Latest generation Honda Civic doesn’t rock the boat

John LeBlanc
By John LeBlanc
Posted on April 25th, 2011

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The launch of a new Honda Civic is a big deal.

Not only is it the best-selling car in Honda showrooms across Canada – for the 13th year in a row, by the way – but the compact was the best selling passenger car in all the country last year.

The Civic’s dominance on the sales charts, though, has been under attack since its sales peaked in 2008.

And competition has come not just from the traditional Toyota Corolla and Mada3 Japanese rivals, but also strong entries from North America (Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus), Korea (Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte) and Germany (Volkswagen Jetta).

For instance, for the first two months of 2011, the new Hyundai Elantra stole the Civic’s top-seller trophy. However, thanks mainly to generous sales incentives, the Honda was back in top spot for March.

Despite the heat from new rivals, Honda hasn’t made any radical changes to the 2012 edition of its front-wheel-drive five-passenger car – the ninth generation since 1973.

And it’s still available in two-door coupe and four-door sedan form, in regular gas, fizzy Si and diet Hybrid versions.

In addition to restyled interiors and new engines for the Si and Hybrid, the 2012 Civic gets all-new exterior styling that adds some visual flash and makes the compact look more like the midsize Accord.

And in recognition of the new (as in more! more! more!) value paradigm compact car consumers have become accustomed to since the Civic was last redesigned six years ago, Honda has upped its compact’s features-to-price ratio.

For example, when the 2012 models start going on sale this month, the lowest priced Civic for 2012 will be the $14,990 DX sedan. Honda Canada says that’s $2,000 less than the 2011, but with $600 of added equipment (like electronic stability control). The top-line $25,990 2012 Civic Si sedan comes with $2,700 of added kit (like a bigger engine and navigation system), but gets an $890 price reduction.

With pump prices creeping up to 2008 highs, Honda is also touting the 2012 Civic’s improved fuel economy numbers.

Despite the 2012 Civic Si coupe and sedan getting a larger and more powerful 2.4-litre four-cylinder that makes 200 hp and 170 lb.-ft. of torque, its fuel consumption ratings drop from 10.2L/100 km city and 6.8L on the highway to 10.0L and 6.4L, respectively.

The Civic Hybrid sedan returns, now using lithium-ion batteries and a larger 1.5-litre gas engine for a combined 110 hp and 127 lb-ft. Its consumption ratings improve slightly to 4.4L/100 km city and 4.2L on the highway.

While the last hybrid Civic sold for $27,350, 2012 pricing will be announced closer to when it goes on sale later this summer.

There are no new major engineering breakthroughs. But Honda engineers have managed to eke a few more litres per kilometre for the rest of the 2012 Civic DX/LX/EX/EX-L coupe and sedan lineup.

The familiar 1.8-litre gas four-cylinder engine with 140 hp and 128 lb.-ft. of torque returns. Five-speed manual transmission Civics are rated at 7.2L/100 km city and 5.4L highway, compared with last year’s 8.2L and 5.7L ratings. Civics with the optional five-speed automatic are even more parsimonious on the highway, rated at 5.0L.

Keep in mind, a six-speed 2011 Hyundai Elantra scores ratings of 6.8L/100 km city and 4.9L on the highway.

There is a new Civic HF model. It scores 41 miles per U.S. gallon (5.7 litres per 100 km). But it will only be available in the U.S.

Inside, the 2012 Civics continue with their love-or-hate bi-level instrumentation. There’s a new digital information display added to the top of a centre stack that has also been redesigned with a new driver interface.

But the Civic’s overall interior ambience remains similar to the outgoing model. Soft-feel plastics are hard to come by. And in regards to rear passenger and trunk room, others in this class (like the Cruze and Jetta) offer more.

While the majority of its compact rivals offer practical hatchback models, Honda’s answer is to direct you to its smaller Fit subcompact or a larger CR-V crossover (also set for a redesign and debuting in lightly-disguised concept form at this week’s New York auto show).

Honda claims improvements in the new Civic’s ride and handling. But with little seat time (Honda Canada crammed the entire Civic lineup into a one-day media event) the 2012 non-Si Civics feel remarkably similar behind the wheel to the model that was introduced six years ago.

Which is no bad thing.

The new 2012 Civic still feels light, nimble and alert. Especially when compared to the sloppy-handling Corolla that was made available on a closed parking lot course. More time at highway speeds to gauge noise and ride quality in a gas Civic would be needed to see how its stacks up against what I consider the best-in-class Chevy Cruze.

I actually got to spend the most seat time (about 30 kms) in what was previously the least popular Civic, the Hybrid. Its more powerful drive train was appreciated in dicing it out with Washington, D.C., morning commuter traffic.

But the transition from electric to gas modes still isn’t as refined as a Prius. And with ever-so-slight improvements in fuel economy over a 1.8L gas Civic, the Hybrid is still a questionable value proposition.

Will Canadians reward Honda’s efforts and buy enough 2012 Civics to win it the “best-selling passenger car” title once again this year?

The answer could be determined by customers’ expectations.

If you’re looking for state-of-the-art engineering (i.e. six-speed automatic transmissions; direct-injection and turbocharging), big car features (i.e. rear heated seats; self-parking systems), mid-size room (i.e. Cruze; Jetta); more practical body styles (i.e. a hatchback); or the most fuel-efficient car in its class, the new Civic will leave you hanging.

However, for customers who had no qualms with the last-generation Civic, the styling updates, improvements in fuel economy and added value for 2012 should keep plenty of people coming back to Honda showrooms for now.

Travel was provided by the automaker for freelance writer John LeBlanc.

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