The Honda Civic, once the scapegoat for an entire company’s wayward slide, continued its rehabilitation on 7 March, becoming the first compact car to be named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety – a nonprofit financed by the US insurance industry.

The award is a crowning achievement for Honda, which scrambled to put some shine back on its top-selling small car after a 2011 redesign precipitated a stunning series of setbacks, culminating with a denunciation by Consumer Reports magazine. Honda’s efforts have bore fruit, and not just by the IIHS’s accounting. Journalists and dealers alike have welcomed the 2013 Civic, which has helped restore Honda’s good name.

The new car contains a raft of upgrades that address many of the criticisms levied against the 2012 Civic – an austerity-era car with cheapened content and poor execution. Company executives at the time of Consumer Reports’ rebuke seemed genuinely stunned, conditioned as they were to believe in the superiority of their offerings.

In a series of TV advertisements that debuted on US television in January this year, Honda cast the Civic’s changes for the 2013 model year as the result of the company’s dedication to continuous improvement. The conceit that you can always improve on good products saved Honda from admitting that the 2012 Civic was flawed.

Credit the Domino’s Effect – where, in a series of TV advertisements, the pizza conglomerate depicted customers equating the flavour of its sauce to ketchup. Take your medicine and set about improving the product, the lesson goes.

Stamping new sheetmetal for the 2013 car was out of the question, but the 2012 Civic was not homely; it was just cheaply dressed. Honda responded by drawing up new, crisply detailed front and rear bumper fascias and adding jewellery like chrome trim and fog lights for a more premium appearance.

Inside, the Civic gained more soft-touch surfaces in place of some of the hard plastic that distinguished the 2012 car. Hondas have long been appreciated for their responsive steering, but the 2012 Civic did not deliver on that expectation. The 2013 vehicle received upgraded springs, anti-roll bars and Teflon-lined suspension bushings to sharpen handling.

Honda also grafted some new structure into the Civic’s front end to help it withstand a brutal new “small overlap” offset frontal-crash test devised by the IIHS, in which the car strikes a barrier with its front corner. Larger cars have experienced devastating damage to their passenger cabins, but the 2013 Civic passed this stringent test to become the first, and so far, only, small car to do so.

“We believe this is a distinct competitive advantage,” said Art St. Cyr, vice president of product planning and logistics for American Honda, in a media statement. He is partly correct. The greater competitive advantage is a job well done.