RICHMOND, Va. -- On a trek around Virginia's Piedmont Plateau, we play a numbers game with freeways running out from Richmond -- south on the I-95, northwest on the 288 loop, west on I-64 -- all the while checking other numbers which register as driver impressions while steering a new rendition of Honda's small car stable: Civic.
A four-door notchback sedan is one of three variations for the new treatment of Civic, which amounts to the ninth generation of designs for this best-selling series.
In the course of a full day, we check out four trim variations of this latest Civic sedan on freeways and back roads expanding out from metro Richmond and discover in the process that this champ of the small cars exhibits nimble road manners, comfortable accommodations and downright thrifty fuel economy scores.
Apply a tape measure to the new 2012 Civic and its 2006 predecessor, and the numbers reveal a package of similar length and width although the wheelbase length is snipped by 1.2 inches.
The expansive passenger compartment features a new design in nicely bolstered seats with more comfort for riders and a heap of standard on-board safety systems to protect them.
Also, there's colored backlighting applied to the bi-level instrument display and a new electronic I-MID (Intelligent Multi-Information Display) linked to a toggle on the steering wheel which lets a driver sort through vehicle data plus the optional satellite navigation system.
Civic's four-cylinder engine remains the same in displacement (1.8 liters) and output (140 hp). It earns ULEV-2 certification as an ultra low emission vehicle and runs up to 39 miles for every gallon of gasoline burned.
The package design looks sleek and futuristic. Note that ultra-fast windshield rake, curt and sporty overhangs front and rear, and minimal gaps between tires and fenders.
The body reveals a smooth one-motion profile flowing from the front bumper up the curt hood and canted windshield, over the arching roof, then down to the trailing edge of the trunk.
Civic's stylists added thinner front windshield pillars which stretch further toward the front of the car to improve outward visibility for the driver. Also, they planted the rear roof pillars further toward the back of the car to enhance the flowing one-motion silhouette.
And check the clean line of Civic's narrow front grille with a flashy streak of chrome on top to tie together the corner-mounted headlamp clusters.
The slick package design of the 2012 Civic seems like a remote concept from the original version, Honda's first Civic in America, the CVCC hatchback of 1973 which topped the EPA miserly fuel list.
Subsequent designs in 1980 and 1984 expanded the pint-size CVCC concept, and by 1989 when some production shifted to the United States, Civic gained in content and sophistication.
Beginning with the sixth generation of 1996, all Civics for domestic consumption were produced in North America, with sedans and coupes flowing from Honda assembly plants in Ohio. Then for the seventh generation of 2001 Honda increased the size of Civic's passenger compartment, which elevated Civic from subcompact to compact status.
For the eighth treatment for Civic of 2006, cabin volume actually retreated but only by modest bits -- half an inch less headroom for front-seat riders and an inch or so less legroom for rear-seat riders.
The ninth generation Civic of 2012 retains the cabin dimensions of the eighth generation Civic of 2006, yet there's more comfort/convenience components inside -- power controls for everything including the moonroof, a tilting steering wheel bound in leather, cruise control, 12-volt point point and the rear seatback divided 60/40 and folding down to enlarge the cargo capacity of the trunk.
All sedans in the 2012 Civic series employ a four-cylinder aluminum engine which displaces 1.8 liters and carries Honda's special i-VTEC (variable value timing and lift electronic control) valvetrain to precisely manage engine breathing and combustion in order to maximize horsepower and disperse torque across a broad band.
The plant generates 140 hp at 6300 rpm plus torque of 128 lb-ft at 4300 rpm.
Transmission choices for manual or automatic shifting draw from five-gear systems. The five-speed manual is a lightweight unit with high torque capacity and a short stick. The electronic automatic enhances acceleration in the first four gears and boosts fuel economy in the fifth gear.
Civic's stiff unibody structure supports a suspension with MacPherson struts mounted in front and a compact multi-link double wishbone design in back.
The rack and pinion steering system gets electric power assistance, which eliminates hydraulic equipment and contributes to powertrain efficiency.
Brakes have electronic ties to Honda's vehicle stability assist (VSA) equipment operating with an anti-lock brake system (ABS) and electronic brake distribution (EBD).
Honda casts the 2012 Civic sedan in four trim designations -- entry-level DX, uplevel LX, loaded EX and EX-L (that L tag denotes leather upholstery).
The price chart dips as low as $15,805 for Civic DX with a manual shifter.