Once upon a time, the Honda Civic was the smart guy's economy sedan. It was the one to have if you saw the value in a smooth, efficient engine, a precisely tuned suspension and a functional cabin. Simple ingredients, for sure, but for years nobody put them together as well as Honda.
When you drive the 2012 Honda Civic back to back with the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze and the redesigned 2011 Hyundai Elantra, though, you have to concede that Honda doesn't own this class anymore. The well-tuned chassis underneath the 2011 Cruze makes you realize that GM builds a competitive compact car these days, while Hyundai's latest entry, the attractive 2011 Elantra, packs in a lot of high-end features without inflating its price tag.
And the 2012 Civic? Well, it's revamped, too, but bears signs of serious belt-tightening at Honda as well as unusual ambivalence among company executives about what exactly we want in a compact sedan.
The result is a very conservative ninth-generation Honda Civic and a huge upset in this latest Inside Line economy sedan comparison test.Three Sub-$25,000 Sedans
Base versions of the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, 2011 Hyundai Elantra and 2012 Honda Civic start out under $17,000, but that's with a manual transmission and, in Civics and Elantras, no air-conditioning. Few will set your car up like that, so we've specified automatic transmissions and a $25,000 limit for this test.
This netted us three high-line models, which are automatic-only anyway. As-tested prices range from $22,860 for the 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited to $24,205 for the 2012 Honda Civic EX-L with navigation. In between, there's the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ for $23,935. We'd planned to include a 2012 Ford Focus as well, but Ford couldn't provide one for this test. Look for a rematch between our winner and the Focus.
Our inner old coot shakes his head at the leather upholstery, USB inputs and Bluetooth connectivity in these so-called economy sedans. The $1,500 premium for a Honda Civic EX-L Navi (over a regular EX-L) does indeed score you a navigation system, while the Hyundai Elantra Limited has one as part of the $2,000 Premium package that includes a back-up camera.Battle Begins in the Cabin
Right away, the 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited jumps out in front because it has a richer cabin than we deserve for $23 grand. The leather upholstery is the nicest of the three, the armrests are well padded, and even if the plastic bits aren't actually higher-quality than the 2012 Civic's, the finishes Hyundai used on them look far better. There's probably too much metallic trim, but the stuff adorning the climate control dials is elegant and someone wrote "Bentley" in the logbook — and meant it.
The effectiveness of the Elantra's cabin design goes beyond emotional reactions, as it also integrates a lot of technology in a slick interface. Its 7-inch navigation screen is higher-resolution than the Civic's and looks good enough to use in a Genesis, although the hard drive is smaller. Destination entry and Bluetooth streaming audio setup is quick, easy and, if you so choose, can be done while the car is moving.
If there's a low point in the 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited's cabin, it's fit and finish, as we note some panel gap inconsistency not seen in the others. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a flawless economy sedan. Even the 2012 Civic has leftover flashing on its injection-molded bits.Try To Keep Up
Next to the Elantra, the 2012 Honda Civic EX-L Navi's cabin is a letdown. It has the same basic design as last year's cabin right down to the controversial digital speedometer stacked atop an analog tachometer, and the downgraded interior plastics are immediately apparent.
The 6.5-inch nav display is larger than last year's unit, however, and Honda has added an additional LCD screen to the right of the gauge pack called i-MID, which allows you to see your phonebook, iPod album art or personalized wallpaper uploaded via the USB drive. It's an effort to appease millennials with smartphones, but the result is an awkward array of displays competing for your attention. Most of the features are straightforward to use, but no one ever came to the bridge of the Enterprise-D to relax.
We retreat to the grown-up car of the group, the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ. Chevy managed to not overstyle this cabin, which has a handsome yet restrained two-tone color scheme, three-spoke steering wheel and individual binnacle gauges. This is the oldest design of the three (the Cruze first went on sale in late 2008 in South Korea), but it's going to age the best.
Materials quality is one knock against the Cruze. The soft vinyl trim on the dash is a thoughtful touch, but the plastics used on the door panels and various controls are the worst. Also, the Cruze LTZ costs the same as the others but lacks navigation, Bluetooth audio and a sunroof. But it's the only car with automatic climate control.Time To Go to Work
Unlike our last economy sedan test, this pack of three doesn't have an obvious driver's car. Here again, though, the 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited edges to the front, not because it's fantastic in any one area, but because it's competent in most areas.
It starts with adequate power, of course, and all three sedans have that. In fact, all run a 16.9-second quarter-mile with trap speeds in the 81-82 mph range. The Elantra is negligibly slower than the others in the race to 60 mph — using up 9.4 seconds versus 9.2 for the Civic and 9.3 for the Cruze — but it has the friendliest power delivery for cutthroat traffic.
The Elantra's new 148-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine makes useful low- and midrange torque without you having to work at it. And the six-speed automatic transmission driving its front wheels is the quickest with downshifts.An Ear for Details
If you're an engine connoisseur, you might complain that Hyundai's 1.8-liter feels strained as it nears redline and has a coarse, unmemorable soundtrack. In that case, you can hang with the 2012 Honda Civic EX-L Navi. Predictably for a Honda engine, the Civic's 140-hp, single-cam 1.8-liter four-cylinder is creamy smooth in its delivery and sacrifices low-end grunt in favor of high-rpm power.
That kind of personality usually goes better with a manual gearbox, but it works well enough with the Civic's carryover five-speed automatic. Moreover, there's no real downside in acceleration or fuel economy compared to the six-speed-equipped Elantra. Downshifts could be a tad quicker, but upshifts are the most sophisticated of the bunch. The Honda 2012 Civic has only a 28 city/39 highway mpg rating to the Elantra's 29/40, but we regularly hit 30 mpg in both sedans.Double-Dog Dare You to Downshift
Although the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ's iron-block four-cylinder engine only displaces 1.4 liters, it's turbocharged so it's able to crank out 148 pound-feet at just 1,850 rpm — the most torque in the test — along with 138 hp at 4,900 rpm. However, the Cruze also weighs 3,200 pounds (450 more than the Civic), so it usually doesn't feel fast.
Acceleration is further stymied by the car's poorly calibrated six-speed automatic transmission. Ostensibly tuned for the EPA tests, the transmission hurries into 6th gear and will not give you a downshift unless you drive the Cruze like you hate it. Ironically, fuel mileage suffers: We managed just 25 mpg against a 24/36 rating.
This sucks the fun out of driving the Cruze — a real shame since it's otherwise quite competent. If you get lost on some back road, for instance, the Cruze would be a far better companion than the Civic or Elantra. It's the only sedan that feels truly balanced and responsive attacking a corner, plus it has the biggest tires — P225/45R18 Michelin Pilot HX MXM4s.
It's no surprise that the Chevy had the highest slalom (66.7 mph) and skid pad (0.85g) speeds. The Cruze also stopped the shortest (123 feet from 60 mph), and its brakes are the least prone to fade.I'm All About Comfort
The downside to the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze's sportier setup is an occasionally harsh ride on crumbling freeways. If ride quality is the priority, the 2012 Honda Civic EX-L Navi is our top pick in this group.
That might surprise you since Hondas are not known for cushiness. However, the Civic EX-L isolates you from nasty patches of pavement, yet always feels buttoned-down and engaging.
Well tuned electric-assist power steering contributes to that sense of engagement. All three sedans use EPS, but only the most sensitive hands will pick up on the Civic's.
The steering feel is so good you start thinking the Civic could be fun around corners, but no, there's too much body roll and before long the P205/55R16 Continental tires are out of grip. At 64.6 mph, the Honda was 2 mph slower through the slalom than the Chevy and had the least lateral grip (0.81g).
A bigger liability, though, is the brakes' lack of heat capacity. Our 2012 Civic EX-L Navi couldn't stop shorter than 131 feet from 60 mph, and fade set in immediately.
Meanwhile, the 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited can't match the Cruze's cornering talent or the Civic's ride quality. Overall, its suspension feels the least sorted. It fumbles over bumps and ruts that the Civic and Cruze deal with expediently.
Yet we rarely notice any lack of composure during highway commutes, and the Elantra's so-so 64.0-mph slalom speed never comes up in happy-hour conversation.
Equally important, the 2011 Hyundai Elantra has more trustworthy brakes than the Honda. It stopped from 60 mph in 125 feet, and managed several consistent stops before fade became an issue.Sit Yourself Down
Of course, there's no sense in dropping money on any of these sedans if the driver seat won't keep you content during a 2-hour slog.
To no one's surprise, the Honda Civic's seating position draws mixed reviews. Its steering wheel telescopes (all the steering wheels in this test do), but the contouring of the seat and illogical stacking of the gauges only works well for long-legged editors. The long of torso complain bitterly.
The 2011 Hyundai Elantra and Chevrolet Cruze are more universally acceptable, as everybody fits. A lone, bony-butted editor says the Chevy's driver seat is too firm, but the Cruze offers two-way seat-bottom cushion tilt for driver and passenger. No other economy sedan has that.
Although our decibel readings don't quite tell the story, the 2012 Honda Civic lives up to its reputation for excessive wind and road noise. It's not deafening, but the Elantra and especially the Cruze are quieter.
Eventually, you'll make people ride in the backseat, and it's unanimous that the Civic's is the best, as headroom and legroom are adequate for 6-footers. Real-world legroom is similarly plentiful in the Elantra's rear seat, but headroom is tight for our 6-footers. In the Cruze, we face the opposite scenario — ample headroom for CC Sabathia, but zero room for his legs.Beating Honda at Its Own Game
There's no doubt that the 2012 Honda Civic EX-L Navi, 2011 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ and 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited all pass muster as commuter cars. None of them ticks all a car guy's boxes, but each has its own personality.
We like the way the Chevrolet Cruze handles, but everyday drivability is seriously compromised by GM's efforts to match the transmission calibration to EPA testing. Similarly, there's a lot to like about the Chevy's cabin design, but the backseat is small, and neither materials quality nor feature content is where it should be for the asking price.
The Honda Civic hasn't radically altered its game for 2012, but gone is the feeling that you're getting more car than you actually paid for — especially in the cabin. The ninth-generation Civic still feels like a quality machine with its refined engine, excellent steering and compliant ride quality. But its brakes are weak, and wind and road noise remain an annoyance.
The real triumph on the 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited is how well it hides the corporate bean counting. It brings genuine style to the compact car class, and harmonizes form and function in its technology-laden cabin. We may not love driving this car, but Hyundai has focused on make-or-break aspects of the commuter-car experience. So you get a fuel-efficient engine with plenty of torque for passing, a transmission that downshifts exactly when you want it to, and a tolerable freeway ride.
In this test, Hyundai proves it can build an economy sedan that's greater than the sum of its parts — and beat Honda at the game it started.