April 27, 2011
By Denis Duquet
The Honda Civic has been the best-selling car in Canada for 13 years running, which is – you have to admit – no small feat in a very competitive environment. Needless to say, the task of updating this model wasn’t easy. When a car is as universally acclaimed as the Civic, the margin for error is relatively low. If you change the car too drastically, you’re going to disappoint a lot of people. Then again, if you don’t change it enough, the car will end up looking the same.
Honda unveiled new generation Civic concept cars at the Detroit Auto Show in January and the reactions were decidedly mixed. The main criticism was that its shape hadn’t changed enough, though this was influenced by the fact that this car was supposed to be introduced months earlier. The delay created an expectation that more significant changes had been made. Alas, this was not the case, and the production models unveiled last week are almost identical to the concept vehicles.
Actually, the approach is hard to criticize in a way. Indeed, a little like at Porsche, Honda chose to make a succession of refinements, improvements and technical revisions to already impressive performance and reliability features. And the same goes for the body, which is a very mild evolution of the 2011 version.
Designed by engineers
When Honda Canada introduced its new Civic, five engineers (none of whom had a hand in designing the car) were invited from Japan. Maybe my conclusions are way off, but I got the impression that the engineers were the ones who took the lead on the whole shebang. All the stylists had to do was follow their instructions, which undoubtedly explains why the front end of the sedan and the coupe are almost unchanged. However, you have to admit that the car was elegant to begin with. In fact, the main changes were made to the tail end, while the lights are completely new, helping you identify the new generation. But for many, this just isn’t enough...
The engineers dedicated a great deal of time to improving the car’s drag coefficient. This meant tilting the windshield significantly toward the back. Its aerodynamics are excellent, but since the base of the windshield is a lot lower than the edge of the hood, there’s at least 5 cm where leaves, debris, snow and ice will undoubtedly collect. Let’s hope that the front windshield wipers motors are robust. A minor detail, you say? Well, this car seems to lose points in the details. This junction between the hood and the windshield is a compromise that suggests they were trying to avoid a complete makeover of the entire front end. At least, that’s how I see it.
The sharp incline of the windshield does wonders for the Civic’s best-in-category drag coefficient, but because it’s so sharply angled, the front seats had to be pushed back so that no one would bump their head on the windshield. The result is a very deep dashboard. That in itself isn’t a flaw, since several other interesting cars are set up like this, but the fact that this dashboard is made of hard plastic with an unimpressive texture is less forgivable. On the other hand, the ergonomics are good, the optional navigation system display screen is excellent and the layout of the controls is simple and efficient. The driving position is also good.
The two-level dashboard offered on the previous generation has been revised. Wanting to offer more information, they decided to widen the upper section. It’s not very elegant, but thanks to a command button on the steering wheel, you can access a multitude of information. Up to this point, it’s practically fantastic. However, I don’t know if it was my driving position, my view or something else, but when I was driving in the middle of the day with the sun at its brightest, it was very difficult for me to see the indicator dials, odometer and other small information screens.
Good news, it’s now roomier, thanks mainly to the 75-mm increase in the vehicle’s width. In back, the occupants benefit from 40 mm more legroom, which is quite impressive considering that the wheelbase is 30 mm shorter while the overall length remains identical.
While the shape and the interior presentation leave us wanting, I must mention that the car’s mechanical components have been refined or even greatly improved, especially when it comes to safety and fuel consumption. The base version of this ninth generation Civic is powered by the same 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine that produces 140 horsepower. But a bunch of internal improvements help reduce fuel consumption by 12%. That’s noteworthy now that gas prices are on the rise. The engineers managed to reduce fuel consumption with the help of things like reduced-friction brakes, low-resistance tires and a lower-than-average drag coefficient for the category. A six-speed automatic transmission would have produced better results, but it still has a five-speed instead.
The Civic Hybrid is back, and its all-wheel drive has been updated and improved. For starters, it calls on lithium-ion batteries for more power and to reduce the vehicle’s weight. The electric motor’s power has been increased from 15 to 20 kW. What’s more, the CVT has been refined, as have the climate control system and the energy regeneration brakes, which allow Honda to promise fuel economy of 4.4 L/100 km in town and 4.2 L on the highway. However, Honda’s engineers remain faithful to the IMA system that consists of a small electric motor installed between the transmission and the combustion engine. Although this technology is a little less cutting-edge, its average fuel consumption is still impressive. But you’ll have to drive in fuel saving mode to derive its benefits.
On a sportier note, the sedan and the Si coupe are now powered by a 2.4-litre engine that produces 201 horses, four more than the previous version. The six-speed manual is the only transmission available. This model also features two other exclusives: front and rear deflectors and very nice alloy rims.
Still a good car
Despite the fact that some people are disappointed with how few changes were made to its appearance and by the decision to skimp on some of the materials in the passenger compartment, this car remains one of the most interesting to drive. Indeed, during the new Civic presentation, I had the chance to drive all of the models available. And while none of the test drives were exhaustive, at least I was able to take each of the configurations for a short spin. Overall, besides the underwhelming dashboard and the difficulty seeing some of the dials, it remains a good tourer and that can squeeze into traffic easily. On the highway, it has all the same qualities and all the same limitations as before. The engine is responsive and the handling is good, but the soundproofing leaves something to be desired. Note that the new steering wheel is elegant and the information management buttons are within reach and user-friendly.
As though it were asking buyers to forgive the Civic for its lack of dazzling changes, Honda cooked up a very competitive price range. Regardless of the model you choose, 2012 Civic buyers benefit from generous equipment and downward-adjusted pricing. According to Honda, discounts will range from $2,600 to $3,950, depending on the model. You have to admit that this will persuade many people to overlook certain shortcomings. Money talks, and Honda is making sure that buyers will listen. Sure, maybe the company cut costs awkwardly in some areas and the shape could have been refreshed a little more, but this car’s intrinsic value – its refined mechanics and pleasant ride – has been preserved.