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Standard-Setting Honda Civic Offers Dependability

Rick Newman is the Chief Business Correspondent for U.S. News & World Report and a longtime car buff. He will be reviewing automobiles here on a regular basis, as well as writing about all things vehicular. Below is his "micro-review" of the 2012 Honda Civic .

What's worth knowing : The 2012 Civic is an all-new model, but you won't notice any novel features meant to stop traffic. Since the Civic is one of the best-selling cars on the market, Honda has mainly stuck with what works, while making subtle upgrades to styling and performance. For some reviewers, that's not enough: Consumer Reports recently dinged the Civic for sub-par agility and interior workmanship, striking the model from its recommended list for the first time in years. Others think CR went overboard, but the Civic still faces intense competition from a rapidly improving small-car fleet, including the Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte and Toyota Corolla, the Civic's traditional rival.

Starts at $15,605/ 28 MPG city / 39 MPG highway

Who it's for: Budget-minded drivers who are nonetheless willing to pay a bit more for Honda's reliability. The sedan is suitable for small families, while the coupe is aimed at twentysomethings or families needing a durable commuter car.

What's good: For an economy car, the Civic has always offered sturdy handling, bordering on sporty. There's enough acceleration to keep up on the highway and the small footprint helps with spirited cornering. The digital displays connote a video game and the dashboard controls are canted toward the driver, one example of how Honda's engineers focus on small things that make driving easier. Mileage is at the upper range for punchy economy cars.

What's bad : Styling is a weak point--the Civic simply looks bland. The entry-level model is stripped down, with no air conditioning or radio, which lets Honda claim a low "starting" price even though few people will buy the base model; the next trim line starts about $2,000 higher.

How it stacks up : Several competing models offer more features for less money, with quality that's approaching Honda's level. The Elantra, for example, comes with a better set of standard features for about $1,000 less than a comparable Civic. The Mazda3 is sportier.

What to do if you want one : Buyers should always test-drive a variety of models, but they may not notice the subtle distinctions in road performance that seasoned reviewers tend to highlight. Another way to differentiate between models is to use automaker Web sites to configure the car with the features and options you want, then check out the two or three that come in at the lowest price. Click here or everything else you need to know.

Follow Rick on Twitter @ricknewman.

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