LANDOVER, MD – The Honda Civic, on sale for almost 40 years now, 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 the past 38 years, becoming a perennial top-seller in America as the competition barely budged, answering 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 compacts. Each boasts advanced technology of the type Honda used to initiate, and their interiors are fashionable, with high-quality materials. Exterior styling, at least in the case of the Focus and Elantra, is groundbreaking.

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

The driving dynamics of the new ’12 Civic tested here prove Honda engineers remain dedicated to their craft. The small car is ultra-composed, quiet, light and highly maneuverable, even in hybrid form.

But the plot thread gets lost inside the cabin, where it’s clear Honda’s bean counters overran the engineering department.

Unlike the Focus and Cruze that get soft-touch dashboards even in their volume-trim levels, thin, hard plastics abound in the priciest of the ’12 Civics, the Hybrid and Si models. What’s worse, the new Civic 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 audio-system information, plus a clock and wallpaper screen, where owners can upload photos.

In contrast, the passenger side is a sea of nothingness, with a huge, flat shelf and a vast expanse unfettered by any interesting detail – no metallic or wood trim.

What’s worse, in the pre-production Civic Hybrid and LX driven here, 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 the competition 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 headroom-challenged rear middle seat.

’12 Honda Civic LX
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive 5-passenger compact sedan
Engine 1.8L SOHC inline 4-cyl., aluminum block/head
Power (SAE net) 140 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque 128 lb.-ft. (174 Nm) @ 4,300 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 81 x 87.3
Compression ratio 10.6:1
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Wheelbase 105.1 ins. (267 cm)
Overall length 177.3 ins. (450 cm)
Overall width 69.0 ins. (175 cm)
Overall height 59.0-59.9 ins. (150-152 cm)
Curb weight 2,705 lbs. (1,227 kg)
Base price $18,655 not incl. $750 destination and handling (’12 Civic range: $15,605-$26,750)
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, Volkswagen Jetta
Pros Cons
Great regen brakes Non-hybrid mpg almost as good
Comfortable seating Rest of interior subpar
Still a good engine Sheet metal ho-hum

However, the relatively bare-bones Civic LX sedan driven here 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 normal-use range of 2,000-4,000 rpm. Thank you, Honda.

The smooth-shifting 5-speed manual also is improved, with a forgiving-but-engaging 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 (in some, not all, grades), due to increased use of high-strength steel, an electric power-steering system and thin-walled fuel tank. The latter two measures trim 2.9 lbs. (1.3 kg) and 2.2 lbs. (1.0 kg), respectively.

The Civic Hybrid’s Integrated Motor Assist mild-hybrid system gets a lithium-ion battery for the first time, plus hikes the size of the 4-cyl. engine 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. Voltage has been lowered to 144 from 158, but output is up to 20 kW from 15 kW in the outgoing battery.

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, which also weighed slightly more.

Honda eliminated a crank spacer and reduced the rotor weight by thinning the yoke to achieve weight loss.

The continuously variable transmission carries over but adds oil temperature and pressure sensors for increased efficiency.

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

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 ’12 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 real-world mid-speed suburban driving, the car averaged 43 mpg, with an observed high of 46.5 mpg (5.1 L/100 km). Not bad, but not stellar considering journalists test driving non-hybrid Civics here nearly matched those figures.

A new Civic trim, the HF, promises 41 mpg (5.7 L/100 km) average thanks to low-rolling-resistance tires and underbody covers.

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 4-cyl. engine. Torque has been hiked to 170 lb.-ft. (230 Nm) at 4,300 rpm from 139 lb.-ft. (188 Nm) at 6,100 rpm in the ’11 Si.

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

For all the carefully engineered innards found in the new Civic lineup, we’re reminded of an unfortunate truth: The majority of car buyers don’t care.

Yes, some consumers are paying attention to fuel efficiency. But many just want bun-warmers for those cold winter mornings (available only 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 across the board 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, but it’s not enough to move the needle against Civic’s competitors.

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, especially when the competition has never been better.

Honda appears to know the road ahead will be more difficult, as it’s calling for 12-month ’12 Civic sales of 260,000 units. That’s equal to the current Civic’s 2009 and 2010 tallies, 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.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com