Any time there's a new Honda Civic, it's a big deal in the small-car market. The Civic, together with the Toyota Corolla, is one of longest-running nameplates in the field, and it regularly vies with the Corolla for the top spot in sales. This year, however, the new Civic is hardly the only big news in small cars. The past few months have also seen the introduction of an all-new Hyundai Elantra and an all-new Ford Focus, both vastly improved over their predecessors and both coming from companies that have been on a roll lately. It seemed natural to get the new Civic together with these upstarts to see how the freshest entries in the field compare.
The Many and the Few
The Civic is available in more different iterations than any other compact car. For the 2012 version, Honda has upped the count by one, adding a new HF high-fuel-economy model. The Civic already offers two body styles, coupe and sedan. There are a total of eight trim levels: DX, LX (the biggest seller), EX, EX-L, the sporty Si, as well as HF, Hybrid, and Natural Gas (due out this fall). For this comparison we had an EX-L sedan.
Ford's new Focus also comes in two body styles. The two-door coupe available previously is gone, but there's a new four-door hatchback to accompany the four-door sedan. There are four trim levels: S, SE, SEL, and Titanium. A Focus electric is joining the lineup in late 2011. We had an SE hatchback here.
The Hyundai Elantra has the simplest lineup. The new Elantra is offered only as a four-door sedan, in GLS or Limited trim. (The Elantra Touring, a high-roof four-door hatchback, shares the Elantra name but is really a distinct model.) For this comparison, we had an Elantra Limited.
Who's Got the Looks
We'll wade only briefly into the subjective area of design. The new Civic reverently continues the design theme of its popular predecessor. The large cabin is visually elongated with a steeply raked windshield and backlight, while the hood and the trunk are abbreviated. The result is on single-arc profile, which has been freshened somewhat with more sculpted surfaces. Designers of the Elantra and the Focus appear to have given no thought whatsoever to maintaining a visual link to the previous models -- and rightly so, since both were dowdy and downmarket-looking. The Elantra's flowing lines may not be to everybody's taste, but they're certainly dramatic and stylish for a car in this class. The Focus bears a familial resemblance to other Ford of Europe products, with an oversize grille, raised creases along the body sides, a rising beltline, and a small greenhouse. Overall, we think the design works better on the hatchback than it does on the overly busy sedan, although in both cases it's very similar to the subcompact Fiesta.
The Civic's Familiar Surroundings
Consistency is again the name of the game for the new Civic's interior, which clearly follows the format laid down by the previous model. Under the large windshield is a very deep dashboard that, as in the last Civic, is bisected into two tiers. The upper binnacle houses a digital speedometer, flanked by readouts for fuel level and another one for fuel economy. Bracketing the speedometer are lights that glow green when the driver lets off the gas or blue when he gets on it. Set below the upper binnacle is the large, analog tachometer, which the driver sees through the small-diameter, three-spoke steering wheel. An additional, 6.5-inch LCD screen just offset to the right within the upper binnacle is new for 2012. It can display a variety of information, which the driver can scroll through using the relatively simple buttons on the steering wheel. Readouts include audio system info, Bluetooth phone info, turn instructions from the navigation system, trip computer info, or a wallpaper photo that you upload. Our EX-L was equipped with the optional navigation system. Its large touch-screen was fairly easy to use and we had no qualms with the system's logic. But the audio and nav-system buttons that surround it are tiny, and the whole units looks like its ten years old. The Civic's other switchgear is typical Honda: simple and of high quality. Aside from our top-spec EX-L model's leather seats, the cabin is otherwise fairly basic and unadorned. Interior space, though, is quite good -- slightly better than before despite unchanged exterior dimensions -- excepting rear-seat headroom under the sloping roof. And the comparatively generous window area makes the cabin feel large and airy.
The Cockpit-like Cabin in the Focus
The design philosophy of the Focus cabin is definitely in contrast to that of the Elantra and the Civic. The driver's environment is more enveloping and less open. Although the dash slopes away from the occupants so as not to feel oppressive, the center console area is much higher and it flows right up into the center dash. A smattering of brushed-metal trim provides some relief in the mostly black interior, whose firm but supportive seats are upholstered in a grippy cloth (although leather is available). The Focus hatchback's rear seat is easier to get into and out of than the two sedans', but there's less legroom once you're in there. It's still adult-habitable, though. Of course, the Focus hatchback offers unmatched cargo-carrying utility, even before you fold the rear seats. Unlike the other two cars here, our Focus SE was not equipped with navigation (it can be had on the SEL and Titanium only), but it did have the optional MyFord and Sync package. This is not the same as the MyFordTouch touch-screen system, which is standard on the Titanium. This somewhat simpler system has two small screens, one in between the speedometer and tachometer and one in the center stack; they're accessed via a multi-function controller on the steering wheel (similar to the Civic's) and cell-phone-like buttons in the center of the dash -- the latter require a bit of a learning curve.
All three compacts feature four-cylinder engines; the Ford and Hyundai engines are new, while the Honda four is largely carryover. The Focus engine is the largest, at 2.0 liters, and it alone uses direct injection. Its power and torque ratings are the highest of the three at 160 hp and 146 pound-feet. The Elantra's 1.8-liter is next, at 148 hp and 131 pound-feet of torque. Both engines are more powerful than their predecessors. The Civic's four-cylinder, also 1.8 liters, is a modified version of the previous Civic engine, but its horesepower and torque figures are unchanged from before, at 140 hp and 128 pound-feet. The drivability characteristics of all three were remarkably similar, perhaps because they all make their peak torque within the relatively narrow range of 4300 and 4700 rpm. Their relative differences in horsepower were blunted by the cars' differences in curb weight, where we find the Civic to be the lightest, the Focus the heaviest and the Elantra in between. The uptake is that none of these cars is a sparkling performer off the line, but all three have sufficient gusto for passing and highway merging.
The Hyundai was the only car here with a six-speed transmission -- in fact, whether ordered with a manual or an automatic, all Elantras have six forward gears. That probably helped the put the Hyundai out in front in the fuel-economy race, with EPA ratings of 29 mpg city and that suddenly all-important 40-mpg highway number. With the Civic, you get only five forward gears whether you choose a manual or an automatic like we had here (only the Si gets a six-speed manual). Still, the Civic is only a tick behind the Elantra in both city and highway measures, at 28/39 mpg. Our Focus had a five-speed stick, but the Ford's automatic is a six-speed. Not surprisingly, the manual-transmission Focus is the less economical variant, rated at 26/36 mpg. Both Ford and Honda can advertise higher numbers: 40 mpg highway in the case of the Focus, and 41 mpg on the part of the Civic. But in both cases, those figures are only for special, high-mileage variants: the Focus SE with the SFE package, and Honda's Civic HF model, whereas all Elantras achieve the same EPA rating.
On the road
Ford has been making strides in the dynamic behavior of its small cars -- witness the Fiesta -- and that's clearly evident with the new Focus. The Focus felt particularly buttoned-down, and it had easily the best steering. The Honda proved to be a bit more eager to turn in than the Hyundai, exhibiting less understeer. It also rode notably better. We were less pleased, however, with the Civic's steering, which was rather vague on center. As impressive as the Hyundai was otherwise, it was somewhat disappointing dynamically. Its brakes were grabby and the suspension didn't do much to mask bad pavement. The Elantra's handling, though, was pretty good and its steering, while light, was not totally dead.
The Elantra is an impressive effort and boasts a long list of superlatives. It gets the best gas mileage, has the largest interior and trunk, and the best electronics interface. Less surprising but no less important is the fact that it has the most equipment at the lowest price. The Elantra is a good $2000 cheaper than the Civic, and would offer similar savings over a comparably equipped Focus. For many people, that wraps it up right there. To choose the Civic over the Elantra, one would have to place a greater weight on more subjective qualities. The Honda cabin feels more airy and comfortable and is easier to see out of. We found that the Civic also rides better. Its power deficit isn't really an issue because it's the lightest car here, and its fuel economy is close enough to the Hyundai's that it would hardly make a difference in real life. The Civic has the composure of a bigger car, but the ease of use of a small one. The Focus was a bit of an outlier in this test because of the way it was equipped. We had lined up a more directly compatible version (a sedan with an automatic transmission) but it was damaged at the last minute and this sporty SE hatchback stepped in. Despite its lower spec, the Focus was our favorite car to drive, with its nicely weighted steering, natural clutch action, and responsive handling. True, the Focus was the least economical, but we enjoyed rowing its manual gearbox. The hatchback body style is a versatile configuration that neither competitor offers. The Focus cabin wasn't as stylish as the Elantra's but neither was it quite as pedestrian as the Honda's, although it is more intimate than both. In any event, the Focus was the best driver's car, and while they may not be the most important factor for most small-car shoppers, it's where our prejudice lies, so the Focus is our pick.
2012 Ford Focus SE hatchback
Base price: $18,785
Price as tested: $21,945
Standard equipment: 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, 5-speed manual transmission, air-conditioning, power windows, 16-inch steel wheels with wheel covers, tilt/telescoping steering column, automatic headlamps, fog lights
Options on this vehicle: Rapid Spec 203A (convenience package, cruise control, perimeter alarm, MyFord & Sync package, MyFord Tech/6-speaker stereo/Sirius satellite radio, Snyc voice-activated system); SE Sport Package (16" painted aluminum wheels, piano black grille, rear disc brakes, rear spoiler, cloth sport seats, metallic interior trim, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob); Winter Package (heated seats, power/heated mirrors, turn signal mirrors)
Key options not on vehicle: automatic transmission, power moonroof, SFE super fuel economy package, leather seats
26/36/30 mpg (city/highway/combined)
Horsepower: 160 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 146 lb-ft @ 4450 rpm
Curb weight: 2920 lb
215/50R17 Continental ContiProContact
2012 Honda Civic EX-L with Navi and XM radio
Base price: $24,205
Price as tested: $24,205
Standard equipment: 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, 5-speed automatic transmission, air-conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels, power windows, power door locks, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel, tilt/telescoping steering column, power moonroof, leather-trimmed interior, heated seats, Bluetooth, Navigation, satellite radio
Options on this vehicle: None
Key options not on vehicle: None
28/39/32 mpg (city/highway/combined)
Horsepower: 140 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 128 lb-ft @ 4300 rpm
Curb weight: 2773 lb
205/55R16 Continental ContiProContact
2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited
Base price: $19,980
Price as tested: $22,110
Standard equipment: 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel disc brakes, air-conditioning, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, power sunroof, 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, satellite radio, tilt/telescoping steering column, Bluetooth, leather seating surfaces, heated front and rear seats
Options on this vehicle: Premium Package (navigation, rearview camera, premium audio system, automatic headlights, proximity key entry with pushbutton start); carpeted floor mats; iPod cable
Key options not on vehicle: None
29/40/33 mpg (city/highway/combined)
Horsepower: 148 hp @ 6300 rpm
Torque: 131 lb-ft @ 4700 rpm
Curb weight: 2877 lb
215/45R17 Continental ContiProContact