What do you expect from a mainstream car? If you’re talking about the Honda Civic, then those expectations vary hugely, with what’s considered a “must-have” proving just as broad as the age range of the car’s audience.
It’s no small issue, and one Honda can’t afford to ignore. Some drivers prioritise economy above all else; others demand space and luxury features; style is vital but potentially divisive; and even in this mass-market segment, driving feel can’t be ignored.
The new Civic, then, needs to be all things to all people, and that’s a big ask. It’s also not something Honda has quite managed in any of its previous nine generations. Certainly, the outgoing Civic is well screwed-together, spacious inside, and has the reliability and economy existing drivers love. It can’t exactly be described as heart-stoppingly handsome, though, nor especially eager even with a keen driver behind the wheel (with the exception of the Type-R).
Honda says it’s addressed all of that with the outgoing Civic, and from a spell with several models spanning the new range across the space of two days, I’m tempted to think they’re not exaggerating. Even if you’re not in the market for a midsize sedan, there’s good news for now that could sway you into a Honda showroom.
First things first. The new Civic looks great, a solid balance between the conservative silhouette of the outgoing car and more engaging design that should make it a little less anonymous on the road. The scythe of brushed metal that bisects the front grille is a good example, being far more visually interesting than the flat chrome of the old model.
The stance looks wider, and strong creases flow down the sides and into the over sized rear lamp clusters that fall just across the tasteful line of resembling a 60s rocket ship.
Oddly, the rear looks as though it should be a hatchback but it’s really a sedan. Most cars seem to grow as they evolve, and this Civic is no exception. It’s wheelbase is longer, as is its rear overhang, though the front overhang is shorter. The latter forced some clever thinking in the crumple-zones, too: two new brackets underneath deform backward and pull the engine down at the same time, to slide it under the driver’s feet.
Inside, as well as extra space you have more gadgets to play with, particularly as you step up to the higher trim levels. The entry-level Civic still gets power windows, automatic climate control, and Bluetooth audio, together with a clever twin level cubby system in the center stack which allows you to snake your phone charger cables out the way rather than have a rats’ nest around the shifter.
However it’s when you upgrade to Sport or above that things get interesting. That’s when the 7-inch DisplayAudio system debuts with CarPlay and Android Auto, plus heated side mirrors, remote engine start, and a 60/40 split rear seat (that has a somewhat narrow aperture from the boot).
The Sport throws in heated front cloth seats, dual-zone climate control, XM and HD radio, and bigger, 17-inch alloys, while the Executive adds a power drivers seat, leather trim, and auto-dimming rear mirror, while opening the door to Honda’s Sygic navigation.
I’ve been generally critical of most factory-fit infotainment from just about all the main manufacturers, but happily the this Civic raises Honda’s game. In fact, I’d say it’s my favorite system from any of the automaker’s current cars.
Importantly, the Android-based system is now faster – a sluggish touchscreen can be a deal breaker since you’re never quite sure if you actually tapped the right button, distracting when you’re on the move – and has been redesigned to make it easier to navigate. Tabs across the top lead straight to the audio controls and – if fitted – the map. Honda looked to their very on Sygic to provide the navigation software, and it’s more intuitive as a result.
GM and Honda appear to be in an ongoing battle to offer CarPlay and Android Auto to as many drivers as possible – no bad thing for consumers, of course – and the new Civic has both. Frankly, I’m still not 100-percent convinced by either, since I find Apple’s system too restrictive around third-party apps while Google’s has proved a little less stable in use than I’d like – but I’m glad to see the choice there.
That’s not to say Honda scored 10/10. You get plenty of easily-reached shortcut controls on the steering wheel, including a slick little touch-sensitive volume rocker that can be either pressed or swiped, but the Civic lacks a physical volume knob on the center stack. Instead you get capacitive buttons which, though futuristic in a 90s HiFi sort of way, are annoying when you simply want to reach out and twiddle the music up or down.
Though there’ll be a manual entry-level option, Honda expects the bulk of purchases here to be of the continuously variable transmission (CVT) which uses a torque converter to minimize lag. It’s supple and pairs well with the naturally-aspirated engine.
The gem of the two 2016 powerplants is the new turbo, though, the power delivery of which is so smooth and lacking in lag that you’d think Honda had been slapping turbochargers to its engines for years. No, you’re not going to mistake the 1.5-liter for the Type-R, but neither are you going to find yourself short of pep pulling away from the lights or trying to overtake at highway rates.
Despite Honda’s lofty aims, the Civic doesn’t quite tick every box. Steering is lacking in feel – just, noticeably, like it is in the outgoing car – and, a minor frustration, the adjustment for tilt/reach is mounted oddly low and can be tricky to reach. Forget about impromptu tweaks while you wait for the red light to change.
Honda’s biggest challenge lies in the nature of its competition, though. Previous-generation Civics had lost their way. For the 2016 car, Honda picked its rivals from the segment above, looking to German luxury C-Segment cars.
Testament to Honda’s focus, in many ways the new Civic does indeed feel like a much more expensive model. In fact, the challenge may not be the car itself, but the brand it wears.
Honda specifically name-checked Audi’s A3, for instance, as a benchmark by which the new Civic was designed. I’m not entirely confident that, even if it matched the driving dynamics, style, and everything else, the badge cachet will win it those sales.
Then again, maybe that’s not such a worry. It’s notable that, on the eve of this brand new model, the outgoing Civic is still the most popular car in its class in terms of retail sales. Honda’s existing audience is clearly finding the Civic recipe to its taste, and if the company can persuade a few extra percentage points to dine at its particular C-segment table then that – to take the food analogy to its stretched conclusion – would just be gravy.
From my first-drive-impressions, that gravy will be free-flowing. The Civic Sport drives well, packs more technology than you might expect, and has an engine pair that match its upmarket ambitions. Things will get even more interesting when the coupe arrives (if ever), culminating in the Type R which, Honda promises, won’t be a poor imitation of its Euro cousin when it finally reaches our shores. That makes the Civic good news all round. The Honda Civic 1.5T Sport CVT retails from R430 000.