By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Honda’s Civic is the grandaddy of them all — the first Mass Success Japanese economy car that kicked in the door for the rest of them and, arguably, ushered in a transformation of the American car marketplace.
It appeared (in the U.S.) in 1972 and soon captured American buyers’ affection — and brand loyalty — with technologies such as the Compound Vortec Controlled Combustion (CVCC) engine, which ran so cleanly it was the only car sold in the country after 1975 that did not require a catalytic converter to comply with federal emissions control requirements.
The little Civic was an outstanding small car, so clearly superior to others that it had no real competition for years.
But today times are much tougher for the Civic — and Honda — because the competition is so much better — including American-brand small cars.
Can the just-updated 2012 Civic maintain its dominant small car status?
WHAT IT IS
The Civic is Honda’s entry-level compact sedan/coupe. It is offered in versions ranging from the economy-minded DX sedan (MSRP $15,805) to the sportier-oriented Si (MSRP $22,045) which has a larger, more powerful engine and other performance upgrades.
A hybrid version of the Civic ($24,050) is also available.
The ’12 Civic offers a number of subtle but significant improvements, including a new high-efficiency HF version equipped with low-rolling-resistance tires and aerodynamic aids to boost gas mileage to 41 MPG on the highway — which is only 3 MPG off the pace of the gas-electric hybrid version of the Civic.
There’s also more backseat legroom, as well as more shoulder room for both rows.
Stability control is standard equipment, too.
Higher gas mileage in regular Civics; more power in Si Civics; better performance in hybrid Civics.
Wide range of trim/engine/equipment choices.
2020-looking dashboard layout.
Minimal price uptick vs. 2011 Civic.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
No longer the clear leader in its class.
Non-Si models on the edge of underpowered.
High-economy HF variant has a high price tag (relative to base DX and LX).
Automatic transmission in non-Si models often sounds like it’s working too hard, with frequent — and sometimes abrupt — downshifts and “holding” of lower gears before upshifts.
UNDER THE HOOD
The standard Civic engine is a 1.8 liter four, same size as 2011, same 140 hp rating as before — but gas mileage has upticked to 28 city, 36 highway from 26 city, 34 highway previously. Honda’s not saying what was done to achieve these gains, but a check of the specs reveals the 2012 Civic sedan is lighter by about 22 pounds (2,608 lbs. vs. 2,630) than the 2011 model.
A five-speed manual transmission is standard equipment with the 1.8 liter engine; a five-speed automatic is optional.
For even better gas mileage, Honda offers the HF — which has the same 1.8 liter engine but squeezes a few extra MPGs out of it via better airflow management (including an underbody pan) and unique-to-this-model low-rolling resistance tires. The upside is almost-hybrid highway gas mileage — 41 MPG, equaling the 2011 model year best-in-class non-hybrid fuel economy of the Ford Fiesta. The downside is that Honda has priced the HF at $19,455 — $3,650 more than the base DX and $1,600 more than the LX. This chips a lot off the HF’s appeal as a money-saver even if it does get better gas mileage because it will take several years of driving just to break even vs. buying the only slightly less economical DX and LX versions of the Civic.
The hybrid Civic gets a larger 1.5 liter gas engine (vs. 1.3 liters in 2011) as well as a more powerful electric motor that boosts combined output to 110 hp and increases mileage by 3 MPGs to 44 MPG — across the board (city/highway/combined). Last year’s hybrid Civic was rated 40 city, 43 highway, so this is a nice improvement. It’s also nice that Honda hasn’t improved the price. At $24,050 the 2012 hybrid Civic is only about $100 bucks more than last year’s model.
The downside is the hybrid Civic’s acceleration makes the standard Civic — a 9-plus second 0-60 car — seem almost speedy.
But if you want more power at the price of less economy (about 10 MPG on the highway) you could choose the Si version of the Civic. It comes with a larger 2.4 liter engine (vs. 2.0 liters in 2011) and a slightly higher 201 hp rating vs. 197 in ’11. But the real improvement — a result of the increase in displacement — is in the torque department. The 2012 Civic Si’s 2.4 liter engine develops 170 lbs.-ft. of torque vs. 139 lbs.-ft from the 2.0 liter engine. This brings the 0-60 time down to 6.8 seconds or so and also makes the car easier to drive in stop-and-go-traffic, since you don’t have to rev the engine as much to get a reaction from it.
A six-speed manual transmission is the only transmission offered in the performance-minded Civic Si.
ON THE ROAD
I drove a Civic equipped with the 1.8 liter engine/automatic transmission. Though the SOHC 1.8 liter engine is typically Honda-smooth, it’s underpowered for this application. 140 hp is at best barely adequate for a 2,600 lb. (empty) car. The pushing 10 second 0-60 time with just one person on board shows it — and so does the too-frequent downshifting (and downshift holding)of the five-speed automatic transmission. The shifts are often abrupt — and once the transmission has gone down a gear, it seems to like to stay in that gear longer than you expect it to. I live in a hilly/mountainous area and found the car would drop out of overdrive going downhill — which I have never experienced in another car (unless it had “adaptive” cruise control which will try to hold your speed, even when going down a steep grade) and don’t understand why it did this. Usually, when coasting downhill, a car with an automatic will remain in overdrive. It’s true you may have to apply the brakes to keep the car from picking up too much speed, but to me this is preferable to a transmission that kicks down — kicking up the revs (and engine noise) considerably. It makes the car feel less refined — and probably makes it use more gas, too.
Brake pads are probably a lot cheaper.
Handling is merely ok. By which I mean, in normal everyday poking around the Civic is an easy driver; it doesn’t do anything strange or unpleasant. But wick it up a bit and the suspension and tires make it known they’re not happy. There’s a surprising (for a Honda) amount of pitch and roll — and early onset tire squeal, too. The steering’s not over-heavy or overboosted, but you get the feeling it’s playing catch-up to the suspension. Toss in an engine that’s a bit overtaxed and an automatic transmission that seems even more overtaxed sometimes… .
This is not a car that enjoys a fast — or even medium lukewarm — pace. (This does not apply to the Si; it will be reviewed separately.)
But the bigger problem for Honda is probably going to turn out to be the fact that a growing number of competitors are offering more engine and better performance — often with comparable fuel economy — for about the same or even less money.
For example, the thoroughly excellent Hyundai Elantra sedan starts at $14,945 and comes standard with a stronger 148 hp engine (with six-speed transmissions, both manual and automatic) and delivers 40 MPG highway capability. The Ford Fiesta sedan gets to 60 in about the same time and burns about the same amount of gas — but has a starting MSRP of just $13,200. The very sporty — and competitively priced — Mazda3 is another Big Problem for Honda.
And there are others, too.
It’s not so much that these competitors are better cars. It’s that they’re all certainly very comparable cars. The Civic is no longer the clear default choice if you want the hands-down best car in the segment. It still has its charms, but so do others and that is going to pull some buyers from the fold, I think.
AT THE CURB
The Civic’s look is a mid-point between something stodgy like a Toyota Corolla and something sexy like a Mazda3 (or the new Elantra). It has a lot of glass area, especially up front — the centerpiece of which is the large and fairly steep windshield flanked on either side by door glass that extends forward to the A-pillar base via a pair of fixed quarter “windows” that (unfortunately) don’t open but which still provide a bit more visibility and light, if not breeze.
Inside, though, the Civic shows a radical side. There’s an ultra-modern two-section “stepped” instrument panel, with the main gauge being an analog tachometer just above the steering wheel and just above that, a digital speedometer flanked on either side by LED bar graph displays that fade from green (best economy) to a deep blue (not so economical) depending on how much pressure your right foot is applying to the gas pedal. It’s a cool-looking (and intuitive/real-time) way to encourage thrifty driving.
The GPS/audio display screen is angled toward the driver, which helps some with sun glare — though when the sunroof’s open, that can be an issue nonetheless. The bigger issue is the not-so-easy-to-use (and very small) buttons that control the GPS and audio functions. (Also, in my car — which may have had pre-production bugs — the voice-activated navigation helper came on by itself twice, with absolutely no input from me.)
The dash and tops of the door panels are finished with a hard plastic textured “skin” that you may — or may not — like.
Passenger space is very good — but again, competitors are also just as good on this score.
The Civic gives you 39 inches of front seat headroom and 42 inches of front seat legroom. The Mazda3 gives you virtually the same space, 38.9 inches of front seat headroom and 42 inches of front seat legroom. Ditto the Ford Fiesta, which comes in at 39.1 inches of front seat headroom (slightly more than the Honda) and 42.2 inches of front seat legroom. The Hyundai Elantra sedan, meanwhile, gives you a solid inch more front seat headroom and (big deal here) an additional inch-and-a-half more front seat legroom (43.6 inches).
But — Honda upside — the Elantra’s backseat legroom is significantly more cramped at 33.1 inches vs. 36.2 inches for the Civic. (Same deal vis-a-vis the Ford Fiesta, which also has a cramped back seat with even less legroom than the Hyundai at 31.2 inches). The 2012 Civic has 1.6 inches more legroom than last year — and more than several competitors — which gives it at least one area where it remains A Number One. The revised (wider) body of the 2012 also provides more shoulder room than the 2011 Civic delivered.
Trunk space — at 12.5 cubic feet — is pretty much par for the segment with the exception of the Elantra, which offers one of the largest trunks (14.8 cubic feet) of any car in this class.
I can’t remember whether previous Civics had Daytime Running Lamps (DRLs), those always-on headlights that aren’t required by law or needed by people who can see — but the 2012 Civic I test drove does have them and they are (like GM and VW DRLs) very bright. I don’t know how you feel about it, but I feel uncomfortable bearing down on the car ahead of me with my lights blazing in other driver’s rearview mirror. I wish you could turn the Civic’s DRLs off. Even GM finally allows this and Honda ought to, too.
The Seatbelt Fuhrer in this car is especially belligerent. Actually, it’s a female Fuhrer. And her piercing voice shrieks at you the nanosecond you unbuckle the accursed seatbelt, even if you are almost stopped and getting ready to step out of the car.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Other than its so-so power/performance and over-active automatic transmission, I can’t dish out any major complaints about the new Civic — and found many things to like about it, such as the attractive and slick-looking interior dash layout and also the near-hybrid fuel efficiency potential of the new HF model.
But with so many equally outstanding small cars coming on the market, selling this Civic is no longer the no-brainer it used to be.