And this year is no different. In the 2014 Honda Civic, there are two major additions: a continuously variable automatic transmission, and a completely new in-dash interface.
We recently spent a week with a top-of-the-line 2014 Civic EX-L model with navigation (with a bottom line of $25,030), revisiting this model to sample those things, and how they affect the way the Civic fits into the market.
Getting right to the point: While we never saw any real drivability issues with the former five-speed automatic, which the CVT replaces, we can see how this new CVT will be an even better fit for most drivers, and that most drivers will see better fuel economy from it.
Like Accord, comfortable and easygoing
Just as with Honda's CVTs offered in the Honda Accord, and most recently in the brand-new 2015 Honda Fit, the one in the Civic is, for lack of a better word, easygoing. It tends not to 'motorboat' to a constant, droning rev range; instead, in light to moderate acceleration it raises revs to a certain low- to mid-rev range, and then raises revs more in proportion with speed.
While we like the natural, more linear feel of the Honda system, it's worth noting that not even our top-of-the-line EX-L model included paddle-shifters or any way of holding individual ratios. The system that Toyota offers in the Corolla, for instance, has seven 'gears' and steering-wheel paddle-shifters.
What you do get in the Civic are 'S' and 'L' modes; in the 'S' setting we noticed that the transmission would bring revs up more easily—and into the engine's upper ranges quicker with full throttle. In either case, there's also an 'Econ' button on the dash, which brings a softer accelerator calibration and more conservative accessory use.
Better mileage than former automatic
With the CVT, the 2014 Civic returns EPA ratings of 30 mpg city, 39 highway; that's up from the 28/39 mpg ratings of last year's five-speed automatic.
And as we found in a week of driving the CVT, this combination returns good mileage in real-world driving, too. We saw an indicated average of 30 mpg, over 115 miles of mostly city driving and short trips. To compare, we saw 33 mpg in a manual-gearbox Mazda 3i in a similar driving loop, and 27 mpg in an automatic-transmission Kia Forte EX.The 1.8-liter i-VTEC in-line four-cylinder engine in the Civic gets a modest power boost, too (to 143 horsepower and 129 pound-feet of torque), with a freer-flowing exhaust.
The only time we weren't as convinced on the CVT's merits was when we were required to move with faster-flowing traffic, accelerating at a more aggressive pace from a stop, or merging in quickly. Then, revs would be held in a mid-to-high range, in a less-certain way than they would be in the Accord—and possibly, the Fit.
In most other ways, the relatively perky yet refined driving experience of the Civic is carried over from last year—meaning that it handles and maneuvers well, with steering that's precise and quite well-weighted, and that it offers a ride that's quiet and comfortable, for the most part (the product of all the noise-insulation improvements gained for 2013). And all the noise improvements are a good thing, as when the CVT does hold revs in a higher range, it's never obtrusive.
LaneWatch hits the Civic scene
By the way, the 2014 Civic also gets one valuable safety feature: the Lane Watch side-view camera system that, when you flick the turn-signal lever, automatically shows, on the infotainment screen, a wider view around the side of the car.
As for the second major new item in the 2014 Civic, it's the infotainment system that's offered in top models like our EX-L. Compared to the antiquated plasticky touch-screen system of last year, it's a huge step forward—with a tablet-like look and feel, as well as an interface that at times will respond the same way as a tablet, with taps and swipes.
Better infotainment, albeit with some hiccupsWhile we found the navigation system to work very well—and were able to stream Pandora stations easily through a connected iPhone—we did find a few new points of frustration. The volume area to the left of the screen looks like a slider, but we couldn't get it to respond as such (instead we used the steering-wheel controls). And for all the work that went into stepping up the interface, we're surprised that you still can't use natural-language commands like 'Call Joe Smith,' and that you instead have to listen and respond through a series of seldom-intuitive menus and submenus.
So does the Civic deliver on yet another round of improvements? If you have the right expectations, definitely. With all of these changes, Honda has indeed kept the Civic up with the pace of change. The bread-and-butter, non-Si, automatic Civic sedans have never been enthusiast rally points, rather downsized, commuter-friendly, and especially economical alternatives to the Accord. And that's how we see this 2014 Civic fitting right in.