Friday, April 13, 2012

2012 Honda Civic - Road Test

Is there still magic to be found in the most popular Honda ever?
By Andrew Fields

Automotive journalists are supposed to approach every new car they test with an open mind but that proved fairly difficult owing to all the negativity swirling around the new Civic. Shelving my preconceived notions and wanting it to be the best small car ever made, I grabbed the keys to an EX sedan in Dyno Blue and hit the road for a week with Honda’s latest bread-and-butter compact to see if there was a diamond to be found somewhere in all this rough.

I was actually very excited to drive the Civic for an extended period and genuinely wanted to like it but early results were not promising. The redesign of the Civic’s outside body panels absolutely screams ‘CAUTIOUS!’. Whereas the 2006 model was light years ahead of the one that came before it, the new Civic is something of a step back. The once wide window line has been squashed as though Shrek sat down on the roof. At the back, the taillights share absolutely nothing in common with the rest of the car and appear as though they belong on some European cargo van. That being said, it’s the only way you can tell at a glance which body style you’re looking at. When you walk around the car, you’re left with the distinct impression that the front, middle, and back were designed by three separate departments who never once spoke to each other and whoever was in charge of the front must have looked at the previous generation and said, “Yeah…that still looks good. Done!” But I have to say that if a car freak such as myself struggles to tell the two apart even after a year on the market, it’s highly doubtful that many consumers who care very little about cars will notice at all. Blunders like this are the reason the Civic is starting to blend into the background like wallpaper; it’s always there but nobody ever really notices it.

I’m afraid the bad news continues on the interior, as well. Everything you can touch is cheap, rock hard plastic and this stuff is bad enough to look at home in a Chrysler K-Car. This hard plastic is also shiny which adds the distinction of reflecting light from the gauges onto the windshield at night, directly into your line of vision. Because of this, you wind up chasing a dark blue orb every time you turn onto a dark road. The massive gauge cluster containing the fuel gauge, speedometer, instant fuel consumption and iMID (intelligent multi-information display) takes up pretty much half the dash and I found myself craning to see over it on steep hills. Two bars sit on either side of the digital speedometer and provide their opinion of your driving style. If you’re driving economically, they glow green but if you go all Jeremy Clarkson on it, they turn blue to admonish you of your ways. A standard analog tachometer sits directly behind the steering wheel while the iMID itself is controlled by no fewer than eight separate buttons on the gauge cluster and steering wheel along with a plethora of radio controls on the dash itself. Just resetting the trip computer can be confusing for a new owner and that’s just one more thing that makes this car feel less like a true Honda. Hyundai’s two-button ‘trip’ and ‘reset’ controls in use in the Elantra make far more sense than the iMID.

If you can manage to pull up the screen for the radio, the controls are easy enough to figure out and the display is clear and easy to read at a glance, thanks in part to its high position on the dash. The iPod connectivity works with just Apple’s ubiquitous white USB cable and even displays album artwork but it can be slow to respond. Cabin ventilation controls are simple and easy to use and the blower fan works quietly and effectively, even on higher settings. The test car I had for a week did not come with heated outside mirrors and the rear defroster left a nice line of fog at the top where the radio antenna resides, a common ailment on cars with such antenna placement.

LX and EX models come with fabric seats that seem nice enough at first but one feel lets you know the cloth is thin and cheap and likely won’t stand up to much abuse through the years. Despite this and a lack of adjustable lumbar support, the seats are very comfortable and are unlikely to find enemies. Annoyingly, a rear seat arm rest is not standard. EX-L models have attractive gathered leather with standard front seat heating. The carpet is simply abysmal in every way regardless of model and it’s virtually guaranteed that any dirt that touches it will never leave. I saw the light hit it at an angle and there was an actual sheen to the stuff. Not even carpet underlayment has a texture like this and if anything, it looks like laminated fiberglass insulation which leads me to wonder what it is and where Honda found it. I’m guessing inspiration was taken from discards found in a late-night dumpster-diving session behind JoAnn Fabrics.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that the steering wheel in this car is comically tiny (a little over a foot across) which gives the driver the sensation that he’s back in that kind of go-kart that they force on teenagers who don’t yet have a license. It also leads to muscle fatigue as you’re constantly forced to crane your arms inboard just to get a grip. The door panels and armrests are too high and the wheel is set too far inboard to be of any use, either so don’t bother trying to one-hand it. The center armrest is so thinly padded, leaving your elbow on it for more than a minute or two will cause many drivers pain in that region. Despite this, the wheel-mounted video game-style jog controls for the cruise and audio systems are very satisfying to the touch and easy to use. Don’t get me started on the shifter but let’s just say it shares nothing in common with the rest of the car which leaves it looking like a complete afterthought and it smacks of the same cheapness that the whole car suffers from. It’s positively enormous, too. Another quip about the interior is a distinct lack of storage space. The center console is shallow, there’s no sunglasses case and the door pockets are barely large enough to handle a receipt. Even the glovebox is tapping out once you get the owner's manual packet in there. I guess Honda’s research shows that a majority of Civic owners leave everything at home.

On the road, the Civic is downright loud. Every change in the road surface is transmitted into the cabin and only the smoothest and freshest of pavement quiets the din. Also, the car I drove had a mysterious flapping noise that emanated from somewhere around the windshield cowling at speeds above 70 although I could never pinpoint where it was exactly. Despite having only a thousand miles on it, the interior had already developed a number of rattles from the various pieces of hard plastic trim. This does not bode well for future durability. The engine is fairly quiet when working at low speeds but takes on a haughty little snarl when in the upper revs that, for some reason, lacks that distinctive Honda sound. It is refined, though and never sounds buzzy or harsh.

Performance is uninspiring and that joyous Honda handling DNA that one infiltrated the entire product line seems to have been lost, turning the Civic into a Cavalier. Throw it into a corner and it stumbles over its own feet and then wallows through, also taking great joy in kicking back as if to say, “Have you lost your mind?!” Soichiro would not be pleased.

I’m sure you’re wondering if there’s a positive in all this negativity and yes, there actually is. Although the Civic is very disappointing considering the source, in truth, it’s not a bad car. Consumers need to remember that there are far better alternatives out there for less money but for the person who is looking for something to just get them to where they need to go with as little worry as possible, the Civic fits the bill just fine. It gets good gas mileage, has plenty of room and a large trunk, and is about as likely to suffer from mechanical failure as a Bic ballpoint. And for those looking to maximize their miles per gallon, a hypermiler-approved button marked ‘ECON’ stunts throttle response and makes other tweaks to the car’s performance in order to make it as efficient as possible. It also makes it about as fun to drive as a cardboard box but econ function on or off, it’s clear that fun is no longer on the Civic’s résumé. Pity.

What we have here is an appliance and it’s an appliance that does just one thing very well and that is move people from one place to another. But when you step back and look at the Civic’s storied history, countless awards and literal generations of loyal followers, you can see that they used to do everything very well and when this latest version is taken into the fold, you can’t help but wonder what on earth they were thinking. Despite wanting very much to love it, after my week with the Civic, I couldn't wait to see it gone and I honestly believe all the criticism levied against it is deserved. As just a car, it manages to succeed...barely. But as a Honda Civic, it’s nothing short of epic failure.

What's Hot:
Excellent front seats, good fuel mileage, decent visibility, Honda reliability.

What's Not: Cheap mix-n-match interior, uninspiring performance, squirrely handling, bland mismatched styling, distinctly un-Honda everything, good luck finding one in a manual transmission.

The Verdict: An underachieving high school dropout that fell backwards into a Honda scholarship.


andyjw.pdx said...

Love the review Andrew! Flawless review in my opinion. No Civic for me until they get their act together.

Rimdonks said...

Nice to see a real car review for once! Keep them coming. The car magazines seem to be afraid to say much with their advertisers.

me said...

Ok, so this is a review...TRULY! I'm excited to see an analytical car review that strays away from too many "opinion adjectives." Very thorough. A good balance of positives and negatives. If auto makers had reviews like this before they sent their cars to the market they might think twice before making the decision to downgrade their car for the sake of making something new.