Honda Civic — Still offers a bang for the buck

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The Honda Civic has been one of our favorite compact cars standing head and shoulders above the competition in several areas including styling, build quality, driving dynamics and resale value. For years the Civic was in a league of its own.
Now Honda has released an all-new ninth-generation Civic and it remains an appealing brand. After initial drives of all models with the exception of the natural gas edition, and after spending time on home turf with a top-line sedan, we continue to believe the Civic a “can’t go wrong” purchase.
But unlike 2005 when the last-generation Civic was introduced as a 2006 model, there is considerably more high-quality competition. And, news flash — the competition has caught up. The new Civic is finding itself in a real fight to maintain its leadership position.
This new-found equality from the likes of Ford, Chevrolet and Hyundai is important because Honda may have shot itself in the foot by electing to stay mostly with the status quo, and by actually cutting a few corners.
In August Honda was blindsided by a negative review from influential consumer testing magazine, Consumer Reports, which in the past has consistently given the Civic high marks.
There is, indeed, evidence of some cost-cutting measures that have been made. Honda has outfitted the Civic interiors with obviously less expensive materials including hard plastics on the doors and dashboard. Because the materials — whatever they are made of — even as its pleasing to the eye and stylish doesn’t belie the fact that Honda has put the car in bad light.
Honda also decided that its long-running standard five-speed automatic transmission is good enough to soldier on while virtually all the competition has gone to more efficient six-speeds. 
Likewise, the engine choices are basically unchanged except in the hybrid model, but we have no problem with that decision as the engines have been among the world’s best, providing a good combination of performance and fuel economy. And Honda, to its credit, has wrung a few more miles to the gallon out of the existing engines to remain competitive.
One area that had us concerned prior to release of the 2012 Civic was in design. Civic styling was far ahead of the curve in 2006 and remains one of the best looking compacts on the road. But in recent years Honda/Acura designers have shown a knack for taking good-looking vehicles and turning them into not-so-good-looking oddities.
We feared for the Civic, but much to our relief the styling department left the basic look intact opting for evolutionary changes. The Civic has been upgraded enough to give it a truly modern appearance while retaining its basic design. The new car gets a more steeply raked windshield, more demonstrative fascias and some very effective character lines.
Unlike Consumer Reports, we found the Civic remains an all-around good buy, easy and fun to drive with great visibility, a comfortable and relatively quiet passenger compartment, and attractive and easy-to-read gauges. One of the Civic’s hallmarks is reliability and we have no reason to believe that Honda’s bullet proof Civic won’t remain so. The Civic still offers a lot of bang for the buck.
Our test vehicle was a top-line EX-L with navigation carrying a bottom line price of $24,255. We found that our loaded up sedan is still at the top of its game in driving dynamics rivaling such highly rated 2012 models as the Ford Focus, Mazda3, and Hyundai Elantra. 
Handling remains a strong point with the carryover strut-front and multi-link rear suspension. The Civic displayed excellent balance, and smile-inducing cornering attributes. 
While we think Honda should have infused its standard 1.8-liter 140-horsepower four-cylinder engine with more horsepower, it performs all the tasks of driving life in an acceptable manner. And Honda did dial in more low-end torque for better performance off the line than the previous edition. The Civic with five-speed automatic can finish off a 0-to-60 run in around 9.2 seconds. 
Gas mileage is improved and about on the mark now being set by new competitors. It’s rated at 28 mpg city and 39 mpg highway with a combined 32. A special HF model with unique aerodynamic add-ons is capable of 29 city and 41 highway.
If you want more horsepower or you desire more gas mileage the Civic has you covered with its vast array of models.
On the driving excitement and horsepower front, the Civic Si returns in both coupe and sedan formats, churning out 201 high-revving horsepower from its 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. The Si remains a hoot to drive, but be forewarned it only comes with a six-speed manual transmission.
If you want gas mileage, the Civic has the answer with its highly rated hybrid sedan. It is in our estimation Honda’s top achievement in bringing the Civic into its new generation. The new hybrid has an astounding gas mileage rating of 44 city and 44 highway derived from a 1.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine and a more powerful electric motor rated at 110 horsepower and 127 pound-feet of torque. 
Be prepared to pay the price for fuel efficiency, however. The hybrid starts at $24,750 and ranges up to $27,520 with navigation and leather.
And if you want to cruise the carpool lanes in California as well as some other states while driving alone, there’s the Natural Gas (CNG) version. It is the only natural gas vehicle offered as original equipment by any manufacturer in the U.S. Formally only available in California, New York, Utah and Oklahoma, the new version on sale this week will now be sold in 35 states. Prices start at $26,905 including destination. Add $1,500 for the navigation version.
The dashboard layout remains basically the same with its two-tier look. It has been controversial, but it’s one of our favorites with a large digital speedometer at the top. 
One noteworthy upgrade for 2012 is that addition of what Honda calls i-MID (Intelligent Multi-Information Display), a five-inch screen that displays scads of information such as the song playing, current mpg, and turn-by-turn directions if the car is equipped with navigation. 
The Civic, in whatever format that fits your needs and desires, is still one of the best compact cars on the planet. The difference this time around is that several other nameplates are playing in the same league.
Base price: $16,575; as driven, $24,225
Engine: 1.8-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 140 @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 128 pound-feet @ 4,300 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 105.1 inches
Length: 177.3 inches
Curb weight: 2,765 pounds
Turning circle: 35.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 12.2 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 39 mpg highway, 28 mpg city
0-60: 9.2 seconds (Edmund's)
Also consider: Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Hyundai Elantra
The Good:
• Variety of powertrains including hybrid
• Comes in coupe and sedan formats
• Crisp handling
• Spacious, airy interior
The Bad:
• Cost cutting evident in interior trim pieces
The Ugly:
• New generation but same engines, 5-speed automatic