First Drive: 2012 Honda Civic Sedan and Coupe

Compact King Stays The Course

2012 Honda Civic - Click above for high-res image gallery

Regardless of her stance on baked goods, Marie Antoinette didn't quite grasp the severity of country's condition until the French Revolution was in full swing and her husband was conspicuously absent of his head. Just as General Armstrong Custer dismissed the might of the Northern Cheyenne and Captain Edward John Smith failed to accurately read the waters of the North Atlantic, human history is filled to the brim with figures who didn't discover the danger they were in until it was much too late.

When Honda unveiled the 2012 Civic at the 2011 Detroit Auto Show, many critics were quick to put Honda in the same illustrious company. With an army of all-new compacts from automakers like Ford, Chevrolet and Hyundai all set to kick down the Honda gates, fans were thirsty to see a vehicle that was as innovative in design as it was in engineering. Instead, the Japanese manufacturer unveiled a compact car that looked startlingly similar to its eighth-generation predecessor.

We shouldn't have been surprised. Since the Civic first hit the market 38 years ago, Honda has stuck to a tried-and-true update regimen for its star model. Every other generation has delivered a mild revision of the preceding design, and the ninth take on the vehicle is no different. With a tweaked body, slightly adjusted interior and nudges to the suspension and drivetrain, the 2012 Civic is effectively generation 8.1, but that just might be enough to keep the hordes at bay and Honda out of history's dog house.

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2012 Honda Civic
2012 Honda Civic
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2012 Honda Civic Si
2012 Honda Civic Si
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Photos copyright ©2011 Zach Bowman / AOL

According to Honda, the designers of the 2012 Civic came to the U.S. for inspiration and found that the "one motion" concept of the '06 model was so well-liked that they simply decided to expand on the theme. If that's true, they've done an excellent job. It's difficult to pick the two models apart with a casual eye, though more faithful followers of Honda will notice a few more lines in the vehicle's front fascia and reworked headlights. Combined with a mesh grille, the details go a long way toward giving the compact an updated appearance.

The rear of the vehicle is adorned with new bodywork dominated by large, re-styled tail lamps and a slightly more expressive valance. The look does away with the slabish metal of the outgoing generation and makes the sedan appear considerably lighter on its feet than before. In coupe form, the styling seems lifted from the very-attractive Accord Coupe, and the lines wear well on the slighter form of the Civic.

2012 Honda Civic side view2012 Honda Civic front view2012 Honda Civic rear view

If you were holding your breath in hopes that Honda would grace the American market with a resurrected Civic hatch, we're sorry to tell you that the company has no interest in bringing a three- or five-door compact to the market. That's despite the fact that both Ford and Hyundai clearly think the notion has legs. The reasoning is that Honda believes the large majority of American buyers don't want the extra functionality.

Overall, the new exterior is a logical progression from the eighth generation, and the 2012 Civic remains very attractive in coupe, sedan or hybrid guise. Likewise, the vehicle's cabin has been taken to the next level as well, though with mixed results. The dash has an even more driver-oriented pitch than before, and stacked layers of hard-plastic modules give the surface a disjointed, Picasso-like feel. The new design makes the eighth-generation dash seem calm by comparison.

2012 Honda Civic interior2012 Honda Civic front seats2012 Honda Civic instrument panel2012 Honda Civic shifter

If you found issue with the split-gauges of the last-gen car, you'll find no sanctuary behind the wheel of the 2012 model. The upper screen has been elongated to incorporate what Honda calls its i-MID system, or intelligent Multi-Information Display. The high-resolution five-inch LCD screen puts the navigation display to shame and educates the driver on audio selections, turn-by-turn directions and vehicle information. You can even upload your own personal backgrounds or leave the screen blank should you find it too distracting. Check out the Short Cut below for a demonstration. Oh, and don't listen to the narrator when he says its a 2011 model. He clearly doesn't know what he's talking about.

In Si trim, the upper gauge cluster serves up a few special tricks. For starters, the i-MID can be calibrated to display a special Power Monitor for real-time stats on engine power output. But the coolest part comes in the form of a sequential shift light nestled to the far left. Yellow and red LEDs illuminate beneath an i-VTEC logo, allowing stoplight racers everywhere to know exactly when the system engages. It's perhaps the single greatest piece of meme bait we've seen from any manufacturer in recent memory.

The good news is that Honda has implemented a handful of different colors and textures that serve to keep the dash from being completely unbearable. Unlike many low-buck offerings, the Civic hasn't resorted to graining its plastic to appear soft-touch. Instead, the materials give off an almost recycled aesthetic. Strangely enough, the dash uses harder materials that are more difficult to scratch than the door panels, which can be marred by an errant thumbnail.

Unfortunately, the kit just doesn't manage to stack up to the cabins of three of the newest competitors on the block: the 2011 Hyundai Elantra, 2012 Ford Focus and the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze. Each of those vehicles offers a more up-scale, sorted dash while the Civic's cabin seems to have been lifted straight from the 1995 Prelude.

2012 Honda Civic Si seats2012 Honda Civic Si steering wheel2012 Honda Civic Si tachometer2012 Honda Civic Si speedometer

Honda actually clipped the wheelbase of the 2012 Civic by 1.2 inches in the sedan and 1.1 inches in the Coupe for added maneuverability, but still managed to increase interior room. In four-door configuration, total passenger volume has grown by 3.7 cubic feet thanks to additional hip room in all seating positions and shoulder area up front. As a result, the cabin feels more open and offers more rear legroom than the Focus, Elantra or Cruze. The latter two of those fighters best the Civic in front legroom, however.

With so many manufacturers introducing direct injection, turbocharging and highly efficient transmissions to the compact segment, it was only natural to expect Honda to freshen up the drivetrain options in the Civic in kind. But by and large, the automaker left the hood closed for the ninth generation. Models from the DX, LX, EX and Natural Gas to the newly-minted HF will all get their power from the same 1.8-liter, single-overhead cam i-VTEC four-cylinder engine found in the last Civic.

2012 Honda Civic engine

With 140 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque, the engine is as rev-happy as ever and begs to caned in all the right ways. Buyers can pick between either the optional five-speed automatic gearbox or a five-speed manual cog-swapper on lower trims, while the Civic Hybrid benefits from a CVT and the more menacing Si uses a six-speed manual. Thanks to the addition of full electronic power-steering, a little friction reduction inside the engine itself and a few aerodynamic adjustments, the EPA says that the 1.8-liter powered 2012 Civic is able to return 28 mpg city and 39 mpg highway when equipped with the standard automatic transmission. The mileage would represents a 3 mpg city and 3 mpg highway bump over the 2011 model.

With 32 mpg combined, the base Civic beats out both the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus at 31 mpg combined but falls behind the Hyundai Elantra at 33 mpg combined.

For buyers who want a truly-efficient gasoline-powered compact, Honda has resurrected its HF model designation to combat vehicles like the Chevrolet Cruze Eco and the Ford Focus SFE. The Civic HF uses additional under-body cladding to improve aerodynamics, special wheels, lighter tires and a unique rear deck lid spoiler to net 29 mpg city and 41 mpg highway with the five-speed automatic transmission. Though those figures tie the HF with the Bow Tie on the combined scale, Honda is quick to point out that the domestic offerings require buyers to opt for a manual transmission.

2012 Honda Civic ECON button

In order to help drivers eek the absolute best fuel economy from their Civic, Honda has installed its Eco Assist system on every 2012 model with the exception of the Si. This marks the first time that the driving coach has been implemented outside of the company's hybrid fleet, and just like in the CR-Z and Insight, bars to the left and right of the speedometer change from blue to green as the driver operates the vehicle more efficiently. In addition, a new Econ mode can be activated with a push of a button. The system automatically adjusts the vehicle's throttle-by-wire, shift mapping and air conditioning to make the Civic a more efficient vehicle overall. We wouldn't recommend mashing the little green button unless you're perfectly comfortable with full castration. The change is immense.

Meanwhile, the $22,955 Civic Si Coupe has gotten a respectable shot in the arm. Engineers yanked out the old 2.0-liter four-cylinder in favor of a meatier 2.4-liter unit with an extra four horsepower and 31 more pound-feet of torque. Final figures sit at 201 hp and 170 lb-ft of twist, which means for the first time in the history of the Si, there's actually a little bit of low-end grunt on hand. Full torque comes on at 4,300 rpm while max ponies are only available at a screaming 7,000 rpm. Make no mistake, this is still an engine that prefers to be wound tighter than a Hublot-wearing F1 fan.

2012 Honda Civic Si engine

We spent a fair portion of our time behind the wheel of an EX automatic sedan with brief stints in an Si, LX sedan and LX coupe with their respective manual offerings. After some time in a loaded EX-L that carried an MSRP of $24,205 with destination, we feel comfortable saying that if you have your heart set on a Civic, do yourself a favor and skip the topped-out trim. The leather seats, door inserts and wrapped steering wheel feel matched to a price point. The LX trim, on the other hand, offers quality cloth seats and a tiller that feels absolutely superb in your hands. It also weighs in at a very competitive $18,605 with destination when equipped with a five-speed manual transmission.

On the road, the Civic Sedan feels comfortable, though the high-winding 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine serves up its fair share of noise in the higher registers. Unlike some of its competition, the Civic still benefits from a four-link independent rear suspension that translates into a very stable, planted platform over the inconsistent pavement of the Beltway outside of Washington, D.C. and into Maryland. Still, we can't help but feel that the springs and dampers are a little on the soft side in sedan guise. In more aggressive driving, the four door serves up characteristic understeer with a good amount of body roll for the class. Fortunately, hopping into the coupe alleviates most of that feeling. Whether it's the benefit of not having to lug around two extra doors or simply the way the rear suspension is calibrated on both vehicles, we prefer the coupe's dynamics by far.

2012 Honda Civic headlight2012 Honda Civic grille2012 Honda Civic wheel2012 Honda Civic taillight

When equipped with the optional five-speed automatic transmission, shifts are handled quickly and without any drama. The 2012 Civic never feels harried or flustered, and while we can only speculate that the vehicle could net even more impressive fuel economy from a six-speed automatic or dual-clutch gearbox, the old unit has aged well. For those familiar with the Civics of old, sliding into the saddle of the ninth-generation feels just like pulling on your favorite pair of jeans. It's a level of familiarity that hasn't been lost through the modest exterior updates and bizarre interior.

With the standard manual five-speed transmission bolted behind the four-cylinder, the vehicle almost begs to be thrashed thanks to a fairly short throw. Unfortunately, a miserably light clutch means your left foot is afforded little to no feedback whatsoever. Still, despite having fewer ponies and less torque than the Elantra, the Civic is more engaging to drive. If we were looking for compact kicks, however, we'd be tempted to stick with the 2012 Focus.

2012 Honda Civic rear 3/4 view

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Civic is that despite shunning all of the fuel-saving advancements employed by its competition, the vehicle still manages to come out as a solid player on this field. While we'd all love to see Honda knock out some truly incredibly fuel economy figures with its vehicles, the truth is that the company hasn't seen the need to add either cost or complexity to its systems given the results the vehicle is delivering right now.

Honda is well aware of the rising tide of capable compacts, and while strong entries like the Elantra, Cruze and Focus may take a bite out of Civic sales in the long run, brand loyalists will still beat down dealer doors to get their hands on this newest piece of hardware. Besides, if you were hoping for a full-on Civic revolution, history would point to you not having to wait too long. We give it another three to five years before a completely-new generation surfaces.

In the meantime, the 2012 Civic offers plenty of space, competitive fuel economy and a drive that's entertaining enough to keep you from going flat-line on your way to the office. It's a recipe that's kept Honda on the right side of history for years and it doesn't look to be failing any time soon.

2012 Honda Civic
2012 Honda Civic
View 15 Photos

2012 Honda Civic Si
2012 Honda Civic Si
View 16 Photos

Photos copyright ©2011 Zach Bowman / AOL

Honda Civic Information

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