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updated: 7/13/2011 11:33 AM

Honda Civic still a strong contender

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Associated Press

The new, ninth-generation Honda Civic sedan isn't the sexiest small car. But it's surprisingly roomy for a compact, has a quieter interior and a more compliant ride than its predecessors and delivers good fuel economy.

Better yet, Consumer Reports predicts reliability of the newly introduced 2012 Civic will be "much better than average."

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Just don't expect friends to notice, from the outside, that the 2012 Civic four-door is different from the 2011 version. Though revised inside and out, the newest Civic hews closely to the aerodynamic design of the previous model, with exterior styling adjusted a bit here and there for a cleaner appearance.

But perhaps most noteworthy, pricing for the various models of 2012 Civic sedan is either the same or lower than the previous generation.

As an example, starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a base, 2012 Civic DX sedan with manual transmission is $15,575, while a base 2012 Civic DX sedan with automatic starts at $17,375. Both prices are the same as they were in 2011.

And at the top of the trim level, the 2012 Civic sedan EX-L with automatic, navigation and other goodies has a retail price of $24,225, which is $500 less than the 2011 model.

The 2012 base Civic sedan's posted retail price is $120 less than the $15,695 MSRP, including destination charge, for a base, 2011 Hyundai Elantra sedan with manual transmission. It's also less than the $16,660 starting retail price for a 2011 Toyota Corolla with manual transmission.

The Civic is a crucial car in Honda's lineup, second in popularity only to the larger Accord. It's also the sixth best-selling car in the United States, with more than 127,500 sales through the first six months of this year.

Honda's Civic line is much wider than competitors; models range from coupe to sedan to gasoline-electric hybrid to a sporty Si three-door model and even a natural gas-powered Civic.

The test car was a top-of-the-line, gasoline-powered, non-hybrid, 2012 Civic EX-L with navigation that responded to voice commands, XM satellite radio, Bluetooth phone connectivity, leather-trimmed seats, heated front seats, USB connection, power moonroof, remote trunk opener and five-speed automatic transmission.

It topped out at $24,225, and it didn't feel like a small car, even though its exterior size is the same as last year's car.

With attention to detail, Honda engineers boosted front shoulder room to 56.6 inches, which is more than that of the Elantra and Corolla.

This, plus a low, open dashboard design, helps create an airy environment for front-seat passengers.

In the back seat, legroom has been increased. Two adult passengers traveled comfortably with 36.2 inches of legroom, more than the 33.1 inches in the Elantra.and just 0.6 inch less than the mid-size Accord sedan.

There are seat belts and head restraints for three passengers in the Civic sedan back seat, but it's tight for three adults.

All Civics come with four-cylinder engines. The 1.8-liter, single overhead cam four cylinder that's in most Civic sedans is the same one that was in the 2011 Civic. It has the same 140-horsepower rating and the same 128 foot-pounds of torque peaking at 4,300 rpm that it had last year.

But the engine and transmission have less friction now, so gas mileage is a tad better.

There are other reasons for improved fuel economy: The Civic has lost some weight, and drivers can push an "econ" button on the dashboard (not available in the Civic Si) to allow for more leisurely acceleration and, hence, less fuel usage.

In the test Civic EX-L, I used the econ mode in city driving with acceptable results -- hitting the federal government's fuel economy rating of 28 mpg. The Civic didn't rush forward, but it moved well in typical city traffic. Still, I must say I could tell if I was in econ mode or not when I accelerated.

Most of the time, I didn't notice much engine noise, but when I tried to accelerate hard with the econ model activated, the engine buzzed.

I also noticed, subtly, the shift points from the automatic transmission.

On uphill roads in the country and on highways, I turned off the econ mode and still managed 33 mpg in hard driving. The federal government rates highway travel mileage at 39 mpg.

The dashboard displays are the most memorable aspects of the new Civic.

I liked how the tachometer, with a blue half circle that seemed to glow, is positioned low and directly in front of the steering wheel, while the digital speedometer's large numbers are higher up, by the windshield. A 5-inch display screen that shows mileage, radio station and other information is up there, too, on a calming, bluish background.

All safety features are standard. They include side curtain air bags, stability assist, antilock brakes and electronic brake distribution.

There has been a safety recall of the new Civic. Some 1,150 two- and four-door Civics were recalled in May because O-ring seals in the gasoline line might be misaligned, which could cause a fuel leak.

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