Fuel economy, safety, build quality, rear legroom, cabin ergonomics, standard equipment levels (especially Sport), quick and direct steering
Room for improvement
Engine refinement and torque delivery, automatic transmission could use another ratio, headroom in the Sport variant, tyre noise, dashboard tactility, Hybrid pricing
By MIKE COSTELLO
THE new Civic sedan bears a large burden on its re-styled haunches as the ninth iteration of the small car – a badge that dates back to the early 1970s – is expected to form a large plank in Honda Australia’s quest to recapture sales following a horror 2011.
After all, it wears one of the most recognisable names in the booming small-car segment – far and away Australia’s largest.
The cabin features outstanding ergonomics, with well thought-out steering wheel controls right where you want them and all the functions on the instrument fascia within easy reach.
The information display unit is excellent as well, being placed high up on the dash in the driver’s eyeline, while the large digital speedometer perched atop the dash (in the same way as the previous model) is one of the most legible we’ve seen.
The fact that the screen can accommodate custom wallpapers also adds a nice personal touch to the cabin, although it would be even better if the car didn’t have to be stationary before allowing you to pair your phone via the Bluetooth system.
The Sport variant is particularly well-equipped, coming with standard leather – high quality and soft – and a sunroof, although your 194cm correspondent found it dramatically impinged on headroom, even in the front.
The value equation on the Hybrid model is more questionable, however. It costs $8000 more than the Sport yet loses the leather in place of very 1990s-style grey cloth, as well as the slick 17-inch alloys and sunroof.
It also loses 89 litres of boot space over the petrol models (350 litres compared to a more acceptable 440 litres) due to the bulky battery set-up, and its rear drum brakes are primitive and outdated.
Legroom all round is above average – your correspondent fitted easily in the rear, even with the driver’s seat shifted all the way back – but we would like to see air-conditioning vents in the back, although this not a major sticking point with a relatively small cabin.
Furthermore, while the light-coloured interior panels give the cabin an airy feel, they feel disappointingly cheap and hard to the touch. With the exception of the top of the doors, there is little in the way of soft-touch materials.
It is all screwed together well enough, with not a rattle, squeak or panel gap in sight, but it lacks the prestige feel and tactility of some of its rivals.
Exterior design is a subjective thing, but we think the Civic is quite handsome – albeit in a conservative sort of way – especially in the vivid Dyno Blue. This is especially true of the Sport with its lovely 17-inch alloys.
The first car we sampled on the road was the Hybrid, in which we simulated a typical day’s driving though a mix of stop/start traffic, careful suburban cruising and faster back roads.
The good news is that Honda’s fuel economy claims appear to be spot on. We returned economy figures of 4.3 litres per 100km after our 50km drive with the air-conditioning pumping.
It’s a far from inspiring driving experience, with the little (Euro 4 only) 1.5-litre engine and 17kW electric motor combination offering little in the way of mid-range oomph or off-the-line punch, but it does live up to the purpose for which it was designed.
Considering its small 15-inch alloys, there was a surprising amount of road noise and tyre roar. This was equally noticeable on the petrol versions, too.
The Hybrid is more expensive than the Prius or Honda’s own Insight, though, and only $4000 cheaper than the base Lexus CT200h. Little wonder Honda projects it will only account for five per cent of Civic sales.
Back-to-back drives in the superseded VTi-L and the new model revealed very little difference in terms of engine performance. The “re-engineered” 1.8-litre engine lacks modern technology like double overhead cams, direct injection and forced induction, and it shows.
This is an engine that needs to be revved to extract its best performance – peak torque arrives high in the rev band – and because of this it feels unrefined at speed.
The five-speed automatic to which it is matched could use another ratio, but gear changes are smooth and unfussed, and the wheel-mounted paddle shifters are a welcome touch. It isn’t in the same league as a Volkswagen DSG or a Ford Powershift semi-automatic, though.
We didn’t get the chance to drive the five-speed manual, since Honda does not yet have the stock. However, it is largely carried over from the old model, and our experiences with that car indicate it will be slick and smooth but crying out for a sixth cog.
The heavier but more powerful Sport variant felt quicker off the mark, although its ability to leap into action when overtaking or exiting a turn was hampered by its breathlessness at the low end of the rev band and the far-from-sporting automatic.
It likes a rev, though, climbing beyond redline to 7000rpm while the transmission holds it fixed in place. This doesn’t do wonders for fuel efficiency, but it is nice to see an engine that revs in characteristic Honda fashion.
The new Civic is the first generation to get an electric power steering system, which we found to be one of the better of its kind. The steering is quick and direct, although, like most systems of this sort, it lacked communication between the road and the (sporty and tactile) steering wheel.
We like Honda’s efforts to improve vision around the windscreen A-pillar, though, with the slim design and the large two-piece side window dramatically improving forward visibility.
Wide A-pillars are a real bugbear on lots of cars we have driven lately – a consequence of manufacturers putting form over function – and Honda ought to be applauded for taking this step.
The ride was pretty good throughout the range, with each variant soaking up corrugations with little fuss, while overall cabin refinement (aside from the aforementioned tyre noise) is kept to a minimum.
Frugality was a strong point on both petrol models. With spirited driving, we recorded figures of 7.5L/100km for the VTi-L and 8.5L/100km for the Sport.
There is a lot to like about the ninth-generation Civic, but Honda has been too conservative with the engine and transmission updates. It seems that in these departments the brand has been content to simply meet class expectations, rather than set them.
It’s good value (in petrol guise), frugal on fuel, well built and comfortable, but its powertrain shortcomings ensure it lags behind class-leading rivals like the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf when it comes to driveability.