(Bloomberg) — Honda Civics are everywhere. Like the impala of the asphalt savannah, modest LX sedans and Si coupes crowd parking lots and fill the highways. They’re so ubiquitous that you tend to look right through them, fixating instead on elephantine SUVs or cheetah-esque sports cars.
No wonder I found it so hard to assess the newest Civic with fresh eyes. Around since the 1970s, this is the ninth generation of the compact and one is pretty much like the next, right?
Yet this time I was testing the 2012 hybrid model, which stands apart in price and gas mileage. It starts at $24,050, not including the $770 destination charge. That’s a healthy premium over the base $15,800 sedan.
Hybrids generally see the most gas savings around town, and the Civic hybrid achieves 44 mpg on both the wide-open road and around the city. That easily bests the regular Civic (and most other sedans), which gets 28 mpg city, 39 highway.
It takes regular unleaded as well.
If you’re a town-bound commuter who plans to keep the hybrid for a number of years, the jump in price just might make sense, especially if the cost of gas skyrockets. Yet the hybrid also comes with a dose of hassle.
After all, Honda’s gas engines have always been a strong selling point. The regular 2012 Civic has a punchy 1.8-liter i- VTEC four-cylinder which gamely winds up to a redline of 6,700 rpm. It has 140 horsepower. Not powerful, but good fun, especially when mated to a five-speed manual transmission.
Alas, Poor Civic
The hybrid gets a 1.5-liter four-cylinder and a small electric motor for a combined horsepower of only 110. The only offered transmission is a continuously variable system. Pickup is slow and you can forget about power passes on two-lane roads.
But unlike the Toyota Prius, which can silently set off on the electric motor alone, the Honda is a mild hybrid, and the gas motor is activated whenever the car is on the move. It shuts off at stoplights and then comes back to life when you take your foot off the brake.
This is not unlike the stop-and-start systems which are popping up on all kinds of non-hybrid cars, even Ferraris and Porsches, and it does take a bit of getting used to. Unfortunately for the Civic, a shudder runs through the car every time the engine dies. I’ve seen Hamlets expire with less drama. Gasp, cough, gasp.
When it’s time to go again you take your foot off the brake and there’s a pause—wait for it—and the engine gurgles to life. Neither smooth nor quick, and it bugged me to an Ophelia- worthy madness in traffic.
It’s loud, too. Work the engine hard, and it unleashes a full vocabulary of mechanical complaints, none of which are pleasant to the ear. The low-rolling-resistance tires also transmit every slap of the asphalt.
The good news is the Civic retains its overall modesty, especially in terms of size. This is not one of those cars which has grown obscenely long or heavy. None of the models has grown in length for 2012; in fact the wheelbases have decreased and curb weights have been trimmed.
Because of the extra motor and battery pack, the hybrid is heavier than a fully-loaded EX-L sedan, but even it weighs less than 2,900 pounds with added options.
Those choices on the hybrid are scant, making for easy shopping. Leather is an extra $1,200 and also gets you heated front seats. The steering wheel is wrapped and the seats are trimmed with hide, but the quality is nothing to crow about.
Buyers can also opt for the $1,500 navigation system separately or with the leather option. It includes XM satellite radio.
It wasn’t until I found myself on 35-mph winding roads that I re-discovered the joy of a Civic. Since power wasn’t a concern, I simply pointed it down sloping hills.
Honda’s mastery of its Civic is evident in the careful tuning of the chassis and the exactness of the steering. They’ve been at this a long time and the Civic skimmed along the narrow roads, going precisely where I aimed it.
For those looking for a hotter option, there’s always the 201-hp Si coupe with a close-ratio six-speed manual. I’ll be driving it later, but expect good things.
Also new for this year is a model called the Civic HF. Rather than taking the hybrid route, it is outfitted with light alloy wheels and low-rolling-resistance tires and has additional aerodynamic tweaks to its body. That includes a flat underbody and a lower riding height.
While it can’t approach the same mileage figures for the city (a still decent 29), it does achieve 41 mpg highway.
At a price of less than $20,000, it seems a likely choice for gas-conscious buyers who might not love some of the noisy drawbacks of the hybrid.
The 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid At a Glance
Engine: 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and 20-kilowatt electric motor, for a combined horsepower of 110.
Transmission: Continuously variable.
Gas mileage per gallon: 44 city; 44 highway.
Price as tested: $27,520.
Best feature: Real gas savings.
Worst feature: Noisy engine.
Target buyer: The Honda loyalist who wants his hybrid.