THE HONDA CIVIC REVOLUTIONIZED WHAT a small car could be.

By combining cutting-edge performance and safety with a high-quality interior, Honda engineers have been giving U.S. drivers a good reason to go Japanese since 1973.

The Civic has chugged along for eight successful generations over 38 years, becoming a perennial top-seller in America as the competition answered with underwhelming models.

But now the tables have turned. Finally, General Motors, Ford and the Koreans have gotten their acts together.

The new Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze and Hyundai Elantra are stellar. Each boasts advanced technology of the type Honda used to initiate, and their interiors are fashionable, with high-quality materials.

That only makes the below-par, ninth-generation Civic now on sale in the U.S. all the more puzzling.

The driving dynamics prove Honda engineers remain dedicated to their craft. The small car is ultra-composed, quiet and maneuverable, even in hybrid form.

But the plot thread gets lost inside the cabin, where it's clear Honda's bean counters overran the engineers.

Unlike the Focus and Cruze that get soft-touch dashboards, thin, hard plastics abound in the priciest of the '12 Civics, the Hybrid and Si models. What's worse, the new cockpit lacks any real design scheme, with an instrument panel that is both cluttered and bland.

Multiple shades of gray, beige and black add to the busyness of the 2-tier instrument panel, largely a carryover from the previous model.

The IP's upper tier is bigger than before, adding a small liquid-crystal screen to the left of the digital speedometer that Honda calls i-MID for instant recognition multi-information display. The i-MID, controlled by steering-wheel buttons, provides fuel-economy and other information.

In contrast, the passenger side is a sea of nothingness, with a huge, flat shelf and a vast expanse unfettered by any interesting detail.

In the pre-production Civic Hybrid and LX driven, the hard-plastic trim pieces on the dash rarely match their shades of gray.

Poor fit-and-finish also is evident in an unintentionally wavy horizontal trim piece behind the steering wheel, which fails to mate properly with the plastic hood encasing the upper-tier dash. Cringe-worthy is the obvious vertical seam above the center stack.

The Civic falls short of rivals with a fuzzy headliner and velour-like seat fabric in non-Si grades. The Focus boasts a circular-knit headliner and woven seating surfaces. Hyundai has done a good job disguising the Elantra's rat-fur headliner with a stamped check pattern that mimics more expensive circular-knit fabric.

Honda also cut back on door-armrest padding, which is more extensive in the outgoing model. At least interior comfort is high, except for the rear middle seat.

Much has been made of the decision to carry over the engine and transmission from the current Civic. Rivals haul out new direct-injected and/or turbocharged 4-cyl. engines, plus standard 6-speed manual, automatic and, in the case of the Ford, dual-clutch transmissions.

However, the relatively bare-bones Civic LX sedan proves the all-aluminum 1.8L 4-cyl., with Honda's i-VTEC variable-valve timing, is even better than before. Mated to a 5-speed manual, the engine never lacks merging or passing power on the freeway, a shortfall of the current Civic thanks to Honda's famously high torque peaks.

In the new model, the 1.8L still reaches a zenith of 128 lb.-ft. (174 Nm) at 4,300 rpm, but torque now is more plentiful in the range of 2,000-4,000 rpm.

The smooth-shifting 5-speed manual also is improved, with a forgiving clutch. Throws have been shortened, and the shifter has a sturdier feel.

Thanks to an increased suspension stroke and a reduction in damper-sliding friction with both the MacPherson-strut front and multilink-rear suspensions, the new Civic soaks up road imperfections better than the outgoing model.

Weight reduction also adds up to more driving fun. The Civic is lighter, due to increased use of high-strength steel and electric power-steering system.

The Civic Hybrid's Integrated Motor Assist mild-hybrid system gets a lithium-ion battery for the first time and hikes the size of the inline-4 to 1.5L from 1.3L.

The new Li-ion boasts about triple the capacity of the current Civic Hybrid's nickel-metal hydride battery and is smaller and about 20 lbs. (9 kg) lighter.

The hybrid's new 8-pole permanent magnet motor puts out 23 hp and 78 lb.-ft. (105 Nm) of torque vs. 20 hp and 73 lb.-ft. (103 Nm) from the current Civic Hybrid's 6-pole motor.

Honda eliminated a crank spacer and reduced the rotor weight by thinning the yoke to achieve weight loss. The continuously variable transmission carries over.

Honda has improved the feel of the hybrid's regenerative brakes, eliminating the pulsating feedback of the previous model. However, some vibration can be felt through the accelerator pedal during low-speed driving.

Switching over to Econ mode (all Civics barring Si get the Insight and CR-Z's Eco Assist button) makes acceleration loud and labored.

The Civic Hybrid has an estimated fuel-efficiency rating of 44/44 mpg (5.3 L/100 km) city/highway, up from 40/43 mpg (5.9-5.5 L/100 km) in the current model.

In mid-speed suburban driving, the car averaged 43 mpg. Not bad, but not stellar considering journalists test driving non-hybrid Civics at the press event nearly matched those figures.

The Civic Si tested briefly on a short course proves to be as fun as ever. Honda has upped the Si's peak horsepower to 201 at 7,000 rpm from 197 at 7,800 rpm in the current 2.0L-equipped model, thanks to the introduction of a larger, 2.4L I-4. Torque has been hiked to 170 lb.-ft. (230 Nm) at 4,300 rpm from 139 lb.-ft. (188 Nm) at 6,100 rpm.

A new version of the Civic GX, renamed the Civic Natural Gas for '12, is due later this year.

For all the Civic's carefully engineered innards, we're reminded of an unfortunate truth: Most car buyers don't care.

Yes, some consumers are paying attention to fuel efficiency. But many just want bun-warmers (available in the priciest Civic trims) and other creature comforts such as standard Bluetooth, which the Civic lacks in its lower trims (DX, LX) but is standard in the Elantra and Kia Forte.

Honda did slash the price of the car's optional navigation system and uncoupled Bluetooth from navigation — a step in the right direction.

Honda says 58% of Civic buyers trade in non-Hondas, and 57% return for another. But that was for the paradigm-shifting eighth-gen edition, which obliterated the competition upon its release in 2005. Believing compact buyers will choose the new model simply because it's a Civic may be a bad bet.

Honda knows the road ahead will be difficult. Before the March earthquake in Japan, it called for 12-month Civic sales of 260,000 units, not the 300,000-plus seen annually from 1997-2008.

There are a lot of great compacts in the U.S. market right now. And despite the great mechanicals of the new model, the '12 Civic's subpar interior leaves it in the unusual position of slipping behind the pack.

'12 Honda Civic LX

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive 5-passenger compact sedan

Engine: 1.8L SOHC all-aluminum inline-4

Power (SAE net): 140 hp @ 6,500 rpm

Torque: 128 lb.-ft. (174 Nm) @ 4,300 rpm

Transmission: 5-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 105.1 ins. (267 cm)

Overall length: 177.3 ins. (450 cm)

Overall width: 69.0 ins. (175 cm)

Curb weight: 2,705 lbs. (1,227 kg)

Price range: $15,605-$26,750 (all grades)

Fuel economy: 28/39 mpg (8.4-6.0 L/100 km) city/highway

Competition: Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Mazda3, Mitsubishi Lancer, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla, VW Jetta

PROS/CONS

+

  • Great regen brakes
  • Comfortable seating
  • Still a good engine

-

  • Non-hybrid mpg almost as good
  • Rest of interior subpar
  • Sheet metal ho-hum

SALES

Managing Director — James W. Bush
(248) 799-2611
Fax: (248) 357-0809
jbush@wardsauto.com

Director of Marketing & Sales Outside U.S. & Inside Sales
Chris Lamphear
(248) 799-2658
Fax: (248) 357-0810
clamphear@wardsauto.com

Detroit / Midwest U.S. — Dyanna Hurley
(586) 983-4252
Fax: (586) 264-8817
dhurley@wardsauto.com

Northeast U.S. — William J. Doucette
(603) 236-3310
Fax: (603) 236-3304
wjduce@aol.com

Chicago/Central U.S. & South Central/Southeast U.S. — Dave Haggett
(847) 934-9123
Fax: (847) 934-9128
dghaggett@aol.com

Western U.S. — Woody Newell
(360) 944-6572
Fax: (360) 883-3181
swnewell@earthlink.net