The Honda Civic has ruled the compact sedan world, together with the Toyota Corolla, for many years. The Corolla was always the plain, reliable, slightly dull one, while Honda's cars were more rewarding to drive, offered clever features inside, and generally were younger and more fun.
But in the face of economic upheaval, surging competition from the Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus, and Chevrolet Cruze, and an effort to keep costs down while boosting gas mileage, Honda may be stumbling a bit.
The 2012 Honda Civic, the first redesign in six years, remains comfortable and spacious, and all models have higher gas mileage ratings than their predecessors.
Honda gets a huge dollop of green points for offering three separate high efficiency models. First, there's the Civic HF, a gasoline model that boosts the the 28 mpg city, 39 mpg highway ratings of the standard gas Civic to 29 mpg city, 41 mpg highway--for a combined 33-mpg rating. Both cars, incidentally, return higher ratings than Honda's smaller Fit subcompact.
The Civic HF boosts its fuel efficiency by including some aerodynamic features from the second green model, the Civic Hybrid, which manages to return 44 mpg for all three EPA ratings--a substantial boost over the previous Civic Hybrid. (The HF model doesn't include the Hybrid's 15-kilowatt electric motor and trunk-mounted lithium-ion battery, however.)
The 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid, in fact, is the most fuel-efficient sedan sold in the U.S. for 2012. During nearly 400 miles of real-world driving—most with the car in 'Econ' mode—we averaged more than 45 mpg.
Finally, there's the 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas, the renamed model formerly called the Civic GX. Starting late in 2011, Honda will roll out the natural-gas powered Civic--the only passenger vehicle sold at retail in the U.S. that fuels solely on natural gas--to qualified dealers in states beyond the four where the GX was offered.
The styling of the new 2012 Civic is identifiably Honda, but it's almost conservative--far from fashion-forward, as its predecessor was in 2006. The lineup still includes four-door sedan and two-door coupe models--no hatchbacks, sadly--and the hot-rod Si model as well as the standard gasoline models and the three green variations.
Inside, Honda retains the two-tier instrument panel, but has enlarged the figures and widened the display of the upper information center, making it easier to read at a glance. It now angles toward the driver as well.
The 2012 Civic's 140-horsepower, 1.8-liter engine is again offered with either a five-speed manual gearbox or a five-speed automatic transmission. Honda says that number of ratios delivers the best match between performance and fuel efficiency, but it's hard not to wonder if the Civic is falling behind the competition, which mostly offers six speeds in both manual and automatic transmissions.
The Si performance model features a larger 2.4-liter four that produces 201 horsepower, albeit at the very high revs that are characteristic of Honda's high-performance screamers. Its gas mileage, as you might expect, is nothing to write home about--but its buyers aren't prioritizing fuel efficiency over performance.
Aside from the Si models, Civics offer an 'Econ' button on the left side of the instrument panel just like the Insight and CR-Z hybrid models. When pressed, the 'Econ' mode dials down the throttle responsiveness, upshifts more quickly, and even alters the behavior of accessories and cruise control, all in the interest of saving precious gasoline
Inside, the Civic has increased rear-seat room--like many of its counterparts--and maintained its comfortable front seats, though taller drivers may find their cushions to be on the short side. The big shocker is the dismal quality of the interior finishes, with hard, ugly plastics on the dashboard that put the 2012 Civic toward the bottom of the class for interior style, fit, and finish.
The Civic sedan remains a practical vehicle, with a large trunk and a fold-down rear seat. The handling is still rewarding, and the ride has been softened a bit. Road and wind noise have also been reduced, compared to previous generations.
The base 2012 Honda Civic DX model starts at just $15,605--the price of some subcompacts. But that DX is pretty plain, lacking not only electric windows, but cruise control and air conditioning as well.
There's a big jump in price to the models that include features like a navigation system, USB inputs, and a driver information display in the instrument cluster. And Honda offers Bluetooth and satellite radio only on its high-end Civic EX and EX-L models, against competitors that offer standard Bluetooth and/or satellite radio across the board.
Honda's 2012 Civic has already been deemed a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).