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2012 Honda Civic: Still a contender in the compact class

Refined ride and good fuel mileage big pluses in small car
by: Honda Motor Co. Honda redesigned the 2011 Civic but did not change its basic character.

Consumer Reports shocked the automotive world earlier this year when it refused to recommend the 2012 Honda Civic. The consumer rating service had praised the quality and economy of the Civic for many years, naming it a Top Pick in the compact category as late as 2007. But in early August it said the revised Civic does not stack up well against three other compacts: the new Chevy Cruze and the redesigned Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra.

So is the Civic no longer a good car? Not at all. During a week of test driving, we found a new Civic EX to be an attractive, comfortable, pleasant car that returned well over 30 miles per gallon in mixed driving. Although it is not as radically-styled as either the Focus or Hyundai, the Civic is more distinctive than the somewhat generic Cruze. The interior is simpler than any of the other three cars, but all the controls were easy to find and work. It can also carry five adults as well as the Cruze, Elantra and Focus.

Consumer Reports is right that Honda did not seem to set its sights very high when it designed the Civic for 2012.

Although it is larger and more angular than the previous generation, it takes a keen eye to tell them apart at a glance. The biggest exterior changes are an additional crease above the door handles and bigger tail lights, not exactly bold styling statements. Nevertheless, the 2012 Civic is a still a good-looking car, especially considering how innocuous most compacts used to be.

The interior could have benefited from more attention. Although it is roomier and has some upgrades, Honda chose to keep the odd split dash that features a digital speedometer on the upper level and a large analog tachometer on the lower one. Placing so much emphasis on the tachometer in a car that more people will buy with an automatic transmission is a strange decision. Even though it can be shifted manually through the first three gears, we cannot imagine many drivers will ever do so. And those choosing the manual transmission will not find the layout very sporty. The Cruze, Elantra and Focus all benefit in comparison from more conventional instrument designs.

On the road, our test car drove well. It was slow off the line in the Eco mode meant to maximize mileage but acceleration was adequate when it was off. The ride was smooth, even over broken pavement. The electronic-assisted steering was as precise as any of those we've tested and better than some that seem slightly detached from the front wheels. Although Consumer Reports complained about the brakes, we didn't find them lacking.

Perhaps Consumer Reports made a mistake by only testing the LX model, which is just one step up from the entry-level DX. Our EX came with features that made driving more enjoyable, such as an upgraded stereo and navigation system. It also costs a couple thousand dollars more than the LX model, however.

It's worth noting that the Civic comes in two versions that cannot be found among most other compacts on the market - a more fuel-efficient hybrid model and a two-door. Both the sedan and coupe are available in sporty Si trim that includes a more powerful 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine. The Civic is not available as a hatchback. The trunk is large and deep, however.

Despite what Consumer Reports says, the 2012 Civic is a solid entry in the company class that deserves to be test driven by anyone looking for a well-built economy car. Honda has more than paid its dues in that field over the years and should not be written off.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2012 Civic.

• Manufacturer: Honda.

• Class: Compact car.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Two-door coupe; four door sedan (as tested).

• Engines: 1.8-liter inline four cylinder engine (140 hp, 128 ft-lbs - as tested); 2.4-liter inline four cylinder engine (201 hp, 170 ft-lbs); 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine and electric motor (110 hp, 127 ft-lbs).

• Transmission: Five-speed manual; six-speed manual; five-speed automatic (as tested).

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 28/39 (as tested); 29/41 (HF); 44/44 (hybrid).

• Price: Beginning at around $16,000 ($22,775 as tested).