Honda's 2011 Civic retains the successful formula that has made the Civic a perennial top 10 seller in the United States - a reputation for reliability, good fit and finish, a selection of engines and transmissions, interior comfort and good fuel economy. Pricing isn't a bargain, however.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $16,355 for a base, 2011 Civic DX coupe with 140-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and manual transmission. The lowest starting price for a 2011 Civic sedan with the same 140-horse engine and manual is $16,555. Prices go up to $27,900 for the top, leather- and navigation-equipped 2011 Civic gas-electric hybrid model.
Competitors include the 2011 Toyota Corolla, which starts at $16,360 for a sedan with 132-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and manual transmission, and the new, 2012 Ford Focus, which starts at $16,995 for a sedan with 140-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and manual transmission. Pricewise, the 2011 Hyundai Elantra sedan, with a 148-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and manual transmission, undercuts the Civic and others with a starting retail price of $15,550.
The test 2011 Civic was a mid-range LX sedan whose exterior styling looked a bit dressed-down. It was pleasant-looking enough, but there wasn't a richness or upscale appearance.
The Civic interior, however, with its low-cowl dashboard and airy feeling for front-seat passengers, was comfortable and welcoming. Every control was within easy reach, and though it took some getting used to the two-level instrument display in front of the driver, the information was well-arranged.
In fact, the blue digital speedometer numbers that appear at the top display, near the windshield, are so large and bright that drivers passing by can look over and see what speed you're traveling. So, there's no excuse for not knowing how fast you're traveling in this car.
The test Civic LX sedan with five-speed automatic transmission wasn't a sporty model, so I didn't zoom off from standstill like a rocket. But the car wasn't sluggish, either. It responded readily and steadily as it accelerated. Peak torque is 128 foot-pounds at 4,300 rpm. In contrast, the 2011 Elantra's four cylinder torque peak of 131 foot-pounds comes a bit later in the power band, at 4,800 rpm.
The Civic LX also weighed in well below 3,000 pounds - 2,754 pounds, to be exact. So the 1.8-liter, single overhead cam four cylinder provided good propulsion for a not-weighty car.
At the same time, fuel economy for the 2011 compact sedan is near the top of the class. The tester, with automatic transmission, had a federal government rating of 25 miles per gallon in city driving and 36 mpg on the highway.
The Civic test car didn't feel cheap or unsubstantial. There was a solidity in the ride akin to that of the bigger Honda Accord. But the federal government's newly revised crash test ratings for 2011 put the Civic sedan in a mediocre ranking. Overall, the car's rating was three out of five stars, with a side crash protection rating of just two out of five stars and frontal protection rated at four out of five stars. Neither the Corolla nor Elantra have 2011 crash test ratings.
Most safety equipment is standard on all 2011 Civics, including curtain air bags, antilock brakes and anti-whiplash head restraints for front-seat passengers. But electronic stability control and traction control, which come standard on every Corolla and Elantra, are available only on the top-level Civic EX-L sedan for 2011.
Steering in the Civic LX was neither loose nor weighty, and steering inputs brought confident response. Brakes, too, worked well, with predictable, steady response.
It was easy to just get in and drive the Civic on city streets amidst traffic and on open highways. The 14.8-foot-long car merged easily and maneuvered without fuss, helped by a small, 35.4-foot turning circle. Many road bumps were muted by the suspension, which included MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link rear. Overall, the ride was compliantly well-managed, not wallowy or harsh.
Too bad road noise was loud, and I found myself turning up the volume of the radio often so I could continue to hear above the noise. Fit and finish, including body panel gaps outside and seams and gaps inside the test car, were impeccable in the tester.
The 12-cubic-foot trunk offered less space than the Elantra sedan and Corolla. Much of the Civic's trunk space is below the rear window. Two adults would be the best fit in the back seat. Three people across sit closely.
The Civic sedan's back-seat legroom of 34.6 inches is more than the 33.1 inches in the back seat of the 2011 Elantra but less than the 36.3 inches in the back of the longer-length Corolla.
Consumer Reports gives the Civic its top, "better than average" reliability rating. But because electronic stability control is not available on all Civic trim levels, the magazine does not give the regular 2011 Civic a "recommended" label.
Some car buyers may be worried about the Civic's future after Honda said last year it won't be selling Civics in Japan. But Honda officials say American car buyers will continue to get all the Civics they want. After all, Civic was the sixth best-selling vehicle in the country in calendar 2010.