It's hard to beat the Honda Civic's combination of price, performance, and quality. Refreshed for 2009 with a new, more aggressive front end featuring a three-opening front air dam, the Civic retains its 140 horsepower engine, slot car handling, and most of its space-age looks. Honda introduced two new trim levels to this generation, an LX-S and DX-VP. Our LX-S model is meant to be a sporty intermediate between the basic LX model and the premium EX model, while the DX-VP adds basic creature comforts to the spartan DX model, such as air conditioning and a radio.
But while the LX-S gains alloy wheels, a decklid spoiler, sport seats, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, it falls victim to Honda's odd pricing structure that eschews a la carte options in favor of preselected trim levels. For example, there's no way to get GPS navigation without a sunroof, because the sunroof is standard on EX and EX-L trim levels, which are the only levels that allow the option of navigation. The result is that the LX-S is stuck in an odd position without much cabin tech beyond the basic CD player.
Test the tech: DIY cabin tech
We were disappointed to see that our Civic LX-S was practically devoid of much of the cabin tech that we like to see on the dashboard of our test vehicles. There was neither a Bluetooth hands-free system nor a GPS navigation. There wasn't even a trip computer that calculated fuel economy. Even the Honda Fit has an mpg meter.
The Civic is one of the most oft-modified cars in the world, so we decided to upgrade ours. Because of the heavily proprietary nature of the Civic's base audio system, swapping the receiver for an all-in-one unit was out of the question. With this limitation, we decided to go with some "bolt-on" cabin tech.
To get all of the features we wanted directly from Honda, we'd have to upgrade to the Civic EX and then spec the Honda Satellite-Linked Navigation System, which includes the Bluetooth hands-free calling. When you add it all up, you get a price premium of $3,250.
Our iPod Touch, Sony NV-U74t GPS, and PLX Kiwi fuel saver blocked a large chunk of our forward view through the windshield.
The first issue to address was Bluetooth hands-free calling. We chose our Editors' Choice Motorola Motorokr T505 speakerphone for its good call quality and built in FM-transmitter, which meant that we could route call audio through the Civic's radio, closely mimicking a stock installation. The T505's aesthetic closely matches the futuristic look of the Civic's cabin, with its metallic matte finish. With the T505 in place, we were $139 into our budget.
With our calls coming in clear, we moved on to the GPS navigation. We selected the Sony NV-U74T GPS device for its 4.3-inch touch screen and Navteq Traffic reporting, which you can't get from Honda's factory navigation system. We figured that at the $299 price point, having traffic data was a good trade off for the lack of Honda Voice-Command, which we wouldn't be able to replicate to an acceptable degree with discrete devices.
Next up, we tackled iPod integration. We were certain that we wouldn't be able to add a USB input without majorly modifying the interior of the vehicle, so we had to figure out how to directly manipulate our iPod Touch without holding it while driving. Enter the Griffin WindowSeat. This iPod holder has brackets for the iPod Touch and both generations of iPhone, as well as a suction cup to mount the device to the windshield for easy access. We added $29 for the WindowSeat and $10 for a 1/8-inch audio cable long enough to reach the line-input at the bottom of the center stack.
Having reproduced many of the features in the Civic EX, we couldn't leave well enough alone. Because we feel that fuel economy meters should be standard, we added a PLX Kiwi. This device plugs into the OBD-II port that all new cars are equipped with and calculates fuel economy based on parameters supplied by the engine control unit, the vehicle's electronic brain.
Adding the PLX Kiwi's $299 MSRP, we'd spent a grand total of $780. This represented a savings of $2,470 over upgrading to a Civic EX with navigation. Before we could celebrate our thriftiness, we had to assess what we were getting for our money. Our windshield was cluttered with tiny LCD screens and our dash was a mess of 12 volt, audio, and data cables.
At the end of this experiment, our assessment is that while the hassle may be worth the savings to add one of these devices, if you want it all, then you'll want to go with a more integrated solution.
In the cabin
The Civic LX-S has an interior that feels premium, although it's made mostly of hard plastics. The dashboard features an interesting matte finish that reduces glare and feels great to the touch. In other places, such as the shifter pod surround, there is a faux-brushed-aluminum finish. Fit and finish was superb with no odd buzzes or rattles and good isolation from external noise. At highway speeds, however, the Civic's econo-box roots are exposed by moderate, but not overpowering, amounts of road noise coming up from below.
The trade-off for our bolt-on tech was a lack of integration, as illustrated by this nest of wires powering the devices.
We like to deal with road noise by cranking the stereo. The Civic's base four-speaker, 160-watt stereo won't win any sound quality competitions, but it performs admirably for a system with no tweeters or subwoofers. At moderate volumes, audio quality is balanced and clean. At near max volume, the system distorts progressively as the bass begins to drown out the highs and mids, but it's still listenable. Thanks to the Civic's well-built cabin, rattling door panels are a non-issue. Audio sources include AM/FM radio, an MP3-compatible CD player, and a line-input at the bottom of the center stack. As stated earlier, navigation, Bluetooth, and satellite radio aren't even options on the Civic LX-S, requiring an upgrade to the EX model. A six-speaker stereo with USB input is standard on the higher trim level, but not in LX-S or below.
The two-tiered instrument cluster is a bit weird at first, but over time we came to love it. On the lower level are the tachometer, trip computer, transmission information, and an array of warning lights. On the upper level are the digital speedometer, fuel meter, and temperature gauge. This layout puts the meters most often glanced at--for example the speedometer--within the driver's field of view to minimize looking down when driving. All of the gauges feature white text over a bright blue backlight with a very cool sci-fi aesthetic.
In LX-S trim, we're treated to a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter knob. The seats get a black Sport Trim with silver stitching, which upgrades upholstery to a high-quality fabric that does a great job of holding the driver in place during spirited driving. Stepping up to the top of the line EX-L model begets heated leather seats, but we like the Sport Trim seats just fine.
Under the hood
A commuter by design, the Civic LX-S is not going to wow anyone with gross displays of horsepower. Every Civic Sedan, with the exception of the high-performance Si model, is powered by a 140-horsepower, 1.8-liter iVTEC engine. iVTEC is a technology that allows the Civic to adjust its valve timing for optimal performance and economy across the engine's range. Based on our driving impressions, it seems that Honda has tuned the Civic for thriftiness, rather than speediness.
The problem is that most of the Civic's 128 pound-feet of torque resides in the upper reaches of the powerband, just above 4,300rpm. This means that off the line performance suffers, but once you get the Civic moving, it proves to be quite zippy. However, the power problem is compounded by the equipped five-speed automatic transmission that, while quite docile for commuting, always seems to be in too high of a gear for any sort of driving enjoyment. We reckon that, equipped with the manual gearbox, we'd have a car that was as fun to drive as the 2009 Fit Sport tested earlier, if that's the sort of thing you're after.
Regardless of power-train configuration, the Civic handles like a mountain goat. Blasting down off-ramps, the Civic feels surefooted and inspires confidence in the vehicle's abilities. Winding through twisty mountain roads, the steering is precise, with just a hint of understeer to let you know when the limits are being approached. On congested city streets, the Civic's precise handling and low steering effort makes short work of weaving through traffic, dodging potholes, and parallel parking.
We were able to get about 37 miles per gallon out of our Civic LX-S over a combined cycle of highway and city driving. This is just a hair over the EPA estimated 36 highway and 25 city miles per gallon when equipped with an automatic transmission, which is impressive considering that we didn't have a fuel economy meter or alter our driving technique for high mpg. The manually shifted Civic is rated at 34 highway and 26 city mpg. Factor in the Civic's CARB emissions rating as a ULEV2 vehicle and you've got a fairly green little commuter.
We loved the Civic's planted handling and better-than-estimated fuel economy. It also doesn't hurt that the Civic could be a fun canyon carver with the right transmission. Though the Civic's space-age looks were a bit odd in the last generation, we've come to enjoy the high tech appearance. The new model's design tweaks make it one of the best looking vehicles in this segment. While we enjoyed sitting in the uniquely styled interior, the decided lack of even optional cabin tech at this trim level kept us from falling in love with this car and resulted in a low cabin comfort score.
At $18,755 the Civic LX-S is a good value for the money, coming in about $2,000 cheaper than similarly equipped Toyota Corolla S, VW Jetta S, and Mazda3 s Sport. However, none of these models offer a navigation option. For the technophile who loves a good spirited drive, the $21,205 Civic EX with manual transmission and Honda's fantastic voice-command navigation is an even better deal.