybrid or Si models average 29 mpg (8.1 L/100 km). The Civic Hybrid hits 42 mpg (5.6 L/100 km).

Meanwhile, Honda still is evaluating the future of its Element cross/utility vehicle.

Approaching the eighth year of its product cycle, the Element needs to be replaced by a model that will draw the same cult-like following, Mendel says.

“I don’t think we could’ve guessed Element would become as strong a cult vehicle as it is in terms of capability and stuff,” he says.

“We’re still studying and evaluating: what’s the next Element? Not does Element get smaller or larger, but what’s the next vehicle like that that brings in first-time buyers to Honda, bonds them, weds them, welds them to the brand, creates intense loyalty, that kind of stuff.”

The Crossroad, a slightly smaller but similar model Honda sells in Japan, is not under discussion as a replacement for the Element.

Although spotted frequently by spy photographers near American Honda’s Torrance, CA, headquarters, Mendel says the Crossroad would “not be significantly different than what we have now and wouldn’t make sense.

“We’re just not sure what the next Element-type vehicle is.”

In the interim, Honda plans to keep retailing the Element “until we can’t sell it anymore.”

Another vehicle with a fuzzy future is the Ridgeline compact pickup, on sale in the U.S. since spring 2005.

More than 50,000 were delivered in 2006, meeting Honda’s annual sales goal. But demand has declined since, reaching only 16,464 in 2009. This year, sales are up 9.0% from year-ago to 6,721 units.

“We’ll re-think where customers are going and what they want and where our core technologies lie and come up with the best solution to try and meet those needs,” Mendel says.

The Ridgeline could remain in Honda’s lineup in spite of more stringent CAFE rules.

For every Ridgeline sold, Honda will have to sell a vehicle with twice the mileage, Mendel notes.

“But it’s not inconceivable that your (2016) lineup wouldn’t be a dramatically different mix than what it is today.”

– with James M. Amend

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com