Here’s my recant, as upfront and as clear as I can make it: The Honda Civic is still the one.
I’ve come to that conclusion after 350 mostly commuter miles in a rented 2012 Honda Civic LX sedan — a close-to-basic front-wheel-drive compact sedan outfitted with an optional five-speed automatic transmission.
In truth, I wanted to rent something snazzier — a Kia Optima or Hyundai Sonata, a Chevrolet Cruze or Ford Focus, a new Dodge Dart if possible, or a Volkswagen Jetta TDi — an automobile “with personality.”
Having months ago relegated the Honda Civic to the “also-ran” files of my automotive mind, I did not consider a Civic. But a Civic LX sedan, replete with cloth seats and industrial-grade vinyl, was all that remained in my weekly rental price range (up to $225) on a Northern Virginia Enterprise Rent-a-Car lot.
I took the deal. I’m glad I did. It turned out to be what I needed to regain perspective.
Several months before driving the deliberately pedestrian Civic HF, I had been stunned by all of the neat stuff global automobile companies were installing in their little cars. These welcome changes included super-attractive styling inside and out. Finally, I thought, automobile manufacturers have learned that “compact” and “ugly” don’t mean the same thing.
It was a fair assessment carried too far, one that ignored the inherent, long-lasting beauty of one of the world’s best-selling small cars, the Honda Civic. In comparison with its sexier rivals, the 2012 Civic HF I drove in the summer of 2011 was dowdy. I was disappointed, and in my disappointment I ignored the Civic HF’s primary reason for being — to deliver its namesake “high fuel” economy, and to do so using the simplest styling and inexpensive but still high-quality materials.
The 2012 Honda Civic LX sedan rented a year later also came with lots of plastic — genuine, plastic-is-plastic plastic that did little to lift the spirits, but made it exceptionally easy to lift stains and smudges with a little soap and water. The cloth seats were equally easy to clean. The entire interior, in fact, was expressly designed for hard use and easy maintenance.
The upshot: After a bit more than 17,000 miles on the road and 10 months’ use before coming into my hands, the interior of the rented 2012 Honda Civic LX still looked and felt new. That is the kind of stuff that high resale values are made of.
Most of us don’t rent compact economy cars to set speed records. I rented the 2012 Civic LX to complete several regional errands before taking off this week for the Paris Auto Show. I was pleasantly surprised. In several runs up and down Interstate 66 in Virginia, the Civic LX’s 1.8-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine (140 horsepower, 128 foot-pounds of torque) performed beautifully — very little downshifting, no asthmatic behavior in higher elevations, enough passing power when needed, and decent fuel economy at 28 miles per gallon in the city and 39 mpg on the highway.
It was an economic blessing that the rented Civic LX was designed to do its best work on regular-grade gasoline.
The more I drove that car, the more I loved it, and the more I understood why so many people love the Honda Civic even though, I still maintain, it has been surpassed by so many rivals in exterior and interior styling.
Even after having been battered by multiple drivers over more than 17,000 miles, the Civic LX worked flawlessly. Fit and finish remained impressive — no shakes, no rattles and only one missing part (a piece of sound-deadening, wind-blocking rubber absent from under the right side of the hood). The Civic LX was a cinch to maneuver and park in tight urban traffic. It even did well over the many speed bumps — meeting them at posted speeds without rattling the nerves of driver or passengers — that seem to abound in affluent Northern Virginia neighborhoods.
Lastly, there was this: Like it or not, and I’m still trying to decide, the quality of today’s cars is determined almost as much by the quality of their infotainment/communication systems as by anything else. In that regard, Honda’s patented i-MID (intelligent Multi-Information Display) system is at the top of its class. It is intuitive, easy-to-use and truly informative — keeping the driver aware of everything going on with the car and the world through which it is moving.
The rented Honda Civic LX did not come with the optional onboard navigation system and backup camera. But the Enterprise people included a Garmin portable navigation system for a small fee. That worked perfectly. I love backup cameras and think they will become standard safety equipment soon. But getting out and checking around the car before taking off, and checking the rear-view mirror before backing out, worked well, too.