On The Road Review: Honda Civic EX


The Honda Civic has been a benchmark compact sedan in the American marketplace since the early 1970s when it truly was a small car — a two-door hatchback with the catchy engine label, CVCC. Since then, the Civic has usually dominated the small car sales charts in this market, only occasionally sharing honors with Toyota’s Corolla or the Ford Focus. That is a commendable success record.

Yet, in 2011 the Civic hit two bumps in the road. The Japanese tsunami wreaked havoc on the home market and quickly altered Honda’s product planning (as well as all other Japanese automakers). Then working on an ‘all-new’ Civic, Honda pushed to market a redesign that was immediately labeled a compromised effort. The automotive press — authorities and enthusiast pundits together — all were shocked at how the latest Civic appeared to take a step backward, especially against new rivals that were offering greater value and performance that had been learned from watching Honda.

{gallery}civic{/gallery} These critics said that the Civic’s suspension had been “cheapened” and handling was now compromised. The crisp steering feel long associated with Civics had been muted. The interior was considered a “catastrophe” with lower grade materials, odd patterns, and little cohesiveness with its surroundings.

Honda officials were stunned by the negative comments as new Honda models are generally highly regarded by all critics. On the heels of some other recent subpar debuts — think the slow-selling CR-Z and Honda Insight, the badly proportioned Accord Crosstour, as well as the market’s avoidance of the Civic Hybrid — and you can see why certain Honda managers were quite alarmed.

Despite the negative press clippings, Civic buyers were pleased to finally see a new edition after five protracted years of the previous design — even if the new car didn’t look all that much different. Honda managers saw slow sales numbers out of the gate, and quickly attached incentives, lease rate deals, and gosh-forbid — even rebates — as Honda worked to stymie any negative consumer perceptions. Dealers jumped on board and advertised the heck out of the ‘new’ Civic and buyers rewarded Honda with a great sales year on the controversial car; sales totaled over 317,000 units in 2012 — a 30 percent jump over the previous year; so much for how the critics affect car sales.

But Honda was rapidly working behind the scenes to redo many of the components and designs that had created such ire in the trade magazines and consumer reviews. The results of those concentrated efforts are visible in this ‘new’ 2013 Civic.

Youthful drivers who have long considered the Civic the Asian equivalent to VW’s Golf/Jetta series in handling and steering will be happy to know that Honda reworked the new Civic’s chassis. Spring rates were stiffened and retuned, the steering’s gear ratio was quickened and is now tighter and closer to the crisp responses Civics are known for, plus the front and rear fascias of the Civic — shown here in mid-level EX trim — are more attractive, even demonstrative, than the previous ‘yech’ look.

The latest Civic also is wider and longer than any previous edition — some drivers might even view the Civic to be very close to what we once considered a midsize sedan. Occupants, however, will not complain about the roomy rear seat — great space for two adults, maybe three in a pinch — as there is excellent foot, leg and head room.

Up front, the manually adjustable driver’s seat offers decent adjustability and proved to be (mostly) supportive over an 800-mile trip covered in 30 hours. I think tall drivers will want a seat with more thigh support, some lumbar support, and perhaps a power seat would render greater flexibility and range.

The other cockpit upgrades range from the serious to the sublime. Or, very nice console, steering wheel controls, and switchgear, to what the heck is that dash arrangement? Honda uses multiple info screens and an assortment of center stack buttons and other switches to relay what some might call basic information. Split the dash into two distinct levels — the upper instrument panel rests right at the base of the verrryyyy long windshield (a long ways from the driver) while the second info panel is just behind the steering wheel lower in the dash. The latter houses a large analog tachometer, which seems contradictory for a compact family sedan with an automatic transmission and no manual engagement functionality. The upper panel does have a large digital speedometer, which did prove useful when the occasional blue sedan populated the median on the highway.

Some other items popped up on my comment radar, because, well, certain things are expected — especially when you have the reputation of Honda.

The audio system still needs work. There is a large rotary dial for volume but an assortment of repetitive-touch push-buttons to select pre-sets or to change selections while the screen for viewing your steps is elsewhere in the dash. Satellite radio also was missing, an omission at this price. There are no automatic headlamps, one-touch window operation for the driver only, plus the two pull-handles in the trunk release the folding seatback, but you must then walk around and fold the seatback down. That giant sloping windshield has a rather tiny passenger side wiper, too.

In total, the Civic’s new chassis works well, like most drivers expect a Civic to work. The car is very accurate, communicates well with the driver, and is compliant and composed without being loose and indirect. If Dodge wants the Dart to mimic Civic sales, it needs a chassis at least this good. Nice recovery Honda.

Under the hood, the latest Civic maintains a Honda tradition. Despite only a five-speed automatic (many rivals are offering six-speed units with eight-speeds on the way) the Civic’s 140-hp 1.8-liter four managed to produce a 34.9-mpg average after an 1,100-mile week, with many of those miles accumulated at elevated highway speeds. That is much better than the estimated EPA combined rating (32 mpg) and close to the Civic EX’s peak highway efficiency, 39 mpg. The Civic HF returns up to 41 mpg, or drivers can get up to 44 mpg with the Civic Hybrid.

The Civic was not quick, but it was smooth, while a host of new sound-insulation additions have notably quieted the cabin. A back-up camera is now standard on all trim levels, while automatic climate is included at the EX level. Honda also offers a natural gas-powered Civic in certain markets.

Civic pricing starts at $17,965 for the coupe and $18,165 for the LX sedan. Jump up to the EX sedan for $20,815, an EX-L with leather and navigation for $23,765, while the hybrid begins at $24,360. Honda offers sportier Si trim in both coupe and sedan models now.

So far in 2013, Civic sales have plateaued compared to last year’s success, as all of the excitement in the Honda store is the rapid sales rise over in the Accord corner. Still, the Civic is number two in the compact class, trailing only the combined Corolla/Matrix leader. In descending order, the rest of the compact class sales leaders are; Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Chevy Cruze, VW Jetta, Nissan Versa, Nissan Sentra, Mazda 3, Dodge Dart, Subaru Impreza, Kia Forte and VW Golf.

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Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.