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car review

To the end of September, Civic sales were down 11.7 per cent from last year, while sales of its hot-selling rival, the Hyundai Elantra, were up 34.9 per cent. The Civic's lead as Canada's best-selling car was 1,122 units. What does that say about the reinvented 2012 Civic?

"Civic has been the best-selling passenger car for more than a decade and symbolically it [would be] a very significant development to lose this mantel to another brand," said auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers.

Yes, Civic sales were clobbered in the summer by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Supplies of crucial parts were cut to a trickle in the wake of the Japanese crisis and that devastated assembly lines in Ontario and Indiana.

But Honda has much bigger long-term problem with the Civic than natural disasters. Sales of the Civic have been sliding for years, not just this year. Worse, a damning road test from Consumer Reports is only one of many negative Civic reviews circulating.

The magazine found the redesigned Civic had lost some of its trademark agility and refinement. The ride had become noticeably choppy, stopping distances had increased, road noise was up and the quality of the interior had gone down.

One U.S. consumer magazine is certainly not the be all and end all of automotive authorities, but CR does have some seven million subscribers and is highly influential. A poke in the eye from CR carries weight.

A bigger problem for Honda is the competition. While Honda has been treading water, rivals have been hard at work. The new Elantra has the best fuel economy in its class, a sparkling design and interesting features. The new Chevrolet Cruze is nicely done all around and stickers well. The new Ford Focus is slick, with a strong powertrain and superb handling.

Looking ahead, Mazda will soon launch an updated Mazda3 with a highly anticipated SkyActiv powertrain that company types say will blow the competition away for power and fuel economy.

Obviously I had a lot on my mind when I picked up a 2012 Civic sedan. Whether Honda officials choose to believe it or not, the mud being hurled at this car is starting to stick and I was interested in seeing how badly.

My Civic EX four-door tester at $19,490 lands right in the middle of the price range, with the base model DX at $14,990 and the racier Civic Si at $25,990. This is the version most Canadians would likely want, although the vast bulk of buyers will add the $1,200 five-speed automatic transmission to the package.

Five-speed auto? Yes, and a troubling sign. The Elantra has a fancier Shiftronic six-speed auto available ($1,200) and so does the Focus with its available six-speed Powershift auto ($1,250).

The Focus also has a couple of other distinct advantages: First, you can get it in a four-door hatchback ($19,899 base), which is the only compact car configuration I personally would buy. Second, the Focus has a fuel-efficient four-cylinder rated at 160 horsepower, compared to the 140-hp four-banger in all Civics but the Si; the 148-hp four-cylinder in the Elantra; and the 138-hp turbocharged four in the more popular Cruze models.

Honda likes to think of itself as an engine company, so why doesn't the 2012 Civic have the best engine/transmission combination? The truth is, this year's 1.8-litre four-banger generates the same power as last year's. This Civic's better fuel economy is primarily the result of reduced rolling resistance and brake drag and improved aerodynamics. From an engine company?

And while I like the cleaner exterior design of this Civic, I agree about the bargain-bin interior. Ditto for ride and handling. What's under that flowing sheet-metal skin is basically a carry-over chassis that screams of hold-the-line cost-cutting.

The cabin is roomier, but while the angled windshield looks great on the outside, it creates a cowl on the inside made of hard plastic which also carries on down the centre stack and console. There's one source of cabin noise.

I've never been a fan of the Civic's two-tier dash, which has the tachometer on one plane, the digital speedo on another. Honda types are proud that the second tier now has something called the i-MID, or intelligent Multi Information Display. It is a menu screen with displays for all sorts of functions and information, many controlled through steering wheel controls. It works well, but it would not be a deal-maker for me.

So where are we? If you've managed to decipher the Civic advertising, you'll have figured out Honda's message: this is a Civic for everyone, from speed freak to the fuel-economy obsessed to suburbanites who simply want a pure transportation appliance. The problem is, that's not really a position true to Honda's roots.

Honda's an engine company, a car company historically with gasoline coursing through its veins. Honda should not try to be all things to all people. That's not Honda.

Honda seems a little confused about what this Civic should be. No wonder some of the rest of us are, too – confused and disappointed.

Tech specs

2012 Honda Civic EX sedan

Type: Compact sedan

Price: $19,490 ($1,595 freight)

Engine: 1.8-litre, four-cylinder, SOHC

Horsepower/torque: 140 hp/128 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.2 city/5.4 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Volkswagen Jetta, Ford Focus, Mazda3, Chevrolet Cruze, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra