The navigation system, part of a package with XM satellite radio, the voice control system, and other steering-wheel controls, represents a better call at $1,750. For just about everything except the entering of addresses as destinations, the voice control system is as good as the manual controls. There is a sizeable list of specific commands to learn, but pressing a button with your thumb and talking beats looking at a screen and finding a button on the dash somewhere.
The route guidance in the Civic is good, with destinations calculated quickly and offering routing options at destination entry. Rerouting and zooming on the map both happen acceptably fast. There are also options for displaying routing instructions as turn-by-turn, list, and with or without voice notification. Although we like the full points-of-interest database, this navigation system doesn't offer any advanced features, such as live traffic.
There is still no Bluetooth option on the Civic, which is a disappointment, and the choice of a PCMCIA card reader continues to elude us. A USB port or laptop-style multicard reader would be much better. The 160-watt, six-speaker stereo, which comes standard on all but the lowliest Civic DX, produces pretty good sound and plays MP3 and WMA discs, displaying ID3 info for MP3 files. There is also a simple auxiliary input for an MP3 players or iPod.
The rest of the interior is nicely detailed with a lot of cubbies and storage room. The trunk is large and the rear seat offers split-folding for pass-through from the trunk.
Under the hood
The 2008 Civic EX-L vies with the Toyota Corolla for the best compromise between economy and performance, with a heavy lean toward economy. The five-speed automatic transmission does its best to wring power out of the 1.8-liter engine, but with only 140 horsepower to work with, acceleration in the Civic is leisurely. At speed, it cruises well with a low final drive ratio, assisting efficiency.
The engine itself utilizes Honda's iVTEC variable valve timing and lift system to continuously optimize power delivery. We didn't like the Civic's electronically controlled throttle very much, especially in trying to control initial tip-in. However, on grades, the transmission's Grade Logic Control did play well with the pedal, keeping gear-hunting to a minimum and enough torque on tap to maintain momentum.
The Civic appeared on the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy's list of the 12 greenest cars of 2008, its third inclusion on the list. This is thanks to environmental credentials like EPA ratings of 25 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway and a 50-state ULEV II designation from the California Air Resources Board.
The Civic EX-L we tested had an MSRP of $22,460 plus a destination charge of $635. This price level includes all the tech options mentioned and the leather appointments to the interior. The navigation/XM radio option is also available on the regular EX, at a cost of $21,260 for the automatic.
Our comfort rating reflects the inclusion of such a good voice-controlled navigation system on a relatively cheap car, but takes a hit for not offering Bluetooth or better external music source integration. The navigation option in Hondas is due for an upgrade overall. For performance, we are allowing for efficiency over raw speed and acknowledging the Civic's class-leading mileage and emissions numbers. The design of the Civic is merely average in our estimation, getting the job done but without much character to set it apart from the pack.