Car reviews - Honda - Civic - 5-dr hatch
Distinctive styling, quality interior, sweet drivetrain, dynamic competence, more affordable pricing, seating versatility
Room for improvement
Compromised rear-seat room, lack of cruise control and Bluetooth in base model, rearward vision
27 Jun 2012
CIVIC and hatchback go hand in hand. As one of the earliest pioneers of the three-door bodystyle in the early 1970s – beaten only by the now forgotten Mitsubishi Colt 1000F Fastback of 1968 – the little front-drive Honda came to epitomise accessible peppy urban practicality.
The fact that we’ve had six and a half years of sedan-only Civic motoring (mad Type-R and even crazier $40K Si notwithstanding) has not diminished our desire for an affordable Honda family hatch.
So you can imagine our delight when the word was out that the cheap Civic hatch was coming back. That hasn’t happened since the demise of the fine Vi back in late 2005, but even then it wore a premium price tag, so really you have to go to the end of the Mk6 series in 2000.
Built in England primarily for the European Union, the distinctively styled FK version here is a thorough evolution of the rather radical Mk8 hatch that we only saw in limited numbers over the last few years.
In order to make it more palatable to conservative consumers, Honda rounded off the sharp lines for the all-new (and 10 per cent lighter) body, discarded the cool silver matt finish rocketship door handles, and fitted a deeper rear window.
Now the Civic hatch looks like a clumsier cartoon version of its edgy old self. At least the design still stands out.
Underneath, the wheelbase was shortened but the platform widened, the suspension completely overhauled, and the drivetrain – a 104kW/174Nm 1.8-litre single-cam i-VTEC four-cylinder petrol unit – revised, for a smoother, crisper, cleaner, quieter and more frugal overall outcome.
So the big question is, has Honda succeeded?
Benchmarked against the Volkswagen Golf, the ninth-gen hatch is a likeable amalgam of all the things that we’ve come to expect from the marque since the Civic started in 1973.
Take the styling. You wouldn’t confuse it for a Toyota or a Holden. It’s as Honda as they come.
Open the lightweight door and the fussy curvy dash architecture immediately brings the Mazda3 to mind – though closer inspection reveals more Honda trademarks like the split-level instrumentation with digital speedo up top and a trio of racy analogue dials below.
Taller drivers might find the seat does not drop down far enough, since there’s a fuel tank lurking directly underneath. Otherwise, the driving position is enhanced by a chunky little steering wheel (that tilts and telescopes) and a vast windscreen that affords panoramic forward views.
The rear window is deeper than before so the driver does enjoy marginally better views than in the old model, but the crossbar and thick C pillars still make for some worrying blind spots. At least there’s now a rear wiper.
Honda has made quite a song and dance about upping the cabin material quality and we’re inclined to agree, but don’t expect to find Hyundai interior designers losing sleep, let alone VW ones.
Perhaps it is the oppressive black-only monochromic presentation, but a little more brightwork around the overly plasticky fascia would lift things a lot. Having some very obvious blanks where switches would be on higher-level models is a bit unsightly as well.
And the lack of cruise control in the base VTi-S – even as an option – is an oversight, while Bluetooth is a dealer-fit option. Otherwise, it’s a well-equipped proposition, with alloy wheels and tyre-pressure monitors included in the $22,650 asking price.
Moving to the rear, taller people might again find headroom lacking, despite the fact that Honda has set the cushion too low to clear the sloping roofline, necessitating an awkward knees-up sitting position, which might be uncomfortable for some occupants. Try before you buy.
There are no front-seat map pockets or rear air vents, either – though one Honda engineer said the front outlets are powerful enough. Let’s ask him again when he’s sat on the hot black leather seats of the VTi-L while baking under the Australian summer sun.
At least the rear windows retract all the way.
And then there are the Jazz-like ‘Magic Seats’ that fold either upwards or low-down flat for unprecedented floor-to-ceiling loading permutations.
The boot itself is big and benefits from a low loading lip. Oh, and there are four coat hooks back there! You can tell this has been designed for the Brits.
On the move, the Civic shines, due to its sweet and eager drivetrain.
The VTi-S in six-speed manual form is a fun and frisky performer, thanks to a decent dose of low-down torque combined with a slick and easy shifter.
Revving it out to the red line is no chore (the Honda will happily sing to the limiter), while there’s plenty of pick-up acceleration available when cruising along at the legal speed limit.
Prodding the pedal causes the digital instrumentation to glow from green to blue to discourage wasting petrol and there’s also an ECO mode button that takes the edge off the performance in order to modulate progress as efficiently as possible.
Being a Honda, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn the steering feels responsive yet a tad too light in feel and feedback for keener drivers. This is your typical Civic set-up, created to appease everybody but thrill nobody.
Yet there’s no mistaking the competence and composure of the chassis when cornering, while the ride is more compliant (and quiet) than we dared hope from a Honda. That’s progress.
Obviously we need to test the Civic hatch on more familiar roads to know for certain, but the promises of improved dynamics and refinement seem to have been realised in the latest hatch iteration.
Honda expects to sell over 1000 per month but, likeable as the newcomer is, we’re not so sure it will be an easy task.
The Mazda 3 has more oomph, equipment and better rear-seat packaging at a lower price, while the bigger and quieter Ford Focus steers, handles and rides with more flair.
Still, we’re very happy the Civic hatch is back, and we’re fond enough of it to wish Honda success with the series.
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