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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Another Year, Another Updated Honda


A Honda's lifecycle is typically as predictable as the moon's orbit. A car like the Civic would typically get a ground-up redesign every four or five years. Sure, there'd be a few added features to keep up with the times and an obligatory midlife tweaking of the taillights or grille, but in general, Honda's mantra was, "It ain't broke, so we don't fix it."

The 2014 Honda Civic belongs to a generation that has required fixing. It was introduced two years ago with an uninspired redesign that seemed little improved over the car it replaced and certainly not good enough to compete with new, highly desirable competitors. As others were marching up field, Honda punted.

That changed last year, when the Civic received the upgrades it should've had in the first place. Interior quality, styling, feature content and the driving experience were all upgraded, while improvements to its already exemplary crash performance were icing on the cake. For 2014, the changes continue, and while they're certainly not as significant as those last year, they are nevertheless noteworthy additions that keep the Civic on offense.

All-New Automatic for 2014
While the Civic coupe gets a subtle styling adjustment, the Civic sedan carries over visually unchanged. For both, however, the biggest development for 2014 is the new continuously variable transmission (CVT) that replaces the previous five-speed automatic transmission. A CVT lacks gears entirely, instead relying on a chainlike belt that expands and contracts to continuously vary (hence the name) the transmission ratio for optimum engine performance and efficiency.

In terms of the latter, the Civic's CVT helps, but only slightly so. EPA-estimated fuel economy for its 1.8-liter four-cylinder has risen to 33 mpg combined (30 city/39 highway) from the 2013 Civic's 32 mpg rating (28/39). It delivered 34.8 mpg on Edmunds' 116-mile, highway-heavy evaluation route.
Frankly, this negligible year-to-year improvement (the EPA estimates you'll save about $50 per year) may not be enough to persuade those who dislike CVTs. Such transmissions have often been greeted by confusion or even disdain by drivers accustomed to cars going through a series of gears when accelerating. By contrast, a CVT can rev for as long and high as necessary, making it seem at times like the car is stuck in a low gear. Other common complaints include obnoxious droning noises and a yo-yo effect where revs constantly and excessively rise and fall depending on how much throttle is being applied.
Thankfully, the Civic's CVT is one of the best we've experienced, as it largely mitigates these side effects. There is still some drone that washes over that sweet Honda motor sound, but it's not aggravating. The yo-yo effect is negligible when driving around town, but became pronounced on the mountainous section of our evaluation route. Dropping the transmission selector down into Sport mode reduced this, instructing the CVT to keep the engine revving higher despite the adverse fuel economy effects. Still, the Manual mode and paddle shifters included with the Civic coupe would be appreciated.
Paddles or no, there is indeed a similarly slight improvement in performance for the 2014 Honda Civic. A sprint from zero to 60 mph takes 9.1 seconds (8.7 seconds with a foot of rollout as on a drag strip) versus the 9.6 seconds it took the 2013 Civic and its five-speed automatic. Improvement is improvement, but the Civic remains one of the slower compact sedans in the class. The more powerful engines found in the Ford Focus, Kia Forte EX and Mazda 3i shave nearly a second off the Civic's time. The Mazda 3 "s" and newly turbocharged Volkswagen Jettaare faster still.

New Technology Interface
Frankly, however, it seems unlikely that Honda's mailroom has been inundated with complaints concerning the Civic's acceleration. There is a chance, however, that younger shoppers have walked into the showroom and been underwhelmed by the Civic's gadgets, gizmos and the interface needed to control them.

For them, a new touchscreen electronics interface debuts in the Civic EX and above (the base LX still features last year's physical buttons and high-mounted display screen). All buttons and knobs have been removed, replaced by additional menu levels and touch-operated menu icons adjacent to the screen. Our opinions were mixed on its level of usability.
The head unit certainly looks cooler than before, as there's a clear resemblance to an iPad, but it suffers from a functionality standpoint. The touch-only controls are more responsive than some others we've tried, but we'd still prefer a knob for the volume. Within the touchscreen itself, going between submenus is a multistep process, and many buttons are too small or vaguely labeled. Both are added distractions while driving.
Then again, one editor found the system to be perfectly intuitive and declared the rest of us to be old men. We aren't, literally, but as the Civic tends to be just as popular among older drivers as it is with millennials, it's a telling comment about who may have trouble with this system.
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Item Reviewed: Another Year, Another Updated Honda Rating: 5 Reviewed By: sri purwaningsih