I’ve been a Honda fan for decades, starting with the Benly 125cc motorcycle, through the first Accord, and finally, a 2010 EX Accord. I won’t be buying Honda again. The clutch master cylinder on my current Accord failed with less than a 1000 miles on the clock, leaving me stranded in game time traffic. Honda cared less about my plight so I no longer care for Honda.

I look at their Korean competition. Hyundai offers direct injection engines. Honda doesn’t. Hyundai offers six-speed autos and manuals. Honda is still stuck at five. Hyundai offers a fuel-efficient turbo for those who want more grunt. Honda sticks with a thirsty V6.

In these times of rising fuel prices, I’m looking to buy a more fuel efficient vehicle than my 27 mpg Accord. So, looking at a smaller car, I research the Honda Civic, the Ford Focus and the Hyundai Elantra. I go to one of my favorite car review websites, The Truth About Cars, and check out what they say.

The Honda Civic:

It’s hard to see how the 2012 car could have inspired any of this passion. It’s a little roomier, and its fuel economy is the best yet for a run-of-the-mill Civic (if not quite best-in-class). But the design is clunky, the materials are cut-rate, and the driving experience is so dreadfully dull that even a Toyota Prius is a blast in comparison. Over the past few years Honda has repeatedly claimed to have remembered what made it great, and to be returning to those roots. While they’re at it, they might want to pay closer attention to what GM, Ford, and Hyundai have been up to. Perhaps this has happened, just not quite soon enough to help the new Civic. If so, we’ll be able to look back on the 2012 model year as a low point, after which the cars got better.

The Ford Focus:

Overall, the new Ford Focus is very impressive, with the look, feel, and features of a premium car, but also very good fuel economy. By most metrics it’s the best car in an increasingly competitive segment. The Mazda3 remains more fun to drive, and the Elantra costs a little less. But most people care more about ride than handling, and will be willing to pay a little more for the Ford’s advantages over the Hyundai. The big question mark: reliability.

The Hyundai Elantra:

How affordable is it? The tested Elantra GLS with Preferred Equipment Package lists for $18,445. A Honda Civic EX, with virtually the same level of content, lists for $2.700 more according to TrueDelta.com’s car price comparison tool.  A similarly equipped Chevrolet Cruze LT? About $1,500 more before adjusting for remaining feature differences, and about $900 more afterwards. And the 2012 Ford Focus SEL? About $2,550 more before adjusting for remaining feature differences, and about $1,100 more afterwards. Compare invoice prices, though, and the Hyundai’s price advantage shrinks—to only about $500 in the case of the Ford.

Even a year ago the new Hyundai Elantra might have been the compact sedan to beat for the non-enthusiast buyer. But Chevrolet’s and Ford’s latest entries into the segment substantially raise the bar for materials, refinement, and seating. Hyundai has been moving fast, but for once Detroit (or, to be precise, its overseas operations) has moved faster. Hyundai promises to keep revising its products more frequently than other manufacturers do. The new Elantra provides a very good foundation for the next revision.

The very idea that a Ford Focus or Hyundai Elantra would be considered serious competitors to the Honda Civic would have been laughable a few short years ago. Not any more.

Let’s look at a few more signs of Honda’s decline. The seventh generation (2003 – 2007) Accord in the US market had a scowling look from behind. Honda saw this as an issue and did a restyle that resulted in a much more elegant rear view. It matched the Accord Coupe, which was much more elegant.

The next generation Accord was perceived to have an unattractive butt. So Honda addressed the issue by tacking on a couple of cheap strips of crap that look worse than a tramp stamp.

Honda’s competition is moving to direct injection engines (better fuel economy, more power), with a turbo option for more power. Honda seems lost  on this.

Honda’s competition is also  moving to  six speed manual transmissions, six or more speed automatics, six speed auto manuals and efficient CVTs. Honda seems to be lagging in transmission technology.

I used to think of Honda as a leading edge company. Not any more. Even Ford (surprise) is ahead of their curve.