2014 Honda Civic: New and Somewhat Improved

 FEARSOME FACE: The Civic features a menacing front fascia, perhaps to scare off the increasingly stiff competition.
FEARSOME FACE: The Civic features a menacing front fascia, perhaps to scare off the increasingly stiff competition.
GEORGE KENNEDY

My, how the mighty have fallen. The Honda Civic was once the preeminent compact car, but when you set the bar so high, you tend to incur the threat of usurpers to the small car throne. In the last decade, the small car market has improved at a nearly exponential rate, all gunning for the small Honda.

The competition has been hot on the heels of the Civic, and the Japanese automaker has been constantly raising the bar for small cars. Honda may have been moving so fast to stay ahead of the competition that the 2014 Honda Civic may have missed a few cues, but it is overall an exceptionally attractive compact coupe with an energetic ride.

Winston Churchill famously said, “To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often.” In 2012, Honda rolled out a Civic that was criticized by the automotive press. To Honda’s credit, they turned around an impressive one-year update that addressed some of those criticisms. The 2014 model is a further refinement of 2013 updates, but some of those changes raise concerns.

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The exterior remains attractive and instantly recognizable as a Civic. The lower front fascia is revised for EX and EX-L coupes, to give it a more aggressive look. Inside, there are upgraded seating materials and a new touchscreen interface for various vehicle systems. The screen replaces the volume knob and joystick of the 2013 model, and despite the 2013’s system not being perfect, it was still better than a full touchscreen. While the touch display is novel, the tactile analog controls are far more intuitive, and any car that doesn’t have a simple volume knob is one that will leave you pulling your hair out. It is a design decision made by engineers who didn’t stop to ask how real human beings will actually operate it.

Thankfully, other tech aspects are far more comprehensive. The backup camera is vivid and large, and once you’ve gone through the rather arduous task of connecting a smartphone, voice operation is quite easy. The upgraded stereo of the EX-L model is booming yet crisp and will deliver ideal sound for everything from classical to dubstep.

For 2014, Honda has updated the drivetrain of the Civic. The 1.8-liter inline-4 now makes 143 horsepower, up from 140 hp. More than that, Honda has swapped out the conventional automatic transmission for a new continuously variable transmission, or CVT. Not every automaker executes this variable ratio gearbox well, but Honda has figured it out, sending power to the front wheels. It is lighter and reduces friction, and as a result, fuel economy is up 22 percent. Fuel economy for the Civic with the CVT is 30 mpg city, 39 mpg highway. Our EX version had a special CVT with paddle shifters that actually imitate traditional gears. On this version, fuel economy is slightly less, at 29 mpg city, 38 mpg highway.

Honda tuned this CVT well, and acceleration is smooth and responsive, without any of the lag typically associated with a CVT. Steering is just a hair on the side of sporty, which makes the Civic a surprisingly fun car to pull down a winding back road. The paddle shifters allow you to replicate performance driving by keeping it in third gear as you round a big bend and dropping it into second on that hairpin turn.

Perhaps one of the most groundbreaking features of the Civic is the inclusion of the Honda Lane Watch system, brought down from the big-brother Accord. This award-winning system consists of a rearward facing wide-angle camera mounted underneath the passenger side mirror. When the driver engages the right turn indicator, the camera is activated, providing a display of what is on the Civic’s starboard flank. The display is quite intuitive, and was very useful on many occasions. Distance guidelines appear on the screen to let the driver know how far away a car is in the lane to the right.

Honda also likes to encourage green driving, so in addition to its powertrain improvements, there is an eco guide on the display. Under acceleration or high speeds, the display will go blue, but ease up off the throttle, and the display will switch to green. Or you could just step on it and enjoy the transmissions “S” or “Sport” mode, which will quicken throttle response and scoot the CVT into a pickup ratio more quickly.

Base MSRP for the 2014 Honda Civic coupe is $18,190 and comes standard with rear view camera, Bluetooth phone connectivity with text messaging capability, USB auxiliary audio input, and a 160-watt stereo with six speakers.

Standard safety features include vehicle stability assist with traction control, tire pressure monitoring system, ACE crash construction, and a full assortment of front and side impact airbags.

Our test model was an EX with the CVT, which starts at $21,090. It came equipped with upgrades like push-button start, the excellent Lane Watch system, and the less-than-intuitive touchscreen interface.

In all, the Civic impresses in appearance and in ride quality. Anyone in the market for a small car will be rewarded with a sharp looking vehicle for a comfortable commute to work every day. However, if you are not a fan of touchscreens to operate the radio, might we suggest the base LX model. Otherwise, the EX and EX-L versions of the Civic coupe are competent daily drivers that continue to fight for dominance in the highly competitive small car market.

2014 Honda Civic Coupe

THE BASICS

Price: $18,190. As tested: $21,090. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 29/39. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 33.8 mpg. Drivetrain: 18L I4, CVT, front-wheel-drive. Body: 5-passenger compact coupe.

THE SPECIFICS

Horsepower: 143. Overall length: 176.1 in. Wheelbase 103.1 in. Height: 55.0 in. Width: 69.1 in. Curb weight: 2,863 lbs.

THE GOOD

Attractive exterior, Lane Watch worth every penny, CVT is actually fun to drive.

THE BAD

Touchscreen lacks common sense, headroom low for tall drivers.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The gold-standard small car…for now. ALSO CONSIDER Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Dodge Dart, Subaru Impreza, Volkswagen Jetta, many others.