Who's It For: Those looking for a practical compact car, banking off Honda's reputation as a purveyor of reliable transportation for the masses.
Best Thing: Plenty of room for four passengers and a sizeable trunk.
Worst Thing: Tacky, plastic interior trim.
Snap Judgment: With newer competitors, it's no longer the value leader we expect from a Honda.
It used to be that when our friends, relatives, mothers-in-law, accident-prone coworkers, or ex-girlfriends asked us to recommend a car, the Honda Civic was always the good ol' standby. "I just need something reliable and fuel-efficient," they'd begin, and before they even mentioned the trunk space they need for their potential Antiques Roadshow offerings we'd blurt out, "Honda Civic." It was instinctive. After all, that's the reason why the Civic has been a best-seller in America virtually since it was introduced in 1973. Its combination of practicality, value, reliability, and efficiency was near-unbeatable, especially against lackluster competitors. Throw in a dollop of fun-to-drive on top and the response became almost Pavlovian in nature.
But today the competition has caught up, and after spending a week with the all-new 2012 Honda Civic EX sedan -- the volume model that you'll soon be seeing everywhere -- it's clear that the Civic is now the one lagging. While it still boasts a roomy interior and peppy, fuel-efficient engine, the Civic's luster fades against newer and unexpected class leaders, such as the Hyundai Elantra, the Chevy Cruze, and a fresh new Ford Focus.
Safety and Technology
We drove the mid-range 2012 Civic EX sedan model, which comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, a power moonroof, Bluetooth integration, and a six-speaker sound system with the requisite steering wheel controls to access it, all at $20,505. All Civics come with six total airbags, including side curtain airbags, and anti-lock brakes, stability control, and a tire pressure monitoring system are all standard -- which combined with "Good" scores in all categories earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's "Top Safety Pick."
The redesign of the 2012 Civic apes some common styling elements: creases along the lower door panels and bulging head- and taillights. The larger rear lights are crisp, but lose some of the uniqueness from the outgoing Civic's fat-to-skinny rear lamps. But the rest of the car is pure Civic, and relatively unchanged: its conservative shape gives it ample access to the rear seats and enough headroom for everybody. The entire cabin has been moved forward, increasing legroom and front visibility -- as befitting the Civic, its tame looks belie a practicality that has always been its forte.
Our car was also brown, which Honda slyly calls "Urban Titanium Metallic." What's so urban about titanium? We don't know, but we're pretty sure titanium isn't supposed to be brown. Regardless, we welcome this return of brown to American roads, no matter how strangely named.
For daily driving around town, the 2012 Honda Civic manages to be comfortable and quiet, with a relaxed engine that's beer-commercial smooth. The silence is broken when you floor the gas to get up to speed; then the 140-hp four-cylinder engine gets the Civic to 30 mph quickly, but any further than that and the engine starts to run out of steam.
The soft suspension delivers a smooth ride, quelling freeway irregularities and the errant pothole. When freeway traffic comes to those no-reason-at-all abrupt stops, the Civic's brakes are polite, yet firm, with good response in the last third of the pedal. But at the same time, the nose dips forward like a carnival ride, and if you decide to take an offramp quickly, you'll find that the comfortable suspension isn't set up for aggressive driving. If you've got kids or groceries, better strap them in.
From the driver's seat, forward visibility is sweeping -- you can thank a minivan-like windshield for that. Rear visibility is hindered by a small window and hulking headrests; side mirrors are oddly-shaped and tall, but provide much-needed lane-changing visibility.
ECO Mode comes in the form of a large green button to the left of the dash: push it, and the engine revs a bit slower and the transmission changes gears less frantically, in a bid to maximize fuel efficiency. However, drive hard enough in ECO Mode and the engine still thrashes to its 6700-rpm redline, negating any ECO advantage. Rows of lights on either side of the speedometer grab your attention and guide you, like Pavlov's bell, into driving more economically: when you're gentle on the throttle they stay green, and they angrily turn blue when you accelerate too hard. Relatively restrained for a fuel-saving tool, ECO Mode serves as a visual for the most strict of hypermilers, but it's easily ignored when seeking more power.
Inside, its six-speaker sound system performs surprisingly well for a base-model car. The Bluetooth integration is very easy to set up and use. Up front, a deep bin holds all the accouterments of modern life: Phones and iPods can be connected via the 2012 Civic's standard auxiliary input, or charged in the power socket.
The Grocery Run
One reason why the Civic has held onto its sterling reputation as America's darling compact is its interior volume. And here, the 2012 Honda Civic doesn't disappoint. The deep, flat trunk is large enough to seemingly swallow a last-generation Accord. Cramming so much storage room in back without sacrificing rear leg- and kneeroom is a triumph in packaging. There's plenty of headroom for all passengers in front and in back, and the wide front seats are upholstered in grippy cloth, but the bottom cushion was short and unsupportive. Front legroom is on the roomy side, but from the passenger footwell juts out a mysterious black dome that looks like it was ripped from the ceiling of a Safeway.
The politest thing you could say about the interior is that it's more "mature." Gone are the loopy curves and jutting consoles of the last Civic, followed by rational lines and 90-degree angles. For families with young children, the surfaces are easily cleanable with a bottle of Lysol and a rag. Ergonomics are top-notch: the shifter falls readily to hand, and as ugly as the radio is, it becomes second nature on the second drive.
And that's about it for praise. The interior could be held as courtroom evidence that Honda engineers are on the take from the American Plastics Council: "plastics make it possible" to pack a mismatch of texture, color, and sheen across almost every surface. The door panels are flimsy and hollow-sounding, and the vents are mismatched across the dashboard. Mismatched, misshapen air vents flank both sides of said ugly radio. Given the wondrous traits of Civics past, we unanimously agreed: who kidnapped Honda and replaced it with this?
While much of the compact-car class also features plastic-laden interiors built to a price point, the 2012 Honda Civic's seems especially egregious. Our cars are becoming more sophisticated, even cars with a low base price, and with this sophistication comes the idea that we don't have to drive around surrounded by acres of harsh plastic. Is it indulgent to expect more from entry-level compact motoring? Perhaps, but the Civic already comes with Bluetooth, steering wheel audio and cruise controls, an available navigation system, and even optional leather -- and with these premium features comes the expectation that hey, maybe this inherent value should be carried over to the rest of the interior as well. Perhaps most egregiously for Honda, it's an expectation that the Civic's competition has caught onto.
The Weekend Fun
The 2012 Honda Civic EX sedan isn't very sporty by any means -- for that, you'd have to spring for the Si and its six-speed manual -- but as a long-distance car, it is solid, comfortable, and well-insulated from road noise. Surge onto the freeway, look down at the digital dashboard (in its special little hood above the tachometer), and given the Civic's smoothness, you'd think it was lying about its speed.
Grippy cloth seats and an endowment of stability at highway speeds make the Civic more thanready for going the distance. TheBluetooth audio was easy to set up and operate, and reduces by one cord what you have to remember to take with you. The beautifully high-resolution screen on the Civic's bi-level instrument panel is easily controlled via the steering wheel, where you can shuffle it through trip information, radio stations, artists from the iPod, and even set up a wallpaper image.
We hauled a week's worth of groceries in the Civic's commodious trunk (mostly beer and ramen, mind you), and the Civic's low load floor made it easy to fish our longnecks from the corners once they broke from their respective six-packs. Its budget gooseneck hinges spring the trunk open with a little too much enthusiasm, and the stubby, tall shape of the trunklid as it swings upward means that you should probably take a step back. The shape of the trunk is straightforward, with no strange bumps for the spare tire or mysterious automotive filigree, and pull-out latches easily flip down the 60/40 rear seats for larger things.
Our EX model topped off at $20,505. At that price range, is it still the fearless, off-the-cuff recommendation we'd give to our grandmother?
Not so fast. There's a slew of great competition -- some from expected sources, some unexpected. At that price point, a Hyundai Elantra Limited includes heated and cooled leather front seats, heated rear seats, and a 100,000 mile warranty. The Ford Focus nets you better driving dynamics and hatchback versatility, while an attractive interior and more overall value can be found in the Chevrolet Cruze.
So. At $16,000, maybe even $18,000 , the Civic is a fine car for everyday schlepping. But when it's almost $21,000? For us, that's a bit rich, and the Civic is a bit outclassed. Please, think of the grandmothers.
Price as tested: $20,505
EPA City: 28 mpg
EPA Highway: 39 mpg
EPA Combined: 32 mpg
Observed: 28.6 mpg
Estimated Range: 422.4 miles
Cost of Ownership: Excellent
"Really expansive windshield, like I'm driving a bus." Blake Z. Rong
"Plastics are hard, hollow-sounding, and cheapish. They're probably the least Honda-like thing about this car." Jacob Brown
"Other than Honda reliability, I cannot see why anyone would want to pony up $21k for this in an increasingly competitive segment." Matt Askari
"In an incredible turn of events, it's amazing to see that the Chevy Cruze is a much better choice than the Civic." Keith Buglewicz
"Center dash is awkward at first, second nature after a few miles." Jason Davis
"Simplicity of dash and steering wheel controls are a plus. Shifter was ... abnormally high for me." Trevor Dorchies
"Backseat knee, head, and waist space are exceptional. Not the best car in the segment, but nitpickers only nitpick because it's not the exquisite greatness they've come to expect from Honda. " Jason Davis