2012 Honda Civic EX: Driven

October 6, 2011

Throughout the '90s and even well into the last decade, large swaths of shoppers on both coasts of the U.S. tended to dismiss small cars from GM and Ford, and flocked to the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla—for a number of good fiscal reasons, like durability, reliability, and resale value.

As it seemed, shoppers who wanted a car that would hold up for the long term, with the least expense, and didn't care much about the driving experience chose the Corolla, while Honda Civic offered a much better tactile experience than other vehicles of its size and price at the time, with responsive handling, free-revving engines, excellent interior packaging, and in some respects, more refinement than could be expected then.

Now, with a host of excellent compact sedans like the Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, and Hyundai Elantra, among others, that part of the market is completely different. And yet Honda has released a 2012 Civic that reeks of caution and restraint. That's not necessarily a bad thing in going for the mass market, but it leads to the question: Who is the new Civic's target buyer, and why would they choose the Civic over rival models?

After nearly a week behind the wheel of the new 2012 Honda Civic EX—the 'loaded' mainstream model—we're left thinking that Honda's success in the segment has nudged it down a very conservative path. With this all-new model, it could have changed more—or could have wrapped in some standout features—but didn't, and what results is a car that's merely 'good,' no longer 'great,' in the market.

Not quite the leading edge

As we point out in our recently posted full review of the 2012 Honda Civic, compiled from three different editors' driving impressions of the 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid, Civic Si, and Civic EX models, the Civic is no longer the standout in its class that it once was. It seems that in trying hard to fit in, that Honda has lost its standing at the leading edge of the segment—especially for shoppers who want a frugal car that's not boring.

This past decade, Honda made waves with respect to design, while still managing to massage a little more driving fun into this compact. Yet with this design, it feels as if Honda used much restraint and laid light hands everywhere, so as not to change the formula too much. It certainly wasn't coasting on its laurels with the last daring Civic; in the years since then we've seen many of the its exterior cues showing up in other models—though no automakers have borrowed its unusually contoured, bi-level instrument panel. On the outside, Honda hasn't done much more with this evolution of that design; while the more chiseled front end and carved out flanks add panache, the new exterior appears a bit more anonymous.

Meanwhile, the design of the dash has been toned town a bit, with the contours following a quirky, organic flow that doesn't photograph well but looks much better in person. Surfaces and trims have been redone with nice—albeit hard—surfaces, and audio displays have been moved to an auxiliary screen that sits just to the right of the digital speedometer in the upper cluster.

Likewise, the Civic renews its mantra like a politician without a strong incumbent. It still rides, responds, and handles well, but it's lacking a little of that old edge (or, some will say, passion) that still remained even with the last generation.

Powertrain remains among the best

The 140-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine carries over to the new Civic and remains one of the best base engines in its class (between this and the new 2.0-liter in the Focus, it's a close call) for drivability and refinement. Although we wondered why the automatic transmission doesn't have a sixth gear as most other refreshed compact sedans, we didn't really miss it here; the mainstream Civic's four shows off Honda's powertrain strengths, with power that builds quite evenly through the rev range. There's not much need to rev this engine, as it's pretty torquey and comfortable running even below 3,000 rpm, but when you do rev it into the upper ranges there's none of the boominess that we still see in some of the mainstream compacts. All the while, the automatic shifts well and chooses the right gear—though we noticed the same balkiness in downshifting to first or second gear around tight corners, after rolling stops, that we noted in the last-generation Civic. Just like in the last Civic, drive it a little harder and the powertrain seems to come to life, with more decisive, snappy shifts.

The new Civic doesn't seem to come to life in quite the same way on a curvy road. It rides slightly better than the previous version—definitely better than some in this class—but in the process Honda has dialed down some of the feel in the steering, and the crisp turn-in we've noted in prior Civics is feeling a little more...Elantra-like, with some roll and lean and no urge to relish the corners. Positively, the Civic feels confident and comfortable in highway cruising—better than most in this class, and better than we remember from the previous Civic.

Yet thankfully, Honda hasn't showed so much restraint with shopping factors like fuel economy and safety. The new Civic comes in new Civic HF and much-improved, 44-mpg Civic Hybrid flavors, and the 2012 Civic sedans have already been given IIHS Top Safety Pick status.

Impressive gas mileage

And even the mainstream Civic EX does well in that respect. Over the course of a week and about 100 miles of driving, we managed 28 mpg in mostly short-trip city stop-and-go, with some suburban freeway driving mixed in.

The interior of the Civic feels somewhat softened, but still a little eccentric. We still aren't completely used to the tall, daunting fortress of an instrument panel, which is the antithesis of the much-loved, airy low-beltline IPs of Honda's past. Some might think that the dash is a little drab, but we really appreciated how Honda hasn't gone overboard with plastichrome and brightwork. We also loved the criss-cross corduroy look (and feel) of the cloth seats (we'd prefer them to the glossy leather that's been typically offered in the EX-L), and the good, solid feel of the switchgear. Yet with all these surfaces, the interior can feel busy; near the ECON button, where the door panel meets the edge of the dash, four different-grained surfaces all meet within an inch or two of each other.

Interior space in the Civic wasn't bad before, and it's become a bit better. This 6'-6” editor tried sitting in the back seat—with success—although getting in requires a tuck around the doorsill. Front seats have been recontoured this year and while GreenCarReports editor John Voelcker liked them in a longer trip with the Honda Civic Hybrid I found them to have the same issue as before—rather short, flat lower cushions that put the pressure all on one area.

Our EX came with a $22,775 price tag, and felt like a good deal all considered. Air conditioning, Bluetooth, a USB audio input, cruise control, a six-speaker sound system, and a navigation system with no-subscription FM-based traffic info were all included in that price.

Infotainment lags rival models

While we liked the new i-MID secondary screen up high, next to the speedometer—displaying trip computer and audio functions through an intuitive toggle on the steering wheel—the operation of the Bluetooth system and touch-screen nav system (which you need to access deeper audio controls) was still unintuitive, and not much better than that in a 2010 Civic EX. We couldn't figure out how to display more than a few characters for XM or MP3 song tags, channel and song lists kept defaulting to channel zero, or the very beginning of the library, and Bluetooth calling with an iPhone was oddly sluggish.

The 2012 Honda Civic family earns just a 6.6 out of 10 on The Car Connection's scale, and while the Civic feels marginally improved in some areas, it's simply no longer the benchmark for this segment. Trouble (for Honda) is, most other automakers have caught up and aren't giving compacts short-shrift, as they had been. The new Chevrolet Cruze, for instance, feels more comfortable and spacious, as well as better-appointed, while the Ford Focus simply goes down the road with a more refined, tight feel and has excellent handling.

This new Civic, on the other hand, wreaks of caution and restraint, and feels as if Honda is catering to aging Honda Civic owners seeking a slightly more conservative replacement. While it's a good car throughout, it's a personality change that's evident from a walkaround, to browsing the interior, to driving around town or enthusiastically.

What we'd like to see is a little more Civic engagement.

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