I spent quite a lot of time behind the wheel of a regular Honda Civic sedan during our Small Car 6-pack story and wasn’t very impressed with Honda’s update to the car for 2012. Yes, the Honda Civic is still a very strong choice in the suddenly highly competitive field of small cars. It may be good at everything, but there’s no one area where the Honda Civic really stands above the crowd. Everything from the design to the driving dynamics to the interior is well done but unexceptional.
Which brings us to the hybrid. Honda is the only automaker currently offering a hybrid in the compact-sedan segment. It’s not the most technologically advanced hybrid on the market, but that means it doesn’t cost a fortune over the standard model, either. Honda’s IMA hybrid system is fairly straightforward in that it provides assist during acceleration, does an automatic start/stop in urban driving, but rarely allows the car to run on electric power alone. With the hybrid system, the Civic can return impressive fuel economy in the city. Many small cars have fairly unimpressive fuel economy during stop-and-go driving because you need to floor the accelerator pedal to keep up with traffic when pulling away from a stop. That’s still true with the Civic Hybrid, but using an electric motor to supply some of that thrust certainly saves fuel.
On my mixed commute, I saw an indicated 38 mpg. I would have expected about 5-8 mpg less in a normal Civic over the same route. Sure, a Prius, a Volt, or a Leaf will burn less gasoline, but the Civic’s numbers are quite good for a car that looks like a normal sedan (read: no aero-inspired spaceship styling) and doesn’t need to be plugged in. Just drive it like a normal car and it does a few minor things to save fuel that can really make a difference for people who do a lot of stop-and-go driving. There are a lot of strong choices in the compact-sedan segment but only one compact sedan that comes as a hybrid. For some shoppers, that’s enough to seal the deal.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
The only people who will notice that the Honda Civic has been redesigned are current Honda Civic owners. And I think that’s largely the point. Last year some 260,000 Americans bought a Civic, making it the best-selling small car in the country (Toyota reported 266,082 Corolla sales in 2010, but that includes the Matrix). I’m willing to bet many of them are repeat buyers. Is Honda resting on its laurels, then? Perhaps, but I’d call it staying in a groove.
Civics are known for offering some very specific qualities — good fuel efficiency, lots of interior room, smooth driving dynamics, bulletproof reliability, and excellent resale value. This iteration focuses on all those traits. Fuel efficiency has improved across the board to nearly 40 mpg on the highway (with both the Civic HF and Hybrid exceeding that number). From behind the wheel, the car remains competent and capable, if not quite engaging. The interior continues to look like it was conceived by engineers, with functionality taking first, second, and third priority. You get plenty of room to stretch out and, just as important, you feel like you have lots of room to stretch out. The new Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra both edge the Civic in a few interior measurements, but when you take turns sitting in each car — especially in the back seat — it still seems as if Honda is pulling some sort of trick. The same applies to the excellent visibility: many manufacturers tell us that modern crash regulations necessitate high beltlines and massive pillars, but somehow the Civic avoids these impositions.
Of course, the engineer’s perspective also has a downside. Soft-touch materials, for instance, cover only the surfaces you would normally touch – and none on those you don’t.
Again, none of this is new to the Civic. It’s fair to assume that the brand’s fanatically loyal buyers won’t suddenly find the graining on the car’s dashboard — which still doesn’t look remotely like anything found in nature — unbearable. The problem then, is not that Honda is “slipping” or losing ground, so much as it may be missing an opportunity. The highly hyped batch of new small cars, led by the Elantra and the Focus, are not angling to win over Civic owners — they’re chasing a completely new compact car buyer. These are not the thrifty, practical people who have been buying Honda Civics for decades. They are buyers who never considered a compact car until the economy tanked and gasoline soared toward $5 a gallon. They want all the things they used to get in their larger cars — fancy technology, attractive styling, expensive-looking interiors. The new Civic, with its bland exterior and no-nonsense interior, does little to appeal to these people. Even the Hybrid misses the point by being so inconspicuous that most green-vehicle shoppers will ignore it completely.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
The 2012 Honda Civic was supposed to be a 2011 model, but Honda pushed back development by a year to make the car better, when the compact segment really started heating up. Lucky for me, that I have a friend with a previous-generation Civic Hybrid that I drove back-to-back with the “all-new” one to see if that year really was worth the wait.
My verdict is no. David is right: Only current Civic drivers will notice the differences. Driving the two generations back-to-back makes it clear that there’s increased refinement. The interior materials are of a slightly higher grade, the ergonomics and visibility are ever so slightly better, and the exterior design is a little fresher and crisper. Most notable is the fact that the powertrain has been finessed and is less jerky in operation — especially the regenerative brakes and the auto start/stop function. While still noticeable, the shut off and start up of the engine is much smoother than in the previous model. As far as everything else goes, it’s more of the same, albeit with the 4 mpg and 1 mpg gains in the city and on the highway, respectively. (The 2012 Civic Hybrid is rated at 44/44 mpg city/highway.)
My friend’s verdict, on the other hand, was a resounding “Yes!” to the new model. He felt that it was a major upgrade from the car he is driving and that Honda had addressed a number of the issues he’s had with his car, such as the rough start/stop, less-than-enthusiastic engine response (he thought the 2012 felt much peppier), and a quieter interior. In fact, he has encouraged his mother to buy a 2012 Civic to replace her non-hybrid Civic sedan. Even though the new Civic may just be more of the same to us, it is clear that keeping buyers faithful to the brand was the mission — and Honda succeeded.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
In its current form, Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist hybrid system doesn’t have much of a future. To remain competitive and continue increasing fuel economy, Honda will need a more sophisticated, more refined powertrain. Although it may be improved compared to the last model, the Civic Hybrid is still unacceptably ill-behaved in situations that you encounter every day. When the engine automatically restarts at a stoplight, the entire car shudders. The engine spins well above idle and then the revs quickly drop. If you get on the gas pedal too quickly, you’re met with an unpleasant lurch forward. If you’re slow moving from the brake to the gas and are sitting on a slight incline, the Civic Hybrid will roll backward. At speeds around 10 to 20 mph, the powertrain surges and pulses. And under braking, the pedal suddenly loses bite as the engine kicks off in the last few mph.
Escaping the city puts the Civic Hybrid in a better light. The powertrain provides good acceleration without the need to push the gas engine into the strained, buzzy, higher rpms. It’s also a very quiet car. With an EPA rating of 44 mpg in both the city and the highway, the fuel economy is pretty impressive. However, the IMA system is supposed to be cheaper than Toyota’s configuration, but a Prius costs less and is rated at 51/48 mpg. To bring its hybrids up to par, Honda needs a clutch or two bolted to a larger electric motor. This would allow prolonged driving in electric-only mode, the ability to shut off the engine while coasting at higher speeds and — most importantly — smoother engine startup.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
There’s nothing revolutionary here. In fact, the untrained eye might not even register that this is a new Honda Civic, so similar to its predecessor and conservative is its design. Sure, it has evolved in its appearance but not nearly as much as it did the last time around, for the 2006 model year.
Perhaps when I drive the non-hybrid versions of the 2012 Civic I’ll have a more positive impression of the new car. True to its mission of saving as much fuel as possible, the Civic Hybrid is sluggish off the line, slow to respond when passing, and not so happy when thrown it into a corner. The indicated 41 mpg for my 45-mile two-lane commute is quite good, however, considering that Honda’s hybrid system doesn’t allow for much pure-EV operation.
The Civic’s plastics are hard but not offensive; the overall quality of materials is average at best. The rear quarters felt impressively spacious for this five-and-a-half-footer to sit behind himself. However, the trunk opening is smallish and cargo volume is compromised by the hybrid equipment.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
When I approached this car in our parking garage, I wasn’t sure if I was in front of the all-new 2012 Honda Civic test car or an old Civic that happened to be parked in our garage. Only after clicking “unlock” on the key fob did I confirm that, yes indeed, this was the new Civic. The exterior styling just hasn’t come that far from the last generation. I knew this from having seen the Civic at the auto shows, but somehow I thought it would look newer once I saw it on the street.
The Civic interior is also quite similar to that of the last car. From a functional and ergonomic standpoint, it works, but the highly digital-centric displays and the two-tiered instrument panel read a bit too much like it’s 2005. That said, the graphics for the fuel economy display are big and bright and easy to read, and if you’re driving a Honda Civic Hybrid, you’re going to want that information close at hand.
There is plenty of evidence of traditional Honda small-car virtues, including the excellent forward visibility that’s afforded by a large windshield, relatively slender A-pillars, and large corner windowpanes within the side windows. Rear visibility is fine, and the elongated side greenhouse makes for good side visibility. This all makes the Civic a good car for piloting through city streets thick with vehicle and pedestrian traffic, where the slightest misstep due to poor visibility can result in disaster.
I find the new Civic Hybrid difficult to drive smoothly unless I drive it hard. Driving it for economy, you get hung up on the nonlinear braking and the interplay between the gasoline engine and the electric drive. I find that if you just mash the throttle the powertrain responds quite well, even if it’s not so great for fuel efficiency.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
I put a couple hundred miles on the Civic over my weekend with it, during which time, according to the onboard computer, I averaged 41 mpg. That 40-plus mpg figure is the sole motivating factor for buying this model over the gasoline-powered Civic. For many people, that’s a persuasive argument, as the Hybrid returns about 12 mpg more in combined city/highway driving over the regular Civic sedan. Still, buyers need to be aware that they’re also giving up 30 hp and a couple cubic feet of storage space. I still managed to fit two sets of golf clubs in the trunk (which has a capacity of 10.7 cubic feet versus 12.5 cubic feet), but it was a fairly tight fit.
I drove up to Milford with a friend on Saturday, and at one point, as we were accelerating up a hill, the CVT started making its loud, trademark drone. She noted that the car seemed to be struggling. “That must be the hybrid,” she said. “Well, not really,” I said. “It’s the transmission. There’s still plenty of power.” But when I thought about it, I guess it was “the hybrid,” since that’s why the car has a CVT in the first place.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
For those who want to do their part for the environment but can’t get past the nerdy looks of most small hybrids, the Honda Civic Hybrid might be the perfect vehicle. It looks almost exactly like its non-hybrid counterpart and has an EPA combined rating of 44 mpg. Even Honda’s hybrid-only Insight falls short of this number with a combined rating of just 41 mpg. Unfortunately, the only available transmission, a CVT, saps nearly every ounce of fun from the driving experience, making the Civic Hybrid feel a bit like an appliance. The consolation is that the Hybrid retains the regular Civic’s light but communicative steering, excellent ride, comfortable and roomy cabin, and easy to decipher controls.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
2012 Honda Civic Hybrid with Leather and Navi
Base price (with destination): $28,250
Price as tested: $27,864
1.5L i-VTEC 4-cylinder with IMA and permanent-magnet electric motor
Lithium-ion battery pack
Eco Assist system
15-inch lightweight alloy wheels
Vehicle stability assist with traction control
Remote keyless entry
Automatic climate control
Tilt/telescope steering column
AM/FM/CD audio system with 6 speakers
Leather-wrapped seats, steering wheel
Heated front seats and side mirrors
Intelligent Multi-Information Display (i-MID)
FM nav traffic
Options on this vehicle:
XM satellite radio — $344
Key options not on vehicle:
44 / 44 / 44 mpg
Horsepower: 110 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 127 lb-ft @ 1000-3500 rpm
Curb weight: 2875 lb
Wheels/tires: 15-inch alloy wheels
$195/65R15 89S all-season tires