2012 Honda Civic: First Drive Impressions

April 20, 2011

By this point, the Honda Civic compact is an American institution.

The newest generation, all new for 2012, builds on the car's traditional strengths--sporty roadholding, good gas mileage--but faces increasingly stringent competition from new entries like the 2011 Hyundai Elantra.

The 2012 Honda Civic line comprises a four-door sedan with a 1.8-liter gasoline engine, the Civic Si two-door coupe (the hot rod of the line), and three high-gas-mileage models: the Civic Hybrid, the Civic HF model, and the Civic Natural Gas.

In styling, the 2012 Civic is evolutionary rather than radically redesigned. Its front and side profile are instantly recognizable as Honda Civic, though the rear end is new enough that it doesn't instantly read "Civic" unless you see the rest of the car.

2012 Honda Civic launch, New York Auto Show, April 2011

2012 Honda Civic launch, New York Auto Show, April 2011

The 2012 Civic's footprint is similar to the previous model, though the new model was adjusted halfway through its design cycle to take a few more inches off its length.

As always, the Civic's strength is its handling. It's still probably the most enjoyable of all compact entries to drive, though other entries are starting to catch up.

The gasoline model's acceleration--we drove a 2012 Civic EX four-door sedan--is lively, but the flat, confident roadholding always positions the car where the driver wants it.

Handling is even tighter and flatter in the Civic Si performance model, but at the cost of significant interior noise under virtually all circumstances.

2012 Honda Civic launch, New York Auto Show, April 2011

2012 Honda Civic launch, New York Auto Show, April 2011

The Si's new 2.4-liter engine produces its maximum torque roughly at engine speeds roughly 1,000 rpm lower than its predecessor, but as always, you still have to spin the engine toward its 7000-rpm redline to get the power. Novice Si drivers may find themselves one gear too high for useful acceleration under many different circumstances.

The sedan, which is offered with a five-speed manual transmission or five-speed automatic, is projected to return 39 mpg on the EPA highway cycle. That's close to the 40-mpg Holy Grail for highway mileage, and a 3-mpg improvement on the old Civic.

For maximum gas mileage, though, there's the Civic Hybrid model, now in its third generation. Its EPA ratings are projected to be 44 mpg on both city and highway cycles, and for 2012, it provides more boost from a larger 15-kilowatt (20-hp) electric motor.

It's worth noting that the 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid uses Honda's first-ever lithium-ion battery pack, which takes up relatively little room in the trunk and weighs far less than the older nickel-metal-hydride battery in its predecessor.

2012 Honda Civic launch, New York Auto Show, April 2011

2012 Honda Civic launch, New York Auto Show, April 2011

The pre-production hybrid model we drove could still have used a little work to iron out a few rough spots in the integration of regenerative and friction braking. We experienced some stumbles and irregular brake feel switching from acceleration to braking and back.

It does, however, offer the ability to run in electric-only mode under limited circumstances. We saw electric running at speeds as high as 36 mph, but only for very short periods. That's still an improvement on the old Civic Hybrid model, however.

2012 Honda Civic launch, New York Auto Show, April 2011

2012 Honda Civic launch, New York Auto Show, April 2011

Accommodation is adequate in the four-door, but definitely tight in the 2012 Civic Si coupe. With a more steeply angled windshield, the dash extends considerably into the cabin, and there's simply not enough legroom for anyone over 6 feet. Our 6'5" codriver found his head actually touching the headliner.

Civic buyers by now will be used to the two-level dashboard design, into which Honda has integrated vastly improved infotainment displays. A multi-directional button on the steering wheel, similar to the "Touch Tracer" controls on the Toyota Prius, lets the Civic driver navigate through a logical sequence of menus while keeping hands firmly on the wheel.

The downside of the 2012 Civic, however, is the rest of the dashboard. At a media preview, virtually every reviewer commented on the hard plastic surfaces on the top of the dash.

2012 Honda Civic launch, New York Auto Show, April 2011

2012 Honda Civic launch, New York Auto Show, April 2011

A visible join line between the two large moldings that make up the dash top is the kind of cost-cutting you almost never see in new cars these days. And the central area of the dash on 2012 Civics without navigation fitted is a large swatch of flat gray plastic, with no texture or accent lines.

Everything in the 2012 Civic works fine, and it remains a joy to drive, but compared to the two-tone coloring and highly designed dash designs of cars like the 2011 Elantra and the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, the new Civic comes off second-best.

All models of the 2012 Honda Civic except the Natural Gas version are available in Honda dealers starting today. The lowest-priced model, the Civic DX, starts at $15,605.

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