It's been a bestseller for decades, more than 8.8 million sold in the U.S. since its 1973 introduction, and the latest redesign is aimed at making the Honda Civic the absolute number one player among an increasingly capable crop of compact cars.
The all-new 2012 Honda Civic is the ninth generation of the Civic, and it has a long, distinguished record of engineering innovation. As has been the case in previous iterations, there's some of that in the 2012 Civic models, too, aimed at giving it the broadest possible reach in its market segment.
On the other hand, it's not really the gee-whiz breakthrough that's distinguished some previous generations, particularly in terms of engine innovation. Though to be fair, Honda has imbued some models with a little more thrust while simultaneously raising fuel economy ratings right across the board.
Perhaps more important, the latest Civic will be available in its broadest-ever array of models: The DX, LX, and EX sedans and coupes come with a 140-horsepower 1.8-liter engine expected to get 28 mpg in the city, 39 mpg on the highway when equipped with the 5-speed automatic transmission.
The Civic Hybrid continues, with efficiency improvements for 2012. Although Honda has a specific hybrid model, the Insight, the Hybrid returns to the Civic lineup with increased power in its integrated electric booster motor and deeper electric power reserves in a new lithium-ion battery pack.
For those who don't wish to pay the hybrid premium, there's the 2012 Civic HF, with exceptional fuel stinginess from a regular internal combustion power train designed for thrift. Fuel economy is up in standard Civics, too.
The Civic Si returns as the high output member of the lineup, offered once again in coupe and sedan body styles. With the demise of the S2000 sports car, it's the only high-performance car in Honda's lineup. The 2012 Civic Si features a new engine, a smidgen of additional horsepower, and substantially more torque. The 2.4-liter DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder is rated at 201 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque. The added torque makes the Si easier to drive around town without constant downshifting, significant because a 6-speed manual is the only transmission offered.
Though completely redesigned, the 2012 Civic looks similar to the previous-generation version. Its exterior dimensions are about the same, though the wheelbase is slightly shorter.
The cabin is attractive with quality materials and nicely designed seats with lots of adjustment and a new driver's information display. The available 160-watt audio system sounds very good and Bluetooth is available for hands-free cellphone use.
Underway, the 2012 Civic is creamy smooth and exceptionally quiet. The brakes are easy to modulate for smooth stops in everyday driving and will stop the car quickly when called upon. Handling is average, so the standard models do not rate high on the fun meter.
Given a budget and a mission, no designer is likely to leave well enough alone, and that's true of the new 2012 Civic lineup.
But this is a more of a challenge than one might think. The eighth-generation Civic has been successful throughout its six-plus years, and its sleek lines still look good.
On the other hand, success notwithstanding, no automotive design lasts indefinitely. So the design leader has to find a way to retain the successful elements and still imbue the product with a sense of newness.
The new cars sport redesigned fascias, updated rear ends, and new character lines, but the basic shape, which lead designer Toshiyuki Okumoto calls a “one motion form,” has the same flowing aero look. Although the wheelbase is slightly shorter, body dimensions are essentially identical, and it takes a practiced eye to tell new from old at a glance.
Although the sheetmetal is basically all new, Honda didn't take any chances here. Whether this will be a plus over the long service life of the design remains to be seen.
The distinction between Civic generation eight and nine isn't as dramatic as the change from seven to eight, when the slick aero shape first emerged. Honda has chosen to spread its development budget over refinements and a broader model range.
Quality materials, attractive design, and colorful instrument lighting give the Civic interiors a look that's a notch or two above compact norms. The seats are well shaped, nicely bolstered (by family sedan standards), widely adjustable, with a probability of all-day drive comfort and very good upholstery wear characteristics.
Though the instrument display has been invigorated with new colored backlighting, it will look familiar to those who have had some experience with the generation eight layout. The bi-plane look continues in the new car, with important info repeated at the top of the dash, allowing the driver to scan with minimum visual redirection.
Forward sightlines, always the driver's first line of defense, were good in the previous generation, but even better here. We appreciated the thinner windshield pillars and mini-window set in the angle where the windshield pillar intersects the car's hood. A lot of new cars have thick A-pillars that can obstruct the driver's view of pedestrians and other vehicles, but not here.
The biggest change inside the car, though is the new I-MID, or Intelligent Multi-Information Display. A toggle on the left-hand steering wheel spoke allows the driver to sift through a wide variety of vehicle info, and the optional satellite navigation system includes a voice recognition function.
Other electronic elements include Bluetooth hands-free phone capability and a very good 160-watt audio system.
All of this, of course, is in addition to the more common comfort/convenience features we've come to expect: power everything, including a moonroof; cruise control; a tilt/telescope leather-wrapped steering wheel; a 12-volt outlet; and a 60/40 split-folding rear seatback that expands cargo capacity.
Drawn from Honda's official national press preview, which consisted of a single afternoon with very little seat time on busy roads devoid of any real challenge, plus a few runs on an autocross course laid out on a football stadium parking lot, our dynamic impressions are necessarily limited.
However, while limited, they're also generally positive, within the context of the normal mission parameters of a small family sedan. The latest Civic delivers creamy ride quality, with exceptionally low interior noise levels.
Braking seems reasonably powerful with the four-wheel-disc system that comes with the EX trim level, and the pedal feel makes for easy modulation.
Handling response can be classified as contemporary, neither sporty nor sluggish, although the electric power steering leaves something to be desired in terms of what it tells the driver about what the front wheels are doing.
On the other hand, while the Civic sedan may lack something in terms of driver involvement, and its fun to drive factor is difficult to detect, it is absolutely and totally predictable, no surprises, no false moves. There's considerable body roll in hard cornering, the tradeoff for excellent ride quality. But the overall level of all-around dynamic competence is hard to fault.
The Civic DX, LX, EX, and EX-L come with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, single overhead cam rated at 140 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy figures were not official but are expected to be about 28 mpg in the city/39 mpg on the highway. Honda recommends regular unleaded gas.
The Civic HF is equipped with a specially tuned version of the same engine with the same power ratings but with slightly higher fuel economy, expected to be 29/41 mpg city/highway.
The Civic GX runs on natural gas using a specially prepared 1.8-liter SOHC 16-valve four-cylinder rated at 110 hp and 106 lb-ft of torque.
The Civic Hybrid pairs a 1.5-liter SOHC 16-valve four-cylinder engine rated at 110 hp and 127 lb-ft of torque with a 23-hp electric motor assist. Fuel economy is expected to be about 44/44 mpg.
The sporty Civic Si features a 2.4-liter DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder rated at 201 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy is expected to be 22/31 mpg city/highway.
The 2012 Honda Civics are completely redesigned and have solid credentials in all the right categories for cars in this class: good looks, high quality, a great durability record, a first rate comfort quotient, high marks for safety features, competitive fuel economy, and excellent value. Has the dazzle factor diminished? Maybe. But given all the other virtues, that may not matter.