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Published: 02/18/2014 - by James Riswick, Automotive Editor
A Honda's lifecycle is typically as predictable as the moon's orbit. A car like the Civic would typically get a ground-up redesign every four or five years. Sure, there'd be a few added features to keep up with the times and an obligatory midlife tweaking of the taillights or grille, but in general, Honda's mantra was, "It ain't broke, so we don't fix it."
The 2014 Honda Civic belongs to a generation that has required fixing. It was introduced two years ago with an uninspired redesign that seemed little improved over the car it replaced and certainly not good enough to compete with new, highly desirable competitors. As others were marching up field, Honda punted.
That changed last year, when the Civic received the upgrades it should've had in the first place. Interior quality, styling, feature content and the driving experience were all upgraded, while improvements to its already exemplary crash performance were icing on the cake. For 2014, the changes continue, and while they're certainly not as significant as those last year, they are nevertheless noteworthy additions that keep the Civic on offense.
An All-New Automatic for 2014
While the Civic coupe gets a subtle styling adjustment, the Civic sedan carries over visually unchanged. For both, however, the biggest development for 2014 is the new continuously variable transmission (CVT) that replaces the previous five-speed automatic transmission. A CVT lacks gears entirely, instead relying on a chainlike belt that expands and contracts to continuously vary (hence the name) the transmission ratio for optimum engine performance and efficiency.
In terms of the latter, the Civic's CVT helps, but only slightly so. EPA-estimated fuel economy for its 1.8-liter four-cylinder has risen to 33 mpg combined (30 city/39 highway) from the 2013 Civic's 32 mpg rating (28/39). It delivered 34.8 mpg on Edmunds' 116-mile, highway-heavy evaluation route.
Frankly, this negligible year-to-year improvement (the EPA estimates you'll save about $50 per year) may not be enough to persuade those who dislike CVTs. Such transmissions have often been greeted by confusion or even disdain by drivers accustomed to cars going through a series of gears when accelerating. By contrast, a CVT can rev for as long and high as necessary, making it seem at times like the car is stuck in a low gear. Other common complaints include obnoxious droning noises and a yo-yo effect where revs constantly and excessively rise and fall depending on how much throttle is being applied.
Thankfully, the Civic's CVT is one of the best we've experienced, as it largely mitigates these side effects. There is still some drone that washes over that sweet Honda motor sound, but it's not aggravating. The yo-yo effect is negligible when driving around town, but became pronounced on the mountainous section of our evaluation route. Dropping the transmission selector down into Sport mode reduced this, instructing the CVT to keep the engine revving higher despite the adverse fuel economy effects. Still, the Manual mode and paddle shifters included with the Civic coupe would be appreciated.
Paddles or no, there is indeed a similarly slight improvement in performance for the 2014 Honda Civic. A sprint from zero to 60 mph takes 9.1 seconds (8.7 seconds with a foot of rollout as on a drag strip) versus the 9.6 seconds it took the 2013 Civic and its five-speed automatic. Improvement is improvement, but the Civic remains one of the slower compact sedans in the class. The more powerful engines found in the Ford Focus, Kia Forte EX and Mazda 3i shave nearly a second off the Civic's time. The Mazda 3 "s" and newly turbocharged Volkswagen Jetta are faster still.
New Technology Interface
Frankly, however, it seems unlikely that Honda's mailroom has been inundated with complaints concerning the Civic's acceleration. There is a chance, however, that younger shoppers have walked into the showroom and been underwhelmed by the Civic's gadgets, gizmos and the interface needed to control them.
For them, a new touchscreen electronics interface debuts in the Civic EX and above (the base LX still features last year's physical buttons and high-mounted display screen). All buttons and knobs have been removed, replaced by additional menu levels and touch-operated menu icons adjacent to the screen. Our opinions were mixed on its level of usability.
The head unit certainly looks cooler than before, as there's a clear resemblance to an iPad, but it suffers from a functionality standpoint. The touch-only controls are more responsive than some others we've tried, but we'd still prefer a knob for the volume. Within the touchscreen itself, going between submenus is a multistep process, and many buttons are too small or vaguely labeled. Both are added distractions while driving.
Then again, one editor found the system to be perfectly intuitive and declared the rest of us to be old men. We aren't, literally, but as the Civic tends to be just as popular among older drivers as it is with millennials, it's a telling comment about who may have trouble with this system.
A New Option for Navigation
In the past, if you wanted Honda's factory navigation system you had to pay up for the highest trim level. That's still the case, but there is now a second option. Owners of an iPhone 5 can now use their phone to deliver the functionality of a factory system directly to the main dash screen.
It's not free, however, since it requires a $59 navigation app and a $100 adapter to connect the iPhone 5's lightning connector to the car's USB and HDMI ports. There are other, free HondaLink apps as well that provide additional functionality. Unfortunately, it's iPhone 5 or nothing right now, but Honda says it's working on a similar setup for Android phones.
Downloading the apps (there are four in total as of now) is a quick process. To use any of them, the phone has to be on and running the app; if you turn off the iPhone or switch it to another app, it stops streaming information and visuals to the car's screen.
When using it as a navigation system, entering a destination through the car's screen is a quick process and turn-by-turn directions are timely. It'll get you where you want to go. However, it's not as elegantly executed as the fully integrated system and we found some glitches.
For instance, if you're listening to music through your phone, the nav directions will interrupt the song and will not restart it. There's no play/pause button, so you're left to skip back or forward to get the tunes flowing again.
Such are the limitations of the current setup, but since it's all driven off Honda's app, future updates are just a quick download away. And don't forget, the whole setup only costs $159 as opposed to the factory system that requires you to pony up an extra $3,150 for the EX-L with navigation trim.
The Rest Carries Over, and That's Fine
You'll note by this point that we really haven't mentioned the rest of the car. That's because the Honda Civic otherwise carries over into 2014 as the same compact sedan that ranked highly enough last year to be considered a segment best alongside the Kia Forte and Mazda 3.
The cabin remains fastidiously put together using materials that, although not superior to the competition, are certainly in the same neighborhood. In particular, the remaining switchgear that hasn't been replaced by the touchscreen moves with an expensive-feeling fluidity. Those same controls are also commendably easy to reach and use.
The driver seat could still use some additional aft travel and tilt adjustment, but the rest of the airy interior provides enough space for full-size adults in all outboard positions. The 12.5-cubic-foot trunk is average in size, but has a wide opening. The windows are big, the A-pillars are thin, and not only is a rearview camera standard on all Civics, but the Accord's LaneWatch blind-spot camera is now included on the Civic EX and above.
Still Great To Drive
Behind the wheel, the 2014 Honda Civic continues to impress. The ride is truly a benchmark for its balance of comfort and control, with a suspension that shucks off midcorner bumps and undulations that knock other cars completely out of whack.
And although not as involving or sporty as the Mazda 3, there is an engagement provided by the Civic's steering, throttle and brakes that just feels right, whether you're simply puttering around town or slicing through our slalom course, which the Civic managed at a respectable 64.3 mph. In the realm of driving "feel," the Civic is still yards ahead of many other sedans in the class.
Its braking ability has improved as well. Changes to the ABS programming shaved 6 feet off its stop from 60 mph. Its distance of 118 feet is not only improved, but now among the best in the segment. Better still, the Civic no longer suffers from excessive brake fade after multiple stops.
Things Are New, but Is It Improved?
For the most part, the changes made to the 2014 Honda Civic do add up to improvement. How much so largely depends on how you get along with the new CVT and touchscreen interface, but it's certainly hard to argue with improved fuel economy, better stopping distances and an increase in equipment. Better still, our $21,880 Civic EX test car costs only $225 more than the equivalent 2013 version.
Beyond comparisons to its past self, that price represents a value proposition that surprisingly lines up from a dollars-to-equipment perspective with the Kia Forte: a car considered to be a smart, budget-friendly purchase. The Civic may not be available with the same number of high-end extras as the Forte is (or Mazda 3, for that matter), but around the volume-selling $20,000 mark, Honda has delivered a car that checks off most boxes.
It most certainly ain't broke. Perhaps Honda could take next year off.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.