Honda has never paid too much attention to how other car makers do things. In the past this led to many highly successful innovations. Today…well today we have the ninth-generation Civic, recently launched as an early 2012 model.
The eight-generation Civic was the most stylish to date. While not everyone was a fan, I personally liked the car’s tight proportions and smooth flowing curves. Still do. At the time I thought the 2006 Civic signaled a new emphasis on innovative yet tasteful design by Honda. The years since have proved me wrong. For the 2012 Civic, Honda has retained similar dimensions (though, reversing a decades-long trend, its wheelbase is 1.2 inches shorter). Some creases and angles have been added to the sedan to make it, in the words of the press release, “the most aerodynamically and aggressively styled models in the model’s history.” The side windows have been scrunched vertically and lengthened horizontally to outwardly express the increased roominess of the interior. The windowlette ahead of the door has shifted to the door itself, leaving a black plastic triangle where it used to be. At the rear edge of the side windows a crudely executed Hofmeister kink has been added. Overall, the new design is busier, less graceful, and simply much less attractive.
Honda claims that the revised interior “delivers more style and convenience than any other vehicle in [the] segment.” Yes, style is highly subjective. The instrument panel remains a bi-level affair, with the tach visible within the small steering wheel rim and the other instruments, including a new five-inch information display (you can upload your own background!), visible above it. This layout was my least favorite aspect of the 2006, and I have yet to warm to it (though some owners have told me they like it). Other car manufacturers used to copy Honda’s innovations. None of them have copied this layout. This might serve as a clue.
One thing I do like: the center stack is now aggressively canted towards the driver, classic BMW style, so you can easily see and reach the audio and HVAC controls. With the odd exception of the audio power switch, the buttons are fairly large. So while I can’t see the touted style, I can see the claimed convenience. But this does not justify the interior’s clunky styling, poor panel fits, and materials that vie with those in the 2011 VW Jetta for worst-in-class honors. The door panels include four different hard plastics. I couldn’t decide which of them is the worst. Probably the pebbly stuff above the armrest. Said armrest is pleasantly cushy, but it elicited a “crunch” when pressed. Even in the uplevel Civic EX the fabric appears chintzy. Honda needs to pay much closer attention to what GM, Ford, and Hyundai have been doing—the interiors of the Cruze, Focus, and (to a lesser but still large extent) Elantra are all far ahead. They might also consider following Chrysler’s lead and banishing light gray from the interior color palette.
Once upon a time the instrument panels in Hondas were compact and shockingly low. The rest of the industry studied its cars to figure out how they’d done it. Well, the bi-level monstrosity in the 2012 Civic is so tall that I had to crank the seat up a few clicks to comfortably see over it. The front seats are better than those in smaller Hondas because the headrests don’t jut quite as far forward. They also provide more lateral support than you’ll ever need given the nature of the car. In back, the cushion is comfortably high off the floor, but (in the sunroof-equipped EX) there’s only enough headroom for those up to 5-10. Both the cushion and floorboard are both nearly flat, to enhance comfort for a center passenger. There’s a little more rear legroom than before, but the seat’s width remains that of a compact sedan.
Even in EX trim the Civic tips the scales at 2,765 pounds, light for a compact sedan these days. The powertrain remains a 1.8-liter four good for 140 horsepower hitched to five-speed automatic (a manual is no longer offered in the EX, a six-speed automatic has yet to arrive). Even if you don’t engage “Eco” mode the powertrain’s responds in a leisurely fashion and performs adequately at best. The transmission upshifts quickly and sometimes seems indecisive. Like that in the Elantra and some other competitors, a “smart” alternator tries to do most of its charging during braking, and de-clutches much of the rest of the time. Partly because of this attempt to boost fuel economy, the brakes feel more than a little like those in a hybrid.
In fact, the entire driving experience is oddly similar to that in a Prius. In another fuel economy-oriented tweak, the steering is now electric assist on all Civics rather than just the Si and Hybrid. The new system feels artificial to the extent it feels like anything at all. Stability control, previously reserved for the EX-L and Si, is now standard across the line. But it should rarely come into play. The new Civic’s handling is predictable, stable, and safe. What it isn’t: fun. There’s quite a bit of lean when the wheel is turned. Even a Prius has a more direct, connected feel. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but even the weakest, most spartan Civics used to be fun cars.
The new Civic usually rides smoothly, but feels a little unsettled over some surfaces and never feels precisely damped the way a Ford Focus or Mazda3 does. At times the rear suspension sounds and feels like it’s bottoming out under minimal duress—even with no one in the back seat. Noise levels are lower than in the past. But even with its enhanced smoothness and quietness, the Civic lacks the premium sound and feel of the Cruze and Focus.
The major payoff of all the thrill-killing tweaks: the EPA ratings are up from 25/36 to 28/39—edging out the Ford Focus’s 28/38 and nearly matching the Hyundai Elantra’s 29/40. (To out-eco the Elantra, a Civic HF with 29/41 ratings is also offered.) To help you achieve these numbers, a pair of thick bars flanking the digital speedometer change color from blue to green when you’re behaving. There’s also a prominently placed instantaneous mpg display. The average fuel economy readout within the new information display is a bit of a bother, though. You must reset the trip odometer to reset it, and to do this you must dig through three menu levels using buttons on the steering wheel, and then dig your way back out. “Keep it simple” this isn’t.
The 2012 Honda Civic EX lists for $21,255, up $100 from the 2011 despite the addition of a few features, including stability control. But even though the 2012 is a better value than the 2011, you can get a superior, better-equipped car for the same or less from a number of other manufacturers. The most aggressively priced: a Hyundai Elantra Limited, with heated leather seats (in both rows!), lists for $20,700. A 2012 Ford Focus SE lists for about the same as the Honda when equipped with sunroof and alloy wheels, but is more fun to drive and feels like a much more expensive car.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the Honda Civic was so far ahead of its key competitors in responsiveness, handling, fuel economy, features, and reliability that owners became evangelists for the brand. The 1984 car was a design landmark whose influence continues 28 years later. Through the 1990s and into the 2000s the Civic was so fun to drive that an entire tuning industry sprung up around it.
It’s hard to see how the 2012 car could have inspired any of this passion. It’s a little roomier, and its fuel economy is the best yet for a run-of-the-mill Civic (if not quite best-in-class). But the design is clunky, the materials are cut-rate, and the driving experience is so dreadfully dull that even a Toyota Prius is a blast in comparison. Over the past few years Honda has repeatedly claimed to have remembered what made it great, and to be returning to those roots. While they’re at it, they might want to pay closer attention to what GM, Ford, and Hyundai have been up to. Perhaps this has happened, just not quite soon enough to help the new Civic. If so, we’ll be able to look back on the 2012 model year as a low point, after which the cars got better.
Mike Ulrey at Honda Bloomfield (MI) provided the car. An exceptionally helpful sales consultant, he can be reached at 248-333-3200.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.