2009 Honda Civic 4DR EX-L Navi

I walked past at least two Civics in the parking garage before I found our fully-loaded tester, which is as good an indicator of its popularity as any. That said, the compact car segment has become more crowded of late, and the next Civic will need to bring some changes if it hopes to maintain its leadership.

My main source of disappointment is the interior. I'm quite fond of the spacey dash layout in our Four Seasons Honda Fit, but for $24,325, I expect nicer materials. And while this was a particularly well-equipped model, it's not hard at all to option the sticker beyond $20,000. Our Volkswagen Jetta TDI, which costs $23,090, offers far more interior refinement. (Of course, the Jetta lacks the Civic's reputation for bulletproof reliability.) On the plus side, the front seat is plenty comfortable, and I still appreciate the superb forward visibility. There's a good amount of space in back too; I recently rode from Washington D.C. to New York in the center rear seat of my friend's 2007 Civic and haven't had to file a disability suit, which is saying something for a compact car.

The driving experience, as Jean noted, is hardly exhilarating. It sounds cliché for an auto journalist to say a car drives better with a manual, but there's possibly no car for which it is more true than the Civic. It's not just that I missed the snick-snick precision of Honda's best-in-the-business gearbox. The five-speed automatic is perfectly smooth, but it seldom allows the peaky, 1.8-liter four-cylinder to hit its stride. Shove your foot to the floor after a sharp turn, and almost nothing happens. Mind you, the Civic is more than up to the task of keeping up with traffic, and steering is predictably precise, but don't expect the vaunted Honda small-car driving experience unless you're willing to shift for yourself.

The Civic is still a great car, fully deserving of its sales success and high-resale value; however, it's no longer head-and-shoulders above its competition, which now includes excellent entries like the redesigned Mazda 3 and even the Saturn Astra. My hope is that with the Fit now playing well to the young hipster crowd, the next Civic will be able to grow-up, especially inside.

David Zenlea, Assistant Editor

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