Two models offering 40-plus mpg; easy and responsive handling; available high-performance Si coupe.
Cheap interior; lackluster exterior design; incremental power gains over predecessor.
Has it been almost 40 years? Hard to believe, but the 2012 Honda Civic marks the model's ninth generation of production in the United States. From the pint-size hatchback that first showed up amid a historic oil crisis to a lineup full of sedans, coupes and hybrids, the new Civic has always covered the bases: excellent fuel economy, alert handling and solid value.
The 2012 Civic remains one of the most agile compacts around, and the new version now also delivers 41 mpg in fuel-economy (HF) sedan form and 44 mpg as a hybrid. But with the onset of the Civic's middle age, an evolutionary malaise has set in, both inside and out. The hard, dull panels that cover the dash, consoles and doors are better suited to an outdoor adventure vehicle, not a passenger car for city streets or expressways. The 1.8-liter engine delivers 140 horsepower, no more than before. And its exterior skin, while not exactly a liability — after all, BMW 3 Series designs also evolve pretty subtly — distinguishes the Civic neither from its history nor its competition.
And competition in this segment moves fast. The redesigned 2012 Ford Focus and the 2011 Hyundai Elantra offer comparable fuel economy, more power and a better interior. The Chevrolet Cruze is quieter, while the Mazda 3 can match the Civic's responsive handling curve-for-curve. The high-performance Civic Si is still a thrill, but the Mazdaspeed 3 and Volkswagen GTI are both worthy rivals.
The 2012 Honda Civic carries over its powertrain and chassis from the last generation largely unchanged. The output of 140 hp and 128 pound-feet of torque from the 1.8-liter inline-4 engine remains the same, propelling the Civic to 60 mph from a standstill in an underwhelming 9.2 seconds during Edmunds performance testing.
Honda has found better fuel economy with science, including refined aerodynamics and less rolling resistance. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on lower model trims, and it's a slick, hassle-free gearbox to use. Enthusiastic drivers may find it a little too whispery light in its action, but rush-hour commuters will appreciate its light-effort clutch pedal and short, easy shift throws.
Quick electric-assist steering, a civilized degree of body rigidity and a shorter wheelbase make the coupe and sedan sharp handlers. A front strut and multilink rear suspension carry over with only minor enhancements. Drivers seeking maximum thrills will find them in the Civic Si, which uses a larger 2.4-liter engine and six-speed manual to deliver 201 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque — the latter a 22 percent increase. The additional thrust comes on lower in the power band and helps the Si leap out of a corner, yet still poised for the next one. The engine still exhibits its traditional high-revving character, though the broader spread of power improves drivability.
The 10.3-inch front disc brakes combine with 10.2-inch rear discs on the higher coupe and sedan trims, and they prove competent, though they deliver less stopping power than the competition (the lower DX and LX trim levels replace the rear discs with cheaper drum brakes). In Edmunds testing, a 2012 Honda Civic EX-L sedan stopped in 131 feet, a below-average result for this class.
On the other side of the spectrum is the Civic HF, a Honda designation for fuel-economy trim last seen in the U.S. two decades ago. Essentially an LX sedan with the five-speed automatic, the HF gets 41 highway mpg through aerodynamic improvements like a smooth underbody and streamlined wheels.
Hypermilers looking for comfier digs get nudged into the Civic Hybrid, which offers options like leather and navigation. New lithium-ion batteries trim about 20 pounds compared to the old chassis, and in tandem with a continuously variable transmission the Hybrid delivers 44 mpg. Though the suspension shows typical Honda reflexes, the hybrid's leisurely acceleration and grabby brakes don't inspire much driving fervor.
Front and rear passengers benefit from additional leg- and shoulder room in the 2012 Honda Civic. Taller drivers and front passengers will appreciate the 3 inches of additional shoulder room, a wider berth that gives arms and elbows a little more room to roam. Honda's familiar controls that fall easily to hand are unchanged. The Si in particular offers seats bolstered with stiff thigh and torso support.
But the 2012 Civic also carries over another common family trait: noise. Civics have never been particularly quiet, and the new model doesn't deviate from this pattern. Road noise is still accepted by buyers as the price of doing business in the compact market segment, but with competitive models now offering quieter passenger compartments — the Cruze comes to mind — the Civic stands out for its complacent acceptance of this flaw.
A steeply raked windshield creates a massive cowl atop the dashboard that's made of dull industrial-grade plastic and it also wraps around the door panels and flows down the center stack and console. Even the air vents are unusually large. It's a curious selection of interior materials that doesn't fit with the rest of the car's competency — especially in light of competitors offering faux-leather and soft-touch stuff as standard equipment.
Set deep in that asymmetrical cowl is a two-tier dash and driver interface, which now includes a 5-inch color display — intelligent Multi Information Display, or i-MID. This monitors audio, Bluetooth and vehicle information, all controlled through steering wheel buttons and keypads. Opt for a navigation system and you'll have four information zones competing for your attention: digital speedo and i-MID in the top tier and closer to the windshield, and tachometer and nav display below.
Skip the navigation and instead you get an awkward, oversize radio and button array. It's a busy presentation, and the two-tier configuration has never felt quite user-friendly since its introduction on the previous Civic model. The steering wheel keypads and menu buttons navigate through the i-MID, cruise control and hands-free phone functions, and it's easy enough to operate for anyone familiar with smartphone compass controls. But first you'll have to grapple with the 14 buttons and directional commands on the steering wheel alone.
The 2012 Honda Civic plays its exterior design close to its predecessor. It's a little more windswept, with a steeper windshield angle, tighter taper to its roof line and pronounced character lines along its sides and flanks. The front fascia is tightened up a bit with a smaller grille and a slightly angrier kink in the headlights. Honda designers say principles of yoga inspired the form.
The launch of a new Civic is always an important event. This car is still important to Honda, of course; it's the automaker's second-best-selling car. With an affordable full-featured hybrid (even offering leather upholstery) and a 40-plus mpg sedan, Honda offers two models for those who prioritize fuel efficiency. For those seeking full-tilt compact performance, the Si still squeals with the best.
But the 2012 Honda Civic seemingly has ceded leadership in its class to its rivals. Both the sedan and coupe are still fine cars and worthy selections, of course. Even so, not only has the competition caught up fast, but it is rewriting the class standards.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.