The 2012 Honda Civic Sedan EX-L, above, includes 16-inch aluminum wheels… (Honda, Wieck )
It depends perhaps upon one's affection for cars, but the biggest compliment to be paid to the 2012 Honda Civic is its utter lack of flash.
Now in its ninth generation, the redesigned Civic is the automotive equivalent of beige. It's a well-engineered wallflower with a no-muss, no-fuss driving experience. And I mean that in the best way possible.
There's a reason almost 9million Honda Civics have been sold in the U.S. since this compact car was introduced in 1973, most notably its extreme sensibility. Not only is it affordable, it's reliable. The latest generation Civic continues those themes, adding increased fuel economy and options.
Starting at $16,355, the 2012 Civic gives drivers more significant choices than the number of doors or the type of transmission or interior amenities. Different versions are powered with gas, natural gas and hybrid drivetrains.
There's also a high-performance, 2.4-liter, 201-horsepower version called the Si with a six-speed manual transmission, as well as a new aerodynamically optimized high-efficiency model called the HF that, according to EPA estimates, squeezes up to 41 miles per gallon from its standard 140-horsepower, 1.8-liter engine.
At this time, only the Civic Sedan, Coupe and Hybrid are available at dealers; the Si, HF and natural gas versions have later on-sale dates. A Honda Motor Co. spokesman has said that Civic production, along with most Honda model production, has been affected by parts supply issues stemming from the March earthquake.
I was testing the highest-end Civic Sedan, the $24,205 EX-L — a five-passenger, four-door car that is one of the more technologically tricked out versions designed for the sorts of early adopters who stand in line at the Apple store awaiting the latest gadget.
The center stack display is upgraded with a new 16-gigabyte navigation system that responds to more than 700 voice commands and incorporates an outrageous 10 million points of interest. FM Traffic, which provides real-time traffic information over the radio without a subscription, is new for 2012.
But the biggest news with the 2012 Civic, as with most cars that are actually selling in this era of cringingly high gas prices, is fuel economy. It's 10% more fuel efficient than its predecessor.
Like the recently introduced Chevrolet Cruze Eco and the newest Ford Focus, the Civic redo is aggressively aerodynamic. The 16-inch aluminum wheels on the EX-L are equipped with components that shape and direct air around the wheel wells, past its low-rolling-resistance tires. The side mirrors have been reshaped to reduce turbulence, and the windshield is less vertical. The underbody is flatter, enabling the wind to flow more easily around the car without getting snagged.
An added benefit of all the aerodynamic improvements is noise reduction. For a compact car at this price point, the drive is quite quiet — the better to enjoy the Black Keys in six-speaker stereo without a constant bass line of road rumpus.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the Civic EX-L gets 32 mpg combined highway and city driving. I averaged just 26.7 over the 123 miles I drove the car — and that was employing the Econ feature for most of the time I was gripping its telescoping, leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Honda first introduced this Econ mode on its 2010 Insight and, last year, on its CR-Z. Its inclusion on the Civic is its first on a non-hybrid vehicle. Pushing the green button on the dashboard, just to the left of the steering wheel, makes the throttle feel as if it's been shot with Novocain. Its response is less immediate, which is only bad if you drive as I do: impatiently.
An addiction to torque is one of my greater character flaws. Like many Americans, I wrestle with a dueling desire for performance and fuel efficiency that neither harms the environment nor clobbers the pocketbook. The Honda Civic urges drivers like me to tread lightly, to drive consciously.
Toward that end, the new Civic incorporates an Eco Assist feature that is sort of like having Ed Begley Jr. along for the ride. A coach to inspire greener driving, Eco Assist is a dashboard display within the instrument cluster. Drive in a manner that would get the nod from Begley, and the background lighting looks green. Floor it, and the light turns blue, though red would probably be more effective.
The most, which is to say, only, truly eye-catching feature of the new Civic is its dashboard. Futuristic looking, it is gauged in bright blue. It is also customizable with wallpaper, similar to the screen of a computer or cellphone. Pictures can be uploaded and displayed on the dashboard through the USB port in the driver's armrest.
Forward thinking and fuel efficiency are important. Personally, I like a touch of flash in what I drive. But the ride quality is solid, its handling effortless, its suspension comfortable without being too squishy or too firm. The 2012 Honda Civic is about as unpretentious as it gets.