Among compact cars, Honda Civic remains a solid choice

2012 Honda Civic

2012 Honda Civic (Credit: Cars.com)

To set the stage, the 2011 Honda Civic remains an excellent car, even as it's being replaced by the 2012. We don't feel the same about another longtime best-seller, the Toyota Corolla. However, high-quality, efficient compacts like the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, 2012 Ford Focus and 2011 Hyundai Elantra mean the Civic has taller hurdles than it ever has in the U.S. market, and buyers have more great choices than ever.

The completely redesigned 2012 Honda Civic improves incrementally upon its predecessor in many ways, ensuring it will remain a top-selling compact, but the car doesn't leapfrog its formidable competitors.

As before, the Civic comes in coupe and sedan styles, in DX, LX and EX trim levels, as well as a performance-oriented Si version, in both body styles. There are also hybrid and high-efficiency HF variants, both sedans. A natural-gas-powered Civic GX sedan will return later in the model year under the name Civic Natural Gas, with plans to expand its availability nationwide for the first time.

Exterior and styling

A glance at the 2012 Civic tells the whole story: It looks a little bit different, foreshadowing aspects like the mileage, the interior and the technology, all of which have improved. Whether the styling itself is an improvement is for you to decide. To my eye, the earlier generation's design remained fresh and didn't need to be messed with, and that describes the 2012 sedan's front and overall profile. The taillights, however, seem to have gone more generic. The coupe's still have a Civic look to them.

Both body styles are exactly the same length and height, and the coupe's width has grown by a mere tenth of an inch. The wheelbase has decreased roughly an inch on both; overall, the dimensions follow the trend -- more tweaked than overhauled.

On the road

Out on the road, the new Civic rides like a Honda, damping out the worst of the road's imperfections but ensuring you always know the pavement's condition. It's more refined -- again, incrementally -- than the still-satisfying 2011 model, buoyed by a quieter cabin. I'd have to drive it back-to-back against its main competitors to quantify any differences; the 2012 is neither exceptionally quiet nor noisy. Though you do hear the engine, at least it's a smooth one. The car does a good job of blocking the whooshing noise of tires on wet pavement, which typically comes from the rear wheels.

In terms of handling, the electric power steering is well-weighted and nicely executed overall. Unfortunately, the roads were wet 100 percent of the time I drove the various Civics, so the roadholding limits will remain a mystery until Honda gets us a test car at Cars.com HQ. I got a feel for the dynamics, though, and they're good: The front-wheel-drive weight bias and associated understeer are there, but the balance is decent nevertheless. The slick surfaces revealed an exceptionally adept electronic stability system that manages to intervene subtly enough that it keeps anything dramatic from occurring -- without seeming overly intrusive in the process. Nicely done. Honda says the electric steering works in conjunction with the stability system; nothing felt conspicuous to me. It just worked.

The Civic has more body roll than I'd expect, though, and nowhere is it more surprising than in the sporty Si, a coupe version of which I tossed around an autocross course. The shifting weight doesn't help the car's grip when making quick directional changes. I watched the cars going around the course, and the body roll was equally clear from the outside. It's out of character for a performance version, and what's most disappointing is it's unnecessary. Many cars, including some competing models, have proved that a comfortable ride, body control and athletic handling can come in one affordable package.

The Si's suspension is tuned differently from the standard setup, but perhaps not enough. Though the suspensions differ a bit between the regular sedan and coupe due to the different wheelbases, those two feel similar to drive.

Power holds the line

The standard drivetrain changes for 2012 are minimal, at least on paper. The engine is a 1.8-liter four-cylinder, and both five-speed manual and automatic transmissions are offered. The Si gets the biggest bump, with a switch from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder to a 2.4-liter (technically 2.35-liter) that mates to a six-speed manual.

The specs show but one change for the regular engine -- a 200-rpm climb in the horsepower's peak to 6,500 rpm -- but Honda engineers say they played with the torque distribution to raise the oomph at lower revs. All the same, the peak torque spec is unchanged at 128 pounds-feet at 4,300 rpm. If there's a difference in acceleration, it's not palpable. The gear ratios remain the same for both transmissions as well. At least the model hasn't gotten substantially heavier, as most do when redesigned. The sedan is even a bit lighter than the 2011.

Though I'd prefer a six-speed manual, I can't blame Honda for staying with the five. Demand for manuals continues to decrease, especially as automatics become as efficient or more so. The 2012 Civic is an example. It now gets an EPA-estimated 28/39 mpg city/highway versus the manual's 28/36 mpg. The HF trim level -- akin to the Cruze Eco and Focus with SFE -- rates 29/41 mpg. Though pricing isn't available as this review is being produced, Honda's frequent use of the word "value" suggests it will be more affordable than the competitors mentioned above.

It's harder to understand why the automatic hasn't gained a gear. Honda notes that it achieves its performance targets with five speeds. While I'm not one to assume more is better -- especially because some six-speeds are balky and hesitant -- it's hard to imagine that Honda couldn't exceed its targets and show up its competitors with another forward gear. How would that not be better? This onetime leader in fuel economy is now playing catch-up across its product line.

Civic Si: A welcome improvement

Likewise, the Civic Si, one of the first "hot hatches," has been fighting for its life as other automakers have improved their sport compacts' low-rev acceleration through the use of direct injection and/or turbocharging. Since it first incorporated variable valve timing -- another major innovation from Honda -- the Si has required high engine speeds to tap into its power band. The new engine's greater displacement is a welcome improvement, as it boosts the torque output to 170 pounds-feet at 4,300 rpm from the 2.0-liter's 139 pounds-feet at 6,100 rpm. The power peak adds 4 hp to 201 hp, but it's come down to 7,000 rpm from 7,800 rpm.

The 2012 Si launches with more authority, even spinning its wheels if you let it. The short-throw shifter is far more satisfying than the standard five-speed stick, operating six forward gears with close ratios optimized for the new engine. Even though the Si's output is greater, some competing sport compacts -- the Volkswagen GTI, Mini Cooper S, Mazdaspeed3 and Subaru Impreza WRX -- produce torque that's greater and/or at substantially lower rpm. Because most of these competitors are heavier, by as much as 400 pounds, it's not a perfect comparison, and the payoff for the Si is better mileage: Its 22/31 mpg beats the GTI by 1 mpg city and the Mazdaspeed3 and WRX by as much as 6 mpg on the highway.

High-mileage HF and Hybrid

I didn't get the opportunity to drive the Civic HF, but Honda says it's practically the same as the regular sedan. The greater efficiency comes mainly from different tires and aerodynamic changes, including the wheels, underbody treatments, a small trunklid spoiler and the smoothing out of the front bumper to match that of the Civic Hybrid.

The 2012 Civic Hybrid benefits from a larger gas engine, a 1.5-liter four-cylinder replacing a 1.3-liter. It combines with a more powerful electric motor for quicker acceleration yet improves mileage from 40/43 mpg in the 2011 to 44/44 mpg. You can feel the difference off the line, and though there's still some delay as the continuously variable automatic transmission whirs away, it's more responsive than before and more linear than the Toyota Prius.

Because the electric motor is essentially fixed to the crankshaft, the gas engine stops only when the car comes to a stop. Regardless, Honda says, the Civic Hybrid can maintain moderate cruising speed on electric power alone. Acceleration and high-speed cruising requires gas to be burned.

This is the first Honda, and one of the first hybrids, to employ a lithium-ion battery in lieu of the nickel-metal-hydride type that has driven the hybrid revolution. It helps keep weight and size down and increases the trunk volume to 10.7 cubic feet versus the 2011's 10.4 cubic feet, though the backseat doesn't fold in the Civic Hybrid -- typical of hybrid sedans. The regular sedan's trunk measures 12.5 cubic feet; the coupe's is 11.7.

Interior space

In a car of the same size, Honda couldn't work magic, but the passenger volume has increased by about 1 to 3.5 cubic feet in the sedan, topping out at 94.6, keeping it competitive in the class. The coupe loses 0.8 cubic foot to 83.2 cubic feet. A tilt/telescoping steering wheel is standard, as is a manually operated height-adjustable driver's seat. The blissfully reachable adjustment levers are the same as in the previous generation, but the seat padding and contours have changed and are comfortable.

By the numbers, the sedan's seating dimensions have shifted slightly, with a few hairs less headroom, front and rear, but some growth in shoulder room. Front-seat legroom has decreased a touch, but I was comfortable with what felt like additional rearward seat travel. Backseat legroom has gained more than an inch to 36.2 inches, putting it near the top of the class. In practice, it doesn't feel exceptionally roomy, but it's more than workable for an adult.

The coupe is a different story: Rear legroom has increased only slightly, and headroom is down almost an inch. At 6 feet tall, I couldn't make it work. This is to be expected in a coupe, though, of which there are now few in this class. If you want a coupe with a roomier backseat, check out the Scion tC. A model based on the Hyundai Elantra called the Veloster, coming soon, may also rival or beat the Civic.

Cabin quality

If interior quality is the new battleground in the compact car class, the 2012 Civic brings to the fight some fresh new forces and a stable of reliable troops, but also some battle-weary veterans that probably ought to retire.

The cloth seats' contemporary fabric improves on the previous generation's; the optional leather is of high quality, but the bunchy "gathered" look is a polarizing design. Compared with a few competitors, some interior surfaces look rather plain. The Civic continues Honda's approach of combining a variety of textures and styles. In my opinion, they don't always go together well. If nothing else, when there are many different textures and materials, there's a good chance you'll object to at least one of them. My least favorites are the sparkly gray plastic on the dashboard and the aluminum-colored door handles. I also noticed conventional felt-like ceiling fabric, a step backward considering that the earlier generation featured a higher-quality woven headliner, which is becoming more popular across the market.

The highlights include the steering wheel and the colorful displays that subtly change color based on how efficiently you're driving, a feature from the Insight and CR-Z hybrids. If you don't like high-mounted instrument panels, you'll be no happier with this Civic than with the previous generation. It relegates the arguably superfluous tachometer to the conventional position and puts the other stuff high, above the steering wheel. I'm a fan.

All trim levels except the DX introduce Honda's entry to the multifunction controller phenomenon with a feature called i-MID: intelligent Multi Information Display. I like some aspects of this approach, not the least of which is it doesn't have the words "touch," "you" or "my" in the name. It comprises a 5-inch color LCD screen next to the speedometer and a few buttons on the steering wheel's left spoke that let you select from menus, etc.

It's not the most versatile of controllers, but at first blush it appears that it needn't be. The menus and functions are relatively simple. The screen displays album art from an attached iPod, a relatively recent enhancement in onboard electronics. The upper display duplicates navigation prompts, but the option relies mainly on a trusty touch-screen, within easy reach on the center of the dashboard. I'll take this division of duties over any multifunction controller on the market. The nav relies on FM-frequency traffic information, which requires no subscription.

Safety

As a brand-new model, the 2012 Civic has yet to be tested by the federal government or private agencies.

As required of all 2012 models, the Civic comes with antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control. Though the Si and EX trim levels have four-wheel disc brakes, the lower trims and high-efficiency versions have rear drums.

The Civic has six airbags including the front pair, front-seat-mounted side-impact bags and side curtain airbags. By re-engineering the front seat design to provide active whiplash protection, Honda was able to eliminate the previous generation's active head restraints, providing the same effect while positioning the restraints a few tenths of an inch farther back to improve comfort.

Civic in the market

What the 2012 Civic hasn't done is vault its competitors to exceed them in any respect, and full redesigns are an automaker's best opportunity to do so. Unlike the new Volkswagen Jetta, which we believe has slipped in terms of both interior quality and its driving experience, the Civic remains a very good car. The question is whether it will stay competitive in the coming years as other models evolve. Impressive recent redesigns and intros -- including two from domestic brands, no less -- are sure to steal more business than ever from the Civic. With its reputation and historically epic reliability, though, it's likely to hold its perch at or near the top of the sales charts. If a woefully outdated Corolla can do it, the Civic should be fine at least for a few more years.

Snapshot

Starting MSRP $15,605 -- $21,955


EPA Fuel Economy:
City: 28
Highway: 36 -- 39

Available Engines:
140-hp, 1.8-liter I-4 (regular gas)

Available Transmissions:
5-speed automatic w/OD
5-speed manual w/OD

© 2011, Cars.com

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