The 2012 Honda Civic was a goof: a dull all-new car that wasn't better, in any significant way, than the one it replaced. Goofs are fixable, however — just ask NASA.
In 1990, when it turned out that the mirror in the shiny, new, freshly in orbit Hubble Space Telescope wasn't shiny in precisely the right way, the space agency began working on a solution. In December 1993 that fix, the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement, known as COSTAR, was launched aboard the Endeavour space shuttle and, in one of the great service calls of all time, was installed in the Hubble. The telescope has been seeking out the far reaches of the universe ever since.
The not-all-new 2013 Honda Civic is the 2012 Civic with COSTAR. It's a sharper, better-focused, user-friendlier version of the Civic, even though it's fundamentally the same car powered by the same four-cylinder engines feeding the same transmissions.
To distinguish the 2013 Civic sedan from the lackluster 2012 version, Honda has recapped the front end with a new chrome-trimmed grille and bumper, replaced the rear bumper and taillights and bolted on new wheels. The only sheet steel that's changed is the hood, which has a slightly more assertive shape.
Honda says the look is more "upscale" and "premium," which is an oblique way of saying it doesn't look as cheap or as bland. And the changes have left the Civic looking more like its bigger sibling, the redesigned and well-received 2013 Accord.
While the two-door Civic shares other revisions with the sedan, its outward appearance hasn't changed. It's those other revisions that make up the substance of the improvements for 2013.
The forward structure has been revised to perform better in offset crash tests. Indeed, on Thursday the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety will announce that both the 2013 Civic coupe and sedan earned its highest rating, Top Safety Pick Plus, indicating that they performed well in all tests, including a new small-offset front crash test.
In addition, the suspension and electric power steering systems have been retuned for improved responsiveness, and additional sound deadening material has been fitted — most obviously as a pad on the inside of the trunk lid. Even the window glass is a bit thicker to suppress noise.
In the gadget department, a rear backup camera is now standard on all versions, along with Bluetooth cellphone and audio integration. Pandora Internet radio and SMS text-messaging interfaces have been added alongside the standard USB and iPod interfaces.
The biggest improvements, however, are the revised materials inside the cabin. A new headliner feels thick and rich to the touch; the door panels seem better padded. Most impressive is the new dashboard padding, which has a better texture, is softer to the touch and has simulated stitching.
The basic two-tier dashboard layout hasn't changed, but the austerity of the 2012 Civic, which had all the charm of a plastic bucket, is gone. The 2013 interior is among the most pleasant to be found in any compact car.
Banished from the Civic sedan lineup is the base DX model, a loss leader that practically no one bought anyhow. But that still leaves seven variations of the Civic sedan and four coupes.
Of the sedans, four versions use the same 140-horsepower, 1.8-liter engine. The least expensive is the mainstream $18,955 LX with a five-speed manual transmission and 15-inch steel wheels and tires. Adding a five-speed automatic nudges the price up $800.
A notch above that is the $21,605 EX, which rides on 16-inch alloy wheels and is available only with the automatic transmission. The EX has an automated climate-control system, a more powerful stereo, four-wheel disc brakes and a moonroof.
For $23,055, the EX-L adds leather trim. Both EX versions can be had with a voice-controlled navigation system for another $1,500.
For the mileage-obsessed, there's also the HF model for $20,055, which has the automatic transmission, lightweight 15-inch wheels and low-rolling-resistance tires; the HF also omits the spare tire to save weight and has a slightly better economy rating: 29 miles per gallon in the city and 41 mpg on the highway, compared with 28/39 for the automatic LX and the EX. My test car was an EX with cloth upholstery but without the navigation system.
Orbiting up in price beyond those four sedans, which account for the vast majority of Civic sales, are three specialty models: the Civic Natural Gas ($27,255), which uses that clean-burning fuel in the 1.8-liter engine to produce 110 horsepower; the higher-performance Civic Si ($23,505) with a 201-horsepower 2.4-liter four cylinder under its hood and the Civic Hybrid ($25,150).
While the 2012 Civic LX and EX carried different levels of sound deadening — to the LX's cacophonous detriment - Honda says that for 2013 the two trims are identical in that regard. And the EX I tested was one of the quietest compact cars I've driven; the engine noise was muted to the point of unobtrusiveness, and tire noise was subdued over most surfaces.
The thicker glass also cuts down on noise intrusions from outside the car. The Civic isn't a rolling tomb like a Lexus LS460 or a Mercedes S-Class, but it's a pleasant cell in which to serve a commuter sentence.
The new EX wears the same 205/55R16 tires as the 2012 edition, but gets more out of them. The steering ratio is slightly quicker than before, and Honda has juggled the algorithm controlling the power assist for noticeably better communication between the tires and the driver's fingertips. Also, the front and rear anti-sway bars in the suspensions (MacPherson struts in front and a multilink system in the rear) are thicker, so the Civic feels flatter when it corners.
If there's any deterioration in ride quality, I didn't notice it.
As improved as the 2013 Civic is, there's a temptation to overpraise it. For instance, while the automatic shifts well, the Honda still has only five gears while compacts like the Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus have moved on to six-speed automatic gearboxes. And 140 horsepower doesn't seem like a lot when the Focus's 2-liter four-cylinder is rated at 160 - and still delivers comparable fuel economy numbers. Even if the Civic is more competitive than it was, there are compelling alternatives.
It's encouraging that Honda so nimbly responded to criticism that the Civic had fallen behind, particularly since the 2012 Civic was selling well over its 19-month production life. But to regain its leadership mojo, Honda needs to take another leap, go beyond compensating for flaws and back to seeking out the far reaches of what a small car can be.
See a review of the 2013 Honda Civic EX-L sedan here.