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.
Only in direct comparison do the changes to the 2012 Civic (top) become apparent.
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.
The Econ button boosts your mpg by a few ticks, but robs the Civic of valuable performance in the process.
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.
True, driving with the Econ mode may be more efficient than without, but we're not fans of putting the needs of the engine ahead of those of the driver. At the end of the day, the Econ button feels like a compromise or even a cheat to get the Civic's fuel economy on par with the competition, but it's not the mode that we'd recommend that anyone actually drive around in. The fact that the vehicle doesn't default to Econ upon restarting suggests that even Honda must feel that way. Around-town driving without the Econ button's assistance yielded much better and more predictable performance and a 27.4-mpg combined city and highway average.
New cabin tech package
We've never really been fans of the Honda Civic's cabin tech package, and at first glance this new model appeared to be more of the same. The maps for the optional navigation package look as pixelated as the previous generation and are just as difficult to read. The menus feature the same dated aesthetic and low resolution. But beneath the surface, the infotainment system is mostly new.
The Civic's maps are laughably bad compared with those of even the cheapest portable navigation device.
Digging through the menus reveals that most of the screens have been redesigned and reorganized to make browsing audio sources faster and inputting a destination more intuitive. The user interface still requires a bit of effort to learn, but it's much easier to work with than it used to be.
Audio sources for our EX-L with Navigation were AM/FM radio, a single-CD slot with MP3 playback, USB connectivity with iPod control, an auxiliary audio input, and Bluetooth A2DP wireless audio streaming. Regardless of the source, the Civic's six-speaker audio system produced good sound with tight bass despite its lack of a subwoofer. Sound quality was definitely better than in other vehicles tested in the Civic's class, for example the.
Located at the top of the dashboard--under the eyebrow that also houses the digital speedometer, fuel gauge, and mpg meter--is the Civic's new I-MID, a secondary 5-inch LCD that interfaces with the trip computer and infotainment system to mirror vehicle information within the driver's field of view. By pressing a button on the steering wheel, you can alternate between displaying audio source information, turn-by-turn directions, trip computer and fuel economy information, and even customizable photo wallpaper that can be imported via USB. We found the I-MID to be extremely useful, particularly for displaying upcoming turns while navigating. Oddly, the crisp graphics of this secondary display had the side effect of making the primary display look even worse by comparison.
Honda somewhat makes up for the low-res main screen with the I-MID, which displays secondary information at the top of the instrument cluster.
Bluetooth hands-free calling joins audio streaming in the Civic's bag of tricks. The system features address book sync and with the aid of Honda's slightly improved voice command system enables calls to be initiated by voice. The system isn't as seamless as, for example, Ford Sync, but it is more fully featured than Hyundai's system. A new help screen is shown when you press the voice button, useful for those who may have struggled with the previous voice command system.
Honda hasn't ruined the 2012 Civic, contrary to popular belief. In fact, depending on what you're looking for in a vehicle, Honda has incrementally improved the Civic. The car is more comfortable and slightly more efficient, and finally offers cabin technology that we could live with on a daily basis. If you're looking for a safe and reliable commuter car with good cabin technology, you may find yourself pleased with a new Honda Civic--just cover that Econ button up with a bit of gaffer's tape and try to forget it's there.
However, the Civic also finds itself in the middle of a rapidly evolving market full of other small cars that are just as good. Where the Civic was once the runaway winner in the B-segment, these days it faces stiff competition from the likes of the Hyundai Elantra, the, and that are marginally less expensive, better equipped, or more efficient.
The Honda Civic sedan is available in three main trim levels: stripped-out DX, which doesn't even include a CD player; standard LX with its USB connectivity, I-MID, and air conditioning; and the EX that adds Bluetooth calling, the better-than-average audio system, and a power moon roof. Adding $1,490 to the EX's $20,505 price tag bumps the trim level to EX-L and adds leather trim on the seats and steering wheel, as well as heated seating surfaces and side mirrors. Finally, $1,500 brings you to the oddly descriptive "EX-L with Honda Satellite-Linked Navigation System with Voice Recognition" trim level that we tested, which, obviously, adds navigation, voice recognition, and XM Satellite Radio. There are no more major options, just a $770 destination charge to bring us to an-as tested MSRP of $24,225.
|Model||2012 Honda Civic sedan|
|Power train||1.8-liter gasoline engine|
|EPA fuel economy||28 city, 39 highway mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||33.3 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional w/ FM traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Basic voice command, phonebook sync, A2DP audio streaming|
|Disc player||Single-disc, CD/ MP3|
|MP3 player support||Analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB w/ iPod connectivity|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth stereo streaming, SiriusXM Satellite Radio|
|Audio system||160 watts, 6 speakers, no subwoofer|
|Price as tested||$24,225|