Although the ubiquitous Civic is all-new for 2012, Honda has made few changes to what is clearly a winning formula. The problem is that the new Civic faces fierce competition from a rash of excellent new compact sedans -- so was staying the course really the best choice? Read on. Price range $16,555 - $27,500, EPA fuel economy estimates 28-44 MPG city, 36-44 MPG highway.
First Glance: More of the same
When people find out what I do for a living, they invariably ask me what kind of car they should buy. This requires a snap decision: Do I really want to get involved in a conversation with this person? If the answer is no, I fob them off by saying "A Honda Civic." That's not bum advice -- the Civic has always provided a great balance of space, efficiency, and reliability. If I do want to talk, I'll start asking what kind of driving they do, what they like and dislike about their current car, etc. Three times out of five, I wind up recommending a Honda Civic anyway.
Honda has given the Civic a clean-sheet redesign for 2012, and it continues its mission of being all things to all people. If I hadn't banned the cliché "evolution, not revolution" from this web site, I'd be tempted to use it here. The previous generation Civic's styling was slick and futuristic; the new Civic gives us more of the same, and it still looks ahead of its time. The basic shape is unchanged, but it's a bit more filled out now. The two-door's back end closely resembles the racy Accord Coupe, and I like the smaller, cleaner taillights on the sedan, which give the car a more mature look.
Another thing that hasn't changed much is the pricing. Sedan and coupe models both start at $16,555, same as last year's coupe (the 2011 sedan was $200 more), and the base model now (finally!) includes electronic stability control as standard (though not much else). The volume-selling LX and EX sedans are up just $100 from last year, with the LX (which gets A/C and a stereo) priced at $18,605 and the EX (alloy wheels, sunroof, Bluetooth, automatic transmission) at $21,255.
In the Driver's Seat: More of the same
Inside, the new Civic uses the same split-level dash concept as the outgoing Civic, with the tachometer below the rim of the steering wheel and a digital speedometer above. I've always liked this arrangement, though my wife doesn't -- she finds she has to adjust her seat so she can see the speedometer rather than for comfort. New colored "eco" bars flanking the speedometer glow green when you are driving economically and blue when you're wasting precious natural resources.
New for 2012 is an auxiliary display screen to the right of the speedometer, which serves as the stereo display and can also show fuel economy information and user-uploadable wallpaper (for example, a photo of your kids). Having the stereo display so far from the buttons takes some getting used to, but it's a very handy arrangement, as you don't have to move your eyes as far from the road to tune the radio or select a playlist. A Bluetooth speakerphone is optional, but the voice recognition system is fussy and the list of compatible phones seems to be much more limited than on other cars.
Interior materials are a mixed bag. Overall quality is pretty good, but Honda has used flat, untextured plastics to surround the stereo and climate controls, and I can't decide if they look contemporary or just cheap. And there are three different shades of gray plastic on the dashboard -- a sin that would be considered unforgivable in a Hyundai or a Chevy, but that everyone just seems to accept in a Honda.
Front seats are comfortable and supportive, and all-around visibility is excellent, making the Civic easy to drive and park. The sedan's back seat retains the old car's flat floor; rear legroom is up nearly two inches from last year, but the Civic still doesn't feel as spacious as the Hyundai Elantra (which, on paper, is really only a bit larger). The trunk is on the small side at 12.5 cubic feet, but it's smartly shaped and has a big opening.
On the Road: More of the same
Open the new Civic's hood and you'll find a mildly-improved version of last year's 1.8 liter four-cylinder engine. Power output is unchanged -- 140 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque -- and acceleration remains firmly on the zippy side of adequate. Fuel economy is up, though -- automatic Civics make a significant jump to 28 MPG city/39 MPG highway (up from 25/36), while manuals are rated at 28/36 (up from 26/34). There's also a new Civic HF (High Fuel economy) model, priced at $20,205. Based on the Civic LX, it gets an automatic transmission, slicker aerodynamics, and low rolling resistance tires mounted on lightweight alloy wheels. EPA ratings are 29 MPG city/41 MPG highway, slightly besting the Hyundai Elantra (29/40) and Ford Focus SFE (28/40).
The Civic Hybrid returns with a larger engine (1.5 liters vs. last year's 1.3), which makes it much more pleasant to drive, and improved fuel economy: 44 MPG city/44 MPG highway, still not quite in Toyota Prius territory (51/48) but much improved over the old Civic Hybrid (40/43). The natural-gas-powered Civic GX is scheduled to follow later this year, and Honda promises more creature comforts -- including a navigation system pre-programmed with fueling stations.
I spent most of my time driving a Civic LX with a manual transmission as well as an automatic EX. I continue to marvel at how well Honda does manuals: A feather-light clutch and precise shifter make it a stick-shifter's dream, and heavy traffic jams are a pain-free experience. The 5-speed automatic isn't exactly cutting-edge technology, but it does the job as promised, delivering a continuous stream of power and excellent fuel economy. After a half-day and 200 miles of lazy touring through the Virginia countryside, the trip computer showed a satisfying 37.7 MPG.