First Drive: 2012 Honda Civic

Up Front

How good is the newly redesigned 2012 Honda (HMC) Civic that hit the market on Apr. 20? My answer is, very good, but maybe not good enough.

The Civic used to be the classiest compact economy car on the market. Now it matches the competition but doesn't stand out in most respects—and maybe not at all once you factor in its relatively high price. The Hyundai (HYMPY) Elantra is very close and costs less, and the redesigned 2012 Ford (F) Focus and the all-new Chevy Cruze offer tough new competition. The Toyota (TM) Corolla, the market leader, is outclassed at this point, but continues to have millions of loyalists.

Rather than make dramatic changes to fend off rising competition, Honda improved the Civic in numerous small ways. The 2012 model is the same length as the old one, but looks sleeker and more modern, both outside and inside. Surprisingly the interior is slightly more spacious than before. The new Civic also handles better than the outgoing model, is expected to have top safety ratings, and goes farther on a gallon of gas.

The trouble is, all the improvements keep the Civic in the game but don't pull it ahead. For example, a 1.8-liter, 140-horsepower, four-cylinder engine remains standard and the two available transmissions are a five-speed automatic and (on some versions) a five-speed stick shift. That's disappointing because the automatic in the 2012 Focus is a more modern and efficient six-speed, as are the ones in the Elantra and Chevy Cruze. The Focus's engine also has 20 more horsepower and more torque than the new Civic's.

Honda held the line on prices, keeping the starting sticker of most 2012 Civics exactly the same as the outgoing model. A basic 2012 DX sedan starts at $16,555 with a stick shift and $17,355 with an automatic, same as before, rising to $22,705 for the top-of-the-line EXL sedan with an automatic, also same as before. The sporty Si Coupe still starts at $22,955. The price of the Civic hybrid rose a mere $100, to $24,800. However, starting prices for the 2011 Civic were at the high end for the segment, so the 2012 will probably cost more than rivals, notably the Elantra and Corolla.

Fuel economy is another example. Crucially, with gasoline prices topping $4 per gallon in some areas of the country, the Civic's is up 3 miles per gallon. With an automatic transmission, both the Civic sedan and two-door coupe are rated to get 28 mpg in the city, 39 on the highway, for an average of 32 (up from 29 before). However, that still leaves the Honda a tiny bit behind the 2011 Elantra sedan, which is rated at 29/40/33 whether with an automatic or a stick shift, and versions of the 2012 Ford Focus that are rated at 28/40/33 with an automatic. (The 2011 Toyota Corolla trails behind at 26/34/29.)

To avoid being bested, Honda added a new, more aerodynamic Civic HF to the lineup that's rated at 29 mpg in the city and 41 on the highway, for an average of 33. Honda claims the HF gets the best highway mileage of any car on the market with an automatic transmission and conventional gasoline engine. However, my guess is that with a six-speed transmission, the regular Civics might have achieved that rating and the HF might have done even better. The HF also starts at a relatively high $20,205.

The new Civic hybrid now uses lithium ion batteries, which makes the battery pack smaller and helps raise mileage by 3 miles per gallon, to 44. That beats Honda's Insight hybrid and most of the competition, but still trails the 50-mpg rating of the Toyota Prius.

Safety, on the other hand, is a strong point. Although the 2012 Civic doesn't yet have crash-test ratings, the company predicts the new model will earn the highest-possible 5-Star government crash-test designation, as well as be a Top Safety Pick of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The car comes standard with braking assist and brake-force distribution, as well as front, front-side, and cabin-length head-protecting air bags. Honda also dramatically reduced the cost of repairing the Civic after a minor collision.

Although the new Civic is coming out on schedule, aftereffects of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan may keep supplies tight in coming months. In the meantime the 2011 Civic has continued to sell well even as the new model was about to come out. Including the hybrid (which accounts for less than 3 percent of sales), Honda sold 64,968 Civics in the first three months of this year, 19.5 percent more than a year earlier. The Toyota Corolla was up 18.7 percent, to 76,675, in the first three months of the year.

The Civic is Honda's second-best seller, behind the Accord, as well as America's fourth-best-selling car overall (behind the No. 1 Toyota Camry, No. 2 Accord, and No. 3 Corolla). The Corolla outsold the Civic last year, but the Honda gained ground. Corolla sales fell 9.8 percent, to 266,082, while Civic sales rose slightly (0.8 percent) to 260,218. Rivals such as the Ford Focus (172,421 units sold in 2010) and the Hyundai Elantra (132,246) trailed well behind the two leaders.

Behind the Wheel

At a press event in Washington, D.C., I test-drove the new Civic sedan back-to-back with the 2011 Civic, a 2011 Elantra, and a 2011 Corolla (but unfortunately not the new Focus and Cruze). What that experience made abundantly clear is that the new Civic handles better than the old one, and the Hyundai offers very tough competition when it comes to quickness and handling. The Corolla doesn't come close.

I didn't get a zero-to-60 time on the new Civic, but it's probably about the same as the old one, which struggled to 60 in about 9.5 seconds. That's about the same as for the Elantra and typical for an economy car. However, the Civic's small size and nimble suspension make it feel relatively sporty. The car's appeal has always been its quickness once it's rolling, from about 25 mph to 65 mph. In that speed range the Civic really jumps when you give it gas. The new Civic also feels tighter than the previous one, partly because its frame is 10 percent more rigid.

If you value handling and genuine pep, the only Civic to buy is the sporty and more expensive Si, which clocks in at 6.7 seconds in zero-to-60 runs. Engine size rises to 2.4 liters and 201 horsepower (four more than before) in the Si.

The Civic's interior hasn't changed all that much. The distinctive two-tier instrument panel remains, and some of the dials and gauges look very similar to the ones in the previous Civic. However, the dash has a new rice-paper-like texture that's quite attractive, and the center stack has been gussied up with a 5-in. color display. The backlighting of the instrument panel changes from Honda blue to green when the driver is driving economically and conserving fuel.

Still, the cabin feels more open inside than the outgoing model because of improvements such as widening the body slightly, raking the windshield even more sharply forward than before, and thinning the front roof pillars while enlarging the little windows at their base. Actual interior space is slightly greater, allowing for more front-seat shoulder space and 1.6 in. of additional rear legroom.

Trunk size in the sedan rose 0.5 cu. ft. to 12.5 cu. ft., but that's still way behind the Elantra's 14.8 cu. ft. and the Chevy Cruze's 15 cu. ft.

Buy It or Bag It?

The new Civic's base price of $17,355 with an automatic transmission makes it a bit pricey, and—like other Hondas—the Civic tends to have a relatively high transaction price because the company doesn't offer cash rebates to boost sales. In the past the Civic was always worth the extra money, in my opinion, but that's no longer certain.

The 2011 Elantra sedan starts at just $15,695 with an automatic transmission, matches the Civic's fuel economy, and looks very stylish. Ditto for the 2012 Ford Focus sedan, which is quicker, about as fuel-efficient, and starts at $16,995 with a stick shift and $18,090 with an automatic. And ditto again for the new Chevy Cruze, which is slightly bigger (and less fuel-efficient) than the Civic, just as stylish and peppy, and starts at $17,275, whether with an automatic or a stick shift.

The budget alternative, the Corolla sedan starts at $17,160 with an automatic, only a bit less than the Civic, but tops out at a mere $19,060.

The bottom line: Buying a Honda Civic used to be a no-brainer. These days it pays to comparison shop and do some test-drives before signing on the dotted line.

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