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Civic-minded generation

| Saturday, June 11, 2011

It depends perhaps upon one's affection for cars, but the biggest compliment to be paid to the 2012 Honda Civic is its utter lack of flash.

Now in its ninth generation, the redesigned Civic is the automotive equivalent of beige. It's a well-engineered plain Jane with a no-muss, no-fuss driving experience. And I mean that in the best way possible.

There's a reason almost 9 million Honda Civics have been sold in the U.S. since this compact car was introduced in 1973, most notably its extreme sensibility. Not only is it affordable, it's reliable. The latest generation Civic continues those themes, adding increased fuel economy and options.

Starting at $16,355 with destination charge, the 2012 Civic gives drivers more significant choices than the number of doors or the type of transmission or interior amenities. Different versions are powered with gas, natural gas and hybrid drivetrains.

There's also a high-performance, 2.4-liter, 201-horsepower version called the Si with a six-speed manual transmission, as well as a new aerodynamically optimized high-efficiency model called the HF that, according to EPA estimates, squeezes up to 41 miles per gallon from its standard 140-horsepower, 1.8-liter engine.

At this time, only the Civic Sedan, Coupe and Hybrid are available at dealers; the Si, HF and natural gas versions have later on-sale dates. A Honda Motor Co. spokesman has said that Civic production, along with most Honda model production, has been affected by parts supply issues stemming from the March earthquake.

I was testing the highest-end Civic Sedan, the $24,205 EX-L -- a five-passenger, four-door car that is one of the more technologically tricked-out versions, designed for the sorts of early adopters who stand in line at the Apple Store awaiting the latest gadget.

The center stack display is upgraded with a new 16-gigabyte navigation system that responds to more than 700 voice commands and incorporates an outrageous 10 million points of interest. FM traffic, which provides real-time traffic information over the radio without a subscription, is new for 2012.

But the biggest news with the 2012 Civic, as with most cars that are actually selling in this era of cringingly high gas prices, is fuel economy. It's 10 percent more fuel efficient than its predecessor.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the Civic EX-L gets 32 mpg combined highway and city driving. I averaged just 26.7 over the 123 miles I drove the car -- and that was employing the Econ feature for most of the time I was gripping its telescoping, leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Honda first introduced this Econ mode on its 2010 Insight and, last year, on its CR-Z. Its inclusion on the Civic is its first on a non-hybrid vehicle. Pushing the green button on the dashboard, just to the left of the steering wheel, makes the throttle feel as if it's been shot with Novocain. Its response is less immediate, which is only bad if you drive as I do: impatiently.

An addiction to torque is one of my greater character flaws. Like many Americans, I wrestle with a dueling desire for performance and fuel efficiency that neither harms the environment nor clobbers the pocketbook. The Honda Civic urges drivers like me to tread lightly, to drive consciously.

Toward that end, the new Civic incorporates an Eco Assist feature that is sort of like having Ed Begley Jr. along for the ride. A coach to inspire greener driving, Eco Assist is a dashboard display within the instrument cluster. Drive in a manner that would get the nod from Begley, and the background lighting looks green. Floor it, and the light turns blue, though red would probably be more effective.

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