Honda's Civic line has long been synonymous with frugality and reliable, if pedestrian, basic transportation. The current crop of 2008 Honda Civics is no exception, but these days it's possible to outfit a Civic with a few modern conveniences while keeping the payments within reach. The loaded Civic EX-L we tested struck a nice balance between tech offerings and value pricing.
Inside and out, the Civic's styling mostly basks in its inoffensiveness, with no bold strokes to be found anywhere on the body, and lens shapes mimicking those on more upscale sedans. Alloy wheels are standard on the EX, and go some way to improving the car's stance, but even the top level EX-L we tested lacks anything approaching panache. Civic buyers may find that just as well. The name of the game with this car is getting around comfortably and cheaply, and it does its job well at the price.
Test the tech: Commuter rally
We decided to quantify our well-worn morning commute through San Francisco to test the tech of the 2008 Honda Civic, equipped as it was with a touch- and voice-controlled navigation setup we've found useful in other Honda models. We planned to program CNET headquarters as our destination, and then enter a few waypoints along the way to take care of some errands.
Our first thought was that we really liked this system more than two years ago, when we first encountered it. Since then, we're less enamored of its blocky display format and the resolution of its maps, but the touch screen and voice recognition are still nice to use. Entering destinations via voice is tedious, but is the best choice if you are underway. The predictive touch-screen keyboard is much easier to use.
We used the Today's Destinations feature to enter multiple waypoints.
The first hitch in our plan was the discovery that waypoints can only be chosen from a list of points of interest in the car's database, which are displayed four at a time. Our route contained more than a thousand possible choices, so finding our two businesses on the list (if they were even on it) was not practical. We backtracked and used the "Today's Destinations" feature to enter the two stops as street intersections and saved them to the list (up to five can be entered).
Our first stop was only about a block and a half from home, which the system accurately estimated at .2 miles, covered in one minute. From there to our next stop was estimated at 4.1 miles in a planned 11 minutes. The system chose the best route around the potentially confusing Union Square and downtown areas, but underestimated our rush-hour travel time by about five minutes. From there to CNET was another .8 miles, underestimated by another minute or so.
In the cabin
As with the exterior's styling, the 2008 Honda Civic's interior is pretty run-of-the-mill. Only the now-familiar two-spoke steering wheel and split-level gauge displays break up the predictability. The upgrade to leather on the seats, steering wheel, and armrest that is the difference between the EX and EX-L is a nice touch, but maybe not worth $1,200.
The navigation system's maps lack resolution, with chunky street names.
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.
The PC Card reader, next to the CD slot, is a strange feature for digital music.
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.
Honda gets 140 horsepower out of this 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine.
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.