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There was once a time when the Honda Civic was the de facto recommendation for a new car in its class. It was sporty, spacious, and reliable. However, the past few years have seen a revolution in the small-car market. The competition from Ford, Hyundai, and others has undergone quite a few evolutionary leaps, meeting or beating the eighth-generation Civic in many metrics. So it's no wonder that we were disappointed when the ninth-generation Honda Civic showed up at the 2011 Detroit auto show looking and sounding almost identical to the outgoing model.
We've put the 2012 Honda Civic EX-L to the test to see if it's still this segment's golden child or if it has been outclassed by the upstarts.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
Unless you see one side-by-side with a model of the previous generation, you'd be hard-pressed to tell that Honda had made any changes to this new 2012 model. The headlights, taillamps, and bumpers have all been tweaked and massaged, but the broad strokes of this new Civic are the same as they ever were.
However, while change is normally good, Honda seems to have benefited from keeping intact those attributes of the Civic sedan that make it a safe decision for level-headed adults. The Civic's greenhouse offers exceptional 360-degree visibility, reducing blind spots and making parallel parking a breeze, even without a rearview camera option available. The sedan offers good headroom and shoulder room, with controls that fall nicely into the hand. The bilevel instrument cluster seems less like the bridge of a spaceship now that we've had a few years to acclimate, but the new hard dashboard materials do visually cheapen the Honda's interior, and drew comments from our passengers.
If Honda somewhat cheaped out on the dashboard materials, it must have spent the saved money on sound deadening. The Civic's cabin was noticeably quieter than its competitors'--so much so that we were able to hear the slight echo of our voices from the windshield and hard dashboard surfaces when conversing with passengers.
The good, the bad, and the Econ button
The Civic's strongest attributes used to be its zippy handling and peppy engine. To a degree, these properties are still there, but as the sedan has grown up and become more sensible, its reflexes have been dulled slightly.
The Civic's underpinnings seem to be capable of the same feats of grin-inducing cornering that made famous the Civics of old. However, this new generation separates the driver from the road in its pursuit of comfort. The light power steering that makes the car easy to pilot one-handed around parking lots leads to a slightly mushy and disconnected feel at speed. It's not that the Civic isn't capable of rounding a bend as quickly as the previous generation, but it does so without letting you in on the fun.
In the void where fun used to live, comfort now resides. The new Civic's suspension also more readily absorbs road noise and bumps. We took the sedan over a stretch of Oakland's I-580 that is notorious for its pronounced expansion joints, a stretch of freeway that usually causes short-wheelbase vehicles to rock violently and loudly from front to back. The Civic absorbed the bumps with the ease of a crossover with only the lightest thump-thump being transmitted into the cabin.
Meanwhile, the Honda's 1.8-liter mill outputs 140 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque, a reasonable amount of power for an engine of this size. With its 28 city and 39 highway mpg estimates, it's pretty thrifty too. However, there's no turbocharging or direct-injection technology at work here, so in order to reach the estimated fuel economy numbers, you'll have to take advantage of the Econ button. The assumption is that Honda elected to call this the "Econ button" because "Anti-power button" would carry a negative connotation, but we're sure that the latter description is the more accurate.
The Econ button works by adjusting throttle input and engine output to help the Civic to operate as efficiently as possible. It also seems to have an effect on the five-speed automatic transmission's shift points, but that may just be a side effect of the adjustments made to the throttle. By combining the Econ mode with the cruise control system, we were able to get the Civic to average 38.9 mpg on an approximately 700-mile road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles and back.
However, the Econ mode's retarding of our throttle inputs made passing and merging a maddening and at times terrifying experience. Sometimes, the Econ-enhanced Civic would behave like a regular car, accelerating when the correct pedal was depressed. However, at other times we'd be met with a complete lack of response from the Honda's engine room until the pedal was altogether floored. Worse, there was no real way to determine when the Econ mode would decide that it didn't want to go. Which led to more than one hair-raising occasion on which we found ourselves seemingly without power while attempting to merge into moving traffic. Additionally, during the portions of our trip that took place up the slightest of grades, we noticed the Civic would find itself unable to maintain speed, even with the cruise control active.