The 2012 model is the ninth iteration of the Honda Civic, which made its fortuitous debut just ahead of the 1973 gas crisis. Of the Civic’s many redesigns since then, some have been major rethinks while others have been stay-the-course refinements. This latest redo definitely falls into the latter camp.
What, me worry?
You can perhaps understand why Honda isn’t anxious to make big changes here, because what they have is very successful formula. Although Toyota claimed the bestselling small-car mantle last year, with combined sales of its Corolla and Matrix edging out the Civic by 6000 units, Honda asserts that in retail sales, the Civic is number one. It’s also number one — of all cars — among coveted, Gen-Y buyers.
So while it may not be surprising that Civic hasn’t undergone a wholesale rethink, the list of what has not changed is long. In a small-car environment that has become a lot more competitive, Honda has not seen fit to add direct injection or turbocharging to its powerplants. It has stayed with five-speed transmissions, except for the Si. The exterior design retains its single-arc, mono-pod profile. And the interior again uses a two-tiered instrument panel.
That’s not to say that nothing has changed, of course. The Si has a new engine, as does the hybrid. There is a new HF model. There is (a bit) more standard equipment. But the overall impression is that, with this new Civic, Honda sought to polish what it already has.
One secret to the Civic’s success is a model lineup that’s the most extensive of any in its class. For 2012, that lineup returns intact, with one additional variant thrown in. In order from greenest to meanest, they are:
• Civic Natural Gas. Formerly known as the Civic GX, the natural-gas-powered version will now be sold in all fifty states. The Civic Natural Gas is the latest arriving of the new 2012 models, as it doesn’t go on sale until this fall.
• Civic Hybrid. The Civic Hybrid switches from a nickel-metal-hydride to a more compact and more powerful lithium-ion battery pack (a first in a Honda hybrid). It also upgrades from a 1.3-liter to a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine, although engine output remains the same. Nonetheless, fuel economy increases from 40/43 mpg to 44/44 mpg. The hybrid again is available only as a four-door that’s about equivalent to the EX trim level, and it’s the most expensive Civic model. With the Civic Hybrid now easily exceeding the fuel economy of the Insight, cost is really the only reason one would choose the much less satisfying junior Honda hybrid.
• Civic HF. Honda has revived the HF designation (seen long ago on the CRX) for a higher-fuel-economy version of the regular, gasoline-engine Civic sedan. The HF has the same powertrain as the DX, LX, and EX models: a 140-hp 1.8-liter with a five-speed automatic. There is no manual available on the HF. Available as a sedan only, the HF achieves its extra margin of fuel economy via lower-rolling-resistance tires and aerodynamic enhancements. EPA fuel economy estimates are 29/41 mpg.
• Civic DX, LX, EX, EX-L Sedan. These mainstay sedans comprise the heart of the Civic lineup. The model variants remain the same as last year. All versions are equipped with the 1.8-liter iVTEC four, whose output of 140 hp and 128 pound-feet of torque is unchanged for 2012. A five-speed manual is standard on the DX and LX, while a five-speed automatic is standard on the EX versions and optional on the others. Fuel economy is up significantly. EPA ratings are 28/36 mpg for the manual (up by 2 mpg both city and highway) and 28/39 mpg for the automatic (versus 25/36 mpg previously). The sedan’s wheelbase shrinks by 1.2 inches although overall length, width, and height are the same as before. Despite an exterior envelope that is no bigger, Honda engineers managed to carve out an additional 3.7 cubic feet of interior space.
• Civic DX, LX, EX, EX-L Coupe. The Civic coupe returns, available in the same trim variants as the sedan (outside of the green versions). Mechanically, coupes and sedans are identical, except for the fact that one can get a manual transmission on the EX trim level in the coupe. Like its four-door counterpart, the coupe’s wheelbase has shrunk a bit, and it’s 1.9 inches shorter than the sedan’s. Overall length is unchanged; it remains 1.8 inches shorter than the four-door. Width is virtually the same as before (up by 0.1 inch) and height is exactly the same. Civic engineers were not able to find any more interior space here; in fact, the coupe’s passenger volume shrank by roughly half a cubic foot.
• Civic Si. The hottest Civic is once again available as both a two-door and a four-door. The previous 2.0-liter four has been tossed out in favor of a 2.4-liter from the Acura TSX. Here rated at 201 hp and 170 pound-feet of torque, the new, larger engine is only slightly more powerful (4 hp) but makes an additional 31 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual gearbox is again the only transmission available. Despite the new engine’s larger displacement, even here fuel economy has improved, to 22/31 mpg, up from 21/29 mpg for the 2011 model.
Familiar look and feel
Anyone coming out of the previous Civic should be very comfortable with the new one. The silhouette maintains what chief exterior designer Toshiyuki Okumoto calls the “one-motion form.” That is, the hood and trunk are extremely short, while the passenger cabin is extremely large, and the windshield and backlight are steeply raked. What Okumoto introduced with the new model are more undulations in the surfaces. Even so, this is clearly recognizable as a Civic.
Inside, it’s a similar story. The steeply raked windshield again makes for a large dash area. The quarter windows at the front have grown larger and the A-pillars have bucked the prevailing trend by getting slimmer. Outward visibility overall is better than most sedans. The two-tier dashboard returns, with the upper binnacle housing the digital speed readout, now bracketed by lights that glow green when you let off the gas or blue when you’re on it. Flanking that display are the gas gauge and a bar-graph meter that’s supposed to represent fuel economy. The lower binnacle is home to the analog tachometer. On all but the base DX, there’s a new additional screen in the upper binnacle that can display audio information, a trip computer, a photo that you upload, Bluetooth info, or hybrid system monitoring (for the Hybrid).
The Civic again features a small-diameter, three-spoke steering wheel. The secondary controls are simple to use. Stowage space in the center console is generous. Overall, the interior is supremely functional but not particularly stylish.
Why so stingy?
One Honda tradition that unfortunately lingers here is a stinginess with available equipment. Bluetooth, for example, is not available on the DX, LX, or HF. Satellite radio can only be had with navigation, meaning it too is the exclusive province of the EX, the Si, and the Hybrid. And then there’s the DX. Honda didn’t have one at the launch event, but it might be more appropriate to introduce that model at the Bada Bing. The DX is an old-school stripper, as it comes without air-conditioning, power mirrors, power door locks, or a radio. At least it does have stability control, which is finally standard on all models.
Watching its waistline
By resisting the temptation to increase the Civic’s exterior dimensions, Honda was able to keep a lid on the car’s weight. In fact, nearly all the various Civic models have actually shed a few pounds compared to their 2011 counterparts. Keeping the new car’s weight under control helped Honda engineers eek out better gas mileage from a powertrain that’s little changed.
The Civic is once again a friendly but not terribly exciting driving companion. Simple to adapt to and easy to see out of, it proved very good at threading its way through the chaos of downtown Washington, D.C. Out in the suburbs, we noted off-the-line response that’s somewhat wanting but highway merging that’s sufficiently energetic. The automatic transmission makes the most of its five gears, and its logic and manners are above reproach. The electric power steering has been revised for greater linearity, but it still seems overly light on center. Once again, this is an easy-driving choice with no obvious flaws.
A spin in the Si
More so than its siblings, the Si has undergone a tangible evolution for 2012 version, due to its new engine. The output of the new, larger VTEC four is much more accessible than the previous engine’s. Not only is there more torque (170 pound-feet versus 139), but it arrives much lower in the rev range. Whereas you needed to rev the old 2.0-liter to 6100 rpm to access the peak torque, with the new engine it’s available at 4300 rpm. That’s still far from diesel-engine territory, but it means that you don’t need to send the VTEC screaming to the upper reaches of the tach whenever you want a quick burst of speed. In fact, the Si is now able to accelerate smartly even with cruising in sixth gear on the highway. VTEC aficianados who want a vocal, high-revving engine, however, should still be happy, although the 2.4-liter’s 7000-rpm redline isn’t quite as lofty as the 2.0-liter’s 8000-rpm redline. As you near the limit, a sequence of orange lights illuminate in the instrument panel, and then a red one when you reach the redline.
As before, the Si six-speed gearbox is a good one, with short, positive throws and near-perfect clutch action. A mechanical limited slip differential helps put the power down and torque steer is fairly well managed. The firmer suspension and 0.4-inch lower ride height give the Si more energetic turn-in but don’t ruin the ride quality. Honda dresses up the Si interior with more aggressively bolstered seats upholstered in a sporty black cloth, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with red stitching, and metal-trimmed pedals. Exterior embellishments are fairly restrained, with special 17-inch wheels, fog lights, and a low-profile rear spoiler with LED brake light. Owners, of course, are free to add their own wild front air dams, giant wings, and drop the suspension to the ground, limited only by their own good taste — and sometimes not even that.
A juggernaut rolls on?
The new Civic retains its many characteristic strengths, but it doesn’t really add any new ones. The new car may be vulnerable on issues of price and equipment against fresh rivals that are more competent than ever. We’ll see if the ninth Civic can hold onto its position as a small-car-buyer favorite.
2012 Honda Civic
Base price range: $16,555 — $27,500
28/39/32 mpg (city/highway/combined)
1.8L SOHC I-4
Horsepower: 140 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 128 lb-ft @ 4300 rpm
Curb weight: 2773 (EX-L)
Wheels/tires: 205/55R16 Continental ContiProContact
What’s new? Redesigned, ninth-generation model