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Civic does more than duty

Value-packed and fun to drive, the 2016 Honda Civic EX-L (I give it four out of four stars) compact sedan is a welcome return to form by one of America's favorite automakers.

Value-packed and fun to drive, the 2016 Honda Civic EX-L (I give it four out of four stars) compact sedan is a welcome return to form by one of America's favorite automakers.

After traditionally targeting Japanese competitors like the Toyota Corolla and Nissan Sentra when it developed new Civics, Honda raised its sights to European compacts like the Audi A3. As a result, the 2016 Civic's fuel economy, room, looks, value and handling rank among the best in any mass-market compact on the road.

Some of the car's controls and features don't live up to that standard, but the Civic sets a high bar for upcoming compacts like the new Chevrolet Cruze and Hyundai Elantra that go on sale early in 2016.

Prices for the 2016 Civic start at $18,640 for a model with a 158-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission. Selecting a continuously variable automatic transmission raises the base price to $19,440. The top engine is a turbocharged 1.5-liter that produces 174 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque and is only available with the CVT. Prices start at $22,200.

I tested a nicely equipped Civic EX-L with the 1.5-liter. It had leather upholstery, navigation, a touch screen, heated front seats, automatic climate control, Bluetooth phone and audio compatibility, voice recognition, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and more. It stickered at $24,700. All prices exclude destination charges.

The only Civic model on sale now is a five-seat sedan. Two-door, hatchback and performance models will follow over the next year or so.

The Civic is perennially of America's best-selling cars. It competes with just about every non-luxury compact, including the Chevrolet Cruze, Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra, Toyota Corolla and Volkswagen Jetta.

The Civic I tested compared favorably with the others.

The 1.5-liter engine's power is in the middle of the pack, but the CVT works smoothly to deliver acceptable acceleration around town and on the highway. The transmission is quiet and unobtrusive.

The 1.5-liter Civic scored 31 mpg in the city, 42 on the highway and 35 combined in EPA tests. The 2.0-liter Civic delivers essentially the same fuel economy, 3 1/41/35.

The key combined figure beats the Dart, Focus, Forte, Sentra, Corolla and Jetta. The EPA hasn't rated the new Cruze and Elantra yet.

The last couple of Civics were bland to look at and drive. The 2016 changes that. The steering is fast and responsive, delivering good feedback. The car is steady and stable in enthusiastic driving. The body remains stable and composed in quick curves, a return to the exhilarating handling that distinguished the best previous Civics.

The interior is roomy, with a deep storage bin between the front seats and an accommodating rear seat. Soft materials cover the doors, arm rests and dash. A capacious bin between the front seats has room for cups, glasses and other gear. The big trunk has a big opening that makes it easy to load large objects.

Honda's first application of Apple CarPlay worked well in my car, providing easy access to contacts, music web searches and navigation. Unfortunately, Honda does not provide a good place to put your smartphones. The USB and 12-volt connections are inconveniently located in a small tray located below the dash. Another little tray in front of the shifter is nearly equally inconvenient.

The audio and climate controls are equally inconvenient.

The Civic has a distracting and ineffective video display rather than the radar-based blind spot and cross traffic alerts other automakers offer.

As annoying as those faults are, the 2016 Civic's virtues outweigh them. It's a leading compact and a finalist for car of the year.