Detroit, heed this warning.
Do not underestimate the 2012 Honda Civic.
It was the single most important vehicle shown at the New York International Auto Show this week.
The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze and 2012 Ford Focus are spectacular compact cars partly because Chevy and Ford engineers benchmarked the Civic. For a decade, the Civic has been the best compact car around, and while others have gained ground, this Honda remains near the head of the class.
It is a nameplate that has been around a lot longer than any American compact car, and don't let anyone fool you: Honda Motor Co. has a lot riding on this little car.
Honda has not raised any eyebrows with many of its recently launched vehicles. The new Accord is dull. The Crosstour is confusing, and the current face of Honda's luxury brand Acura continues to bring the brand ridicule. If Honda had messed up the Civic, it would be time to get out a fork and turn the brand over.
But there was no mistake made with this new vehicle.
Now, as the new Civic arrives, it faces a much tougher climate. The Cruze, the Focus and the Hyundai Elantra have garnered well-earned praise from consumers and the automotive press, including myself.
Although the Civic is no longer alone, underestimating it would be a serious mistake.
Variety: The 2012 Civic offers almost every model variation. There are sedans, coupes, gas-electric hybrids (with lithium-ion batteries), a compressed natural gas model and even a performance Si model. New to this lineup is the Civic HF, which focuses on higher gas mileage.
This follows on the heels of other carmakers such as Chevrolet, Ford and Hyundai, which offer similarly branded vehicles. No other compact, however, comes in as many different variations as the Civic (the only model missing is a hatchback, which is a mistake).
Pricing: With so many different models, the Civic offers a price for just about anyone:
Civic DX sedan (5-speed manual): $15,805
Civic LX coupe (5-speed manual): $17,655
Civic LX sedan (5-speed auto): $18,655
Civic EX sedan with navigation (5-speed auto): $22,005
Civic Si coupe (6-speed manual): $22,205
Civic Si sedan (6-speed manual): $22,405
Civic Hybrid: $24,050
Civic natural gas: Price not released
All of this pricing is on par with much of the competition, which means Honda is certainly in the hunt for compact consumers.
Performance: While I have not driven the new Civic, I expect it to provide performance on par with all of the serious competition. The previous-generation Civic has a quiet, well-tuned ride, with enough power to speed along the highway and enough handling chops to zip through city traffic. This model introduces a new electric power-assist steering system (EPAS), the next-generation vehicle-stability control, improved aerodynamics and a stiffer body for improved handling. Tuning on the steering will be important as EPAS can sometimes create a numb feeling that leaves a driver disconnected from the road.
Additionally, the performance-oriented Si model features a new 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine that generates 201 horsepower. It's only four more ponies than the 2-liter engine, but tuners around the world can rejoice that their beloved Si now has peak horsepower over 200. (The Si also features a lower height, a limited-slip front, and 17-inch aluminum wheels that all could add to the driving experience.)
It's Honda's 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine that will do most of the heavy-duty work for the brand, and even this engine has undergone a number of improvements to make it more efficient.
It produces 140 horsepower and provides gas mileage from 28 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway for a DX sedan with a five-speed manual transmission to 41 mpg on the highway for the HF model.
One disappointment with the new Civic comes with the lack of a six-speed automatic transmission, though Honda says this five-speed is more refined and updated. Nearly every competitor has one now, as six-speeds have become the industry norm. It will be interesting to see whether that missing gear hinders its performance in any way.
Exterior styling: While many new compact cars offer extravagant styling, the new Civic does not look dramatically different than the previous generation. But don't mistake this car as simply a refreshed vehicle; it has been redesigned throughout. At first glance, there doesn't seem as dramatic a difference between generations.
Many of the exterior changes were devised to improve the Civic's aerodynamics. They include new mirrors, wipers pushed below the hood line and other changes you can't see at first glance, such as underbody aero panels.
This seems to be a closely followed plan by Honda, which only dramatically changes the Civic's styling every other generation. How much that will affect the Civic will be told over the next year.
Honda's conservative approach to styling follows the lines of the Cruze, whereas the Elantra and Focus are more dynamic.
The winner here is the consumer, who now has a clear choice between dramatic good compacts and more familiar small cars.
Interior styling: The Civic evolves its interior design from the previous generation, with a new two-tiered instrument panel and entertainment system, known as i-MID. Honda has nailed one of the most important parts of any new system by giving it a nonsensical name that starts with a standalone lowercase vowel — i or e — and a full-color screen to display all of the information.
More importantly, the Civic adds more volume inside, increased by 3.7 cubic feet. The previous-generation Civic was comfortable; this one should be even a little more so.
Civic's biggest selling point still reliability
So from the sounds of it, the new Civic is improved inside and out. Whether that adds up to this vehicle becoming the next benchmark will be decided by consumers.
The compact car segment has drastically changed the past 12 months, and everyone wants an edge over everyone else. The real edge for the Civic coming out of the gate is that it's a Honda, which to many consumers means it's as reliable as a late spring in Michigan.
That wasn't always the case for the Civic. Thirty-nine years ago, when the little Civic arrived, Honda had to issue a recall because rusting was so bad the cars were considered unsafe in accidents. Now, Civics are among the safest choices of any car picked.
The competition certainly has gotten stiffer, but to sneer at this Civic too early would be a serious miscalculation. No one should do that.