Honda is covering all the bases with key improvements to its Civic compact and Accord midsize sedan this year, with extra scrutiny paid to the smaller model.

The much-derided ’12 Civic is being replaced with an almost all-new model in dealerships now. Chief among complaints was the previous model’s spartan interior, replaced by a new one that features soft-touch instrumentation and other premium-feel add-ons.

“We miscalculated a little bit of where the market was headed,” Honda Chief Engineer Art St. Cyr says. “And we recognize it. What we tried to do with the '13 Civic was give it a more sophisticated and high-class appearance. Not to say that the '12 was bad. It still looked like what we were going for.”

There is no cost difference between using softer materials over hard plastic, St. Cyr says. Hard plastic is commonly used because it can be cut to fit multiple cabins regardless of trim level. ”A soft instrument panel gives you the ability to cut some of the hard lines. You don’t worry about how things are mating.”

American Honda President John Mendel says he has received only two letters from concerned customers wondering about the resale value of their ’12 Civics and that he is not worried the previous model will lose its value.

“We’d say, ‘You made a smart choice. The car retained its value, and you have something to look forward to next time you change (vehicles).’ It’s not as if this one obsoletes the old one.”

The revamp of the Civic, referred to as a “minor model change” by Mendel, not only is unusual for Honda but also the auto industry as a whole. Midyear model changes generally occur within two to three years of a product’s lifecycle and are planned well in advance, whereas the turnaround with the new Civic was executed in less than a year.

This won’t become an industry standard, Mendel assures, but it does demonstrate how a car company can change with the market.

“I don’t think a minor model change is going to come every 18 months now,” he says. “Short model changes don’t cost any less than long model changes. It’s how you amortize them. I think that it has awakened the organization to the potential that we can do this faster than we’ve ever been. It doesn’t mean it should be the norm.”

For the Accord, a variety of powertrain options keeps consumer interest piqued in the car, Mendel says. Drivers have warmed to the new continuously variable transmission option, which is helping keep the midsize model “neck and neck with (the Toyota) Camry.”

Honda designed its new CVT (in-house) to feel like an actual gear-change transmission, he says.

“We’re not getting feedback (that it’s) whiny, rubber-bandy. CVT had built that reputation.”

The Accord also is offering a hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of the ’13 model, with sights set on the former.

“I think that the Accord hybrid will put us firmly competitive in the 2-motor midsize class,” Mendel says. “(The) plug-in hybrid, we’ll see. It’s expensive, and we’ll see what the consumer adoption for that will be.”

He expects the plug-in hybrid to see smaller volume than its hybrid counterpart. “We can expand or contract production on that to the degree that we wish to.”

Honda was dogged with recalls in 2012, issuing about 16 notices potentially affecting an estimated 2,593,627 U.S. vehicles. But Mendel says the number of callbacks – only Toyota had more last year, affecting a potential 5,327,394 vehicles – doesn’t equate to the number of problems each vehicle had.

“Recalls kind of fit into the quality process,” he says. “We as readily identify stuff that we need to fix quicker in most cases than anybody else. I can’t speak for Toyota, but for us certainly we look at that as…the customer has a problem and (we) fix something.”

Driving into 2013, Honda is looking to tweak its strategies for its smaller, alternative-powertrain offerings that include the Insight hybrid-electric and CR-Z mild hybrid compacts and the Fit electric vehicle.

Mendel says the auto maker is eyeing a 1-motor electric powertrain for future small cars, putting current 2-motor systems in the CR-Z and Insight in question. “We have some plans for both those vehicles we’re not ready to share,” he says. “(But the) CR-Z is going to have some significant upgrades.”

The Fit EV, available as a lease-only vehicle in California, could be expanded beyond that market, but there are no firm plans.

“(The Fit EV) is an answer for electric vehicles from a market that is evolving, as we’re trying to figure out what an EV vehicle is supposed to be like in this country,” St. Cyr says.

afoley@wardsauto.com