Is it them? Or us? There was a time when a new Honda Civic was an event, a chance to see automotive innovation from a plucky company that could outwit rivals twice its size. But the cautious nature of recent Civic launches inspires the same enthusiasm we reserve for a new Rolling Stones album: might be a few good riffs left in the tank, but about as dangerous as a Trader Joe's soy loaf.
It's definitely them.
Just shy of its 40th anniversary, the 2012 Honda Civic returns with a more flowing, if amorphous, exterior design and 40-mpg fuel economy to match revamped rivals like the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra. But the bargain-bin interior and reshaped metal over a carry-over chassis give the appearance of an automaker stalling for time, content to keep pace in a field it once led.
Honda's marketing campaign says there's a Civic for everyone, whether you're a speed freak, hypermiler or pragmatic people hauler. Trying to be all things to all people is quite a burden for the ninth-generation car, far from its roots as an answer to an epic oil crisis and into a product that shapes the automaker's solvency.
A Proven Performer
The 2012 Honda Civic doesn't waver much from its predecessor's appearance. Its sides look a little more windswept, as if a clay model of the previous-gen Civic had gone unattended in a blowing wind tunnel. The front windshield is slightly more raked and flows into a quickly tapering roof line and the front fascia has tightened up with a smaller grille and kinked headlamps, yielding the mischievous scowl often used by compacts to exaggerate performance prowess. Honda designers say principles of yoga inspired the form.
The coupe is the natural performer of the Civic lineup and is 1.9 inches shorter in wheelbase than the sedan (103.2 inches vs. 105.1 inches). Both body styles are marginally shorter than their 2011 counterparts. For comparison, the 2012 Ford Focus and 2012 Hyundai Elantra ride on 104.3-inch and 106.3-inch wheelbases, respectively.
Generating 140 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque from its 1.8-liter engine, the coupe's power is unchanged from last year, but Honda found fuel economy gains through decreased rolling resistance and brake drag, and improved aerodynamics. A five-speed manual transmission offers smooth and slippery action, giving the single-cam motor more life than its spec sheet indicates. But the clutch is almost a little too slick. We're missing the satisfying thump, however damped, of landing in gear. We don't mind an easy row, but we'd like less ambiguity in the engagement. And after logging some open highway miles, we find ourselves reaching for a phantom sixth cog just to smooth out the determined 1.8-liter's buzz.
Stiffer, More Competent
Driven through Washington, D.C.'s maze of one-ways, roundabouts and tangled highways, the coupe thinks quickly on its feet. Honda engineers say the additional high-strength steel in the new Civic body makes it 10 percent stiffer and 7 percent lighter. We can't say we actually feel the increase in torsional rigidity, but working with a shorter wheelbase and refined electric power steering system previously available only on the Si and Hybrid, the extra stiffness makes the coupe a sharp responder.
Its 16-inch wheels and Continental ContiProContact 205/55R all-season rubber eventually surrender to understeer when given the lash in corners. But in and out of traffic and flowing esses, the coupe represents a regret-free compromise between passenger car utility and heavy-foot indulgence.
Sporting types who prefer a manual will sacrifice some creature comforts, as the five-speed is offered only in the bottom two DX/LX trim levels, or in the higher EX trim sans navigation. A five-speed automatic is available across the board and comes standard in the top-shelf EX-L trim.
The coupe's small brakes — 10.3-inch rotors up front, 10.2 inches in back — do a competent job of halting its 2,681-pound mass, although not with amazing confidence (on DX and LX trims, rear drums replace discs).
Essentially the same under the skin, the Civic sedan is also 1.5 inches taller, and, if you opt for a manual transmission in LX trim, about 40 pounds lighter. In manual form, it only feels incrementally less sure-footed around the road course than the coupe. Pushed by the five-speed automatic, well, don't bother with the road course and you won't be disappointed.
More Room, More Plastic
Honda opened up more room in the 2012 Honda Civic cabin, and it's most noticeable in the sedan's additional 3 inches of front passenger shoulder room. Even your elbows feel a little more free to roam the door panels. Rear-seat sedan passengers also get a little more room to stretch their legs.
But with the aforementioned pitch of the windshield comes a massive dash cowl of hard, hollow industrial-grade plastic that wraps around the door panels and streams down the center stack and console. As before, Honda's two-tier dash places the tach and digital speedometer on different planes; the speedo and fuel gauge are set deeper back toward the windshield.
The second tier now offers the i-MID, or intelligent Multi Information Display, a menu screen that displays audio, Bluetooth and vehicle information, all controlled through steering wheel buttons and keypads. Opt for a Civic with navigation and you'll have four inputs fighting for a share of your cerebral cortex.
Skip the navigation and instead you get an oversize radio and button assembly that looks like something Chevy might have offered three years ago.
Going the Distance
Four trim levels of the coupe are available (DX, LX, EX and EX-L). The sedan, however, adds a fifth: the HF. The U.S. market hasn't seen an HF-badged Honda since 1991, when it was a variant of the CRX, itself a variant of the Civic. With 40 highway mpg fast becoming the standard for non-hybrid compacts, the Civic HF gets Honda in the park with 41 mpg (although the automatic sedan and coupe come close, returning 28 mpg in the city and 39 on the highway).
Available with only the five-speed automatic and trimmed similar to an LX (air-conditioning, power accessories, USB audio interface, etc.), the HF achieves its 40-plus average through less rolling resistance and improved aerodynamics aided by the minimalist 15-inch lightweight alloys and 195/65 tires. The revival of the HF badge, however, makes us wonder about the shelf life for both the Insight and the two-seat hybrid CR-Z, a car that gets worse mileage than the sedan and is about as sporty.
Hypermilers craving more refinement get nudged up the line into the Civic hybrid, which offers options like leather and navigation.
For 2012, lithium-ion batteries replace a nickel-hydride assembly and lighten the chassis by about 20 pounds. The gasoline engine also gets kicked up to 1.5 liters and joins an electric motor with increased output. Combined, the two units make 110 hp — unchanged from the last model, although peak power is delivered slightly earlier — and achieve 44 mpg. Power goes to the ground through a continuously variable transmission.
A natural-gas-powered Civic will also be available in the fall of 2011.
The 2012 Honda Civic coupe, sedan and hybrid go on sale April 20. The HF follows in mid-May. A base level DX coupe with manual transmission starts at $16,355, while a loaded EX-L coupe (navigation, satellite radio) will cost $24,205. Sedan pricing will range from $16,555-$24,205. The Civic HF is expected to sticker at $25,205. Hybrid models will range from $24,800-$27,500.
The 2012 Honda Civic is not a marked evolution of the brand. Perhaps with so much at stake, it can't be. But it is a measured if predictable, effort to stay competitive. Only the disappointing interior materials undermine its chances. But standards in this segment rise fast. And we can't help but think that Honda has ceded market leadership to its rivals and has simply chosen to stay in the game.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
The Edmunds TCO® estimated monthly insurance payment for a 2012 Honda Civic in NJ is: