2012 Honda Civic comes up short against the competition

Little things add up. Or — in the case of the 2012 Honda Civic EX sedan and Civic Si — subtract.

For more than a decade, the Civic was the benchmark against which other automakers judged their compact cars, but the new 2012 model is a disappointment.

From bargain-basement materials t

o a noisy interior to outdated gasoline engines and transmissions, a string of compromises leaves the Civic trailing strong new competitors like the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus and Hyundai Accent.

The Civic comes in a wide range of models. The base model scores well in EPA fuel economy tests.

The more powerful Si doesn’t, and its taste for premium fuel weighs against it despite the sporty model’s sharp handling.

Honda also offers hybrid and natural gas-powered versions of the Civic.

From its play-it-safe styling to unimpressive powertrains in its volume models, the Civic is a new car that feels dated.

The lack of a six-speed automatic transmission — or even a six-speed manual in the Civic’s best-selling models — is among the first tip-offs that Honda has lost the leadership position it held for years.

Six-speed gearboxes are commonplace in the Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze and Hyundai Elantra.

There’s also no sign of direct fuel injection or turbocharging, increasingly common technologies other automakers use to improve power and fuel efficiency. It’s a tribute to Honda’s engineers that the base Civic achieves good fuel economy with its engine and transmission. The car scored a 32-mpg EPA combined city and highway rating.

The 1.8-liter engine is loud, however. It delivered acceptable acceleration in normal mode, but the Civic couldn’t get out of its own way when I pressed the button labeled “Econ.”

The interiors of both cars were trimmed in hard and unattractive materials. There were very few cushioned spots that invited touch, and some trim panels felt flimsy.

The trunks were on the small side, and had bare metal inside their lids rather than the soft, sound-absorbent trim you usually find.

Five or six years ago, the Si might have been a great model of a mainstream compact. The market has moved on at a frantic pace though.

Today, it would be an enjoyable mainstream model, but it would still trail the leaders’ fuel economy and technology.

Shockingly, it seems the small-car market has passed Honda by.

The Civic still offers good fuel economy and an enviable record for reliability, but the new 2012 model lacks the refinement and technical innovation of leading compacts.

Prices for the 2012 Civic start at $15,605 for a coupe with a 140-horsepower 1.8-liter engine and five-speed transmission.

Opting for a five-speed automatic gearbox raises the sticker to $16,405. Civic sedan prices start at $15,805 with the same base powertrain and rise to $16,605 with the automatic. The sporty Civic Si comes with a 201-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission. Prices start at $22,205 for a coupe and $22,405 for a sedan.

Honda also makes a Civic hybrid priced at $24,050 and a natural gas-powered model that bases at $26,155.

I tested two nicely equipped Civics: an EX sedan with the automatic transmission that cost $20,505 and a $22,205 Si coupe. All prices exclude destination charges.

The Civic’s key competitors are compacts like the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda 3, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla.

The Si is quicker, but its taste for pricey premium fuel is disappointing. The Si’s crisp manual transmission is a masterpiece, with short throws and a precise operation that encourages eager driving. The Si engine has a lovely throaty note.

Road and wind noise were an issue in both Civics I tested. The audio quality of hands-free phone calls was good.

The Civic EX sedan did not have voice-recognition for hands-free phone calls or twilight-sensing headlights, two useful and common features. The Si offers the automatic headlights, but not voice-recognition.

The sedan’s steering and brakes delivered Honda’s customary solid performance. The steering in the Si coupe was terrific, crisp and responsive. The Si’s handling was noticeably sportier than the EX.

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