Honda’s compact Civic made headlines earlier this year when it became the best-selling vehicle in the country for the month of May, beating longtime sales champ the Ford F-Series. You may remember that American car buyers were in a state of panic then, with gas prices soaring (how times have changed), and in search of cars that were lightweights at the pump.
The urgency of this summer’s fuel-economy rush has passed, but perhaps someday that moment will be looked at as a turning point in the importance of fuel efficiency in the car-shopping process. Either way, Honda’s Civic will probably still be among the models shoppers turn to.
While the Civic’s EPA-estimated 25/36 mpg city/highway with the automatic transmission might be what draws buyers into Honda showrooms, they’ll leave with the keys to a new Civic because of all the other things the car does well. Its nimble handling and maneuverability will win over city dwellers, while commuters will appreciate its refined cabin and drivability. Consumers who want a small car but don’t want to give up higher-end features will appreciate the Civic’s optional upscale amenities.
You’ll pay more for a Civic than you would for a similarly equipped Chevrolet Cobalt, Ford Focus or Toyota Corolla, but you get what you pay for. Even so, while the Civic gets many things right, there are a few areas where it misses the mark — namely ride quality and brake-pedal feel.
The Civic was last redesigned for the 2006 model year, but the design it received then is still among the most forward-looking in the small-car category. The car’s short hood and dramatically raked windshield make the Civic instantly recognizable and much sleeker-looking than most of its competitors.
The Civic gets some minor exterior changes for 2009 that update the car’s look but don’t significantly alter its overall appearance. The changes include a new lower front bumper molding that has more ports than the previous one, plus a reshaped chrome bar in the grille. Changes in back are equally subtle, including a new chrome bar above the license plate, and restyled taillights (see a side-by-side comparison with the 2008 model).
For a small non-sports car, the Civic offers a relatively engaging driving experience. Drivers benefit from nimble handling thanks to quick-responding steering and a taut suspension. There’s a moderate amount of body roll when cornering, but the sedan’s low ride height means the leaning never worries you.
The Civic’s taut suspension is worth elaborating on because of the way it affects the car’s ride quality. While the suspension isn’t punishing, like a serious performance car’s can be, you definitely feel all the little cracks, bumps and holes that make up an average road. Returning Civic owners will be familiar with this firm ride tuning, but newcomers in search of better gas mileage might be surprised by the mild jarring on rougher roads.
On the highway, the Civic cruises comfortably and the sedan is easy to guide between lanes. A big plus with this car is visibility; forward views are expansive and not at all impeded by the hood, which isn’t really visible from the driver’s seat. Over-shoulder and rear views are good, too. The cabin can get loud at times, but as always the condition and material of the road dictates cabin noise to a large degree regardless of the car.
Getting up to highway speeds takes a little time in the Civic when it’s equipped with the 140-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, which powers most trim levels. (A hybrid version and a high-performance Si model are also offered.) Merging with fast-moving traffic requires aggressive accelerator work, but the engine revs smoothly even if it doesn’t make the greatest sounds. Once you reach a cruising speed, the engine doesn’t feel taxed maintaining it. It does, however, feel much more at home in stop-and-go city driving; it doesn’t have any trouble making a quick getaway from a stoplight.
Excluding Hybrid and Si models, the Civic is offered with a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. My EX-L test car was equipped with the automatic, which makes smooth shifts and responds to a jab of the gas pedal with a quick kickdown. On one cold morning, however, I noticed that the transmission shifted slowly right after startup.
Brake pedal feel could use some work; it’s not very linear, and the pedal has a somewhat spongy feel to it.
The Civic’s cabin takes after its exterior in that it’s different from many other designs on the road. The dash features a two-tiered instrument panel. On the upper portion is a large digital speedometer that’s flanked by digital fuel and engine-temperature gauges. They’re positioned just below eye level, which makes them easy to read at a glance. Below this group of instruments is a large tachometer. Though the design is very different than most instrument panels, it doesn’t take long to get used to and see the logic in it.
Apart from some odd angles on the dashboard where trim pieces meet, the Civic’s fit and finish are good, and the cabin utilizes nice materials. The uplevel EX-L trim comes with premium features, including a moonroof, padded door trim and heated leather seats.
The leather bucket seats in front have firm cushioning, but they didn’t initially seem to fit my back that well; the lower portion of the backrest pushed against my lower back, and the upper portion didn’t offer great support. I adapted to the seat in time, but it still wasn’t ideal. The backseat is small for tall adults, with little extra room to spare. Children should find it more accommodating.
Civic sedans have a 12-cubic-foot trunk (10.4 cubic feet in the Civic Hybrid), while the coupe offers 11.5 cubic feet of trunk room. Base models have a folding backseat that makes it easier to carry longer pieces of cargo inside the car. Some of the higher trims have a 60/40-split folding backseat that gives you the functionality of the one-piece design without sacrificing all of your rear seating. With the backseat folded, the extended cargo floor is nearly flat, with just a small bump in the floor at the base of the backrest.
Standard safety features include antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags, a tire pressure monitoring system and active head restraints for the front seats. EX-L, Hybrid and Si models also have an electronic stability system.
The Civic was awarded Top Safety Pick status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety due to its Good overall scores in frontal-offset, side-impact and rear crash tests, as well as its available stability system. Among small cars, the Civic is one of the top-performing models in IIHS testing.
The Civic is one of the better small cars available today for a few key reasons: It offers a refined driving experience that features a dose of sportiness, a finely crafted interior that distances itself from much of the competition, and efficient powertrain choices that give you a lot of miles for each gallon of gas. Even its higher price hasn’t been detrimental, as Civic sales are up 9 percent through October in what has been a very tough market. Buyers must see the same kind of value in the Civic that we do.