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Car reviews - Honda - Civic - Si 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Futuristic yet functional design inside and out, Jazz-derived rear ‘Magic Seats’, smooth drivetrain, great driving position, surprising practicality, Honda reliability, competent dynamics
Room for improvement
Too expensive, unsettled ride, 1.8L/auto lacks low-down oomph, not refined enough for $40K+ price tag

20 Aug 2009

BELIEVE it or not, the new Honda Civic five-door hatch has much in common with the latest Mini.

For starters, they’re both awfully expensive for their size. The $40,000 price – plus $475 extra for metallic paint – is pure ‘Power of Dreaming’ from Honda. More on that later.

Other similarities include English manufacturing, an emphasis on design, and the fact that alternatives costing far less loom large over both.

But the contrasts are more telling.

While both share the 1959 original BMC Mini’s rule breaking transverse front-wheel drive configuration that is now the small-car template, BMW’s Mini is a post-modern pastiche of the original while the Honda pushes packaging and design buttons just like the classic old Mini did.

That’s because only this Civic uses a modified version of the Jazz light car’s platform, with its clever forward mounted fuel tank that liberates a massive amount of space in the aft section.

Perhaps this is why the BMW Mini feels like the original to drive in spirit while the Honda … well, more on that later as well.

So should we consider the Honda an alternative to premium European babies like the Mini, Fiat 500 and Alfa Romeo MiTo – it will be a rare sight with only 420 arriving – or is the Civic hatch simply an overpriced small car competitor to the Mazda3 and Volkswagen Golf?

If you’re more inclined to believe the latter then this car’s appeal implodes faster than you can say “English car industry” because it is just too expensive.

Against the latest Mazda3 – let alone the wonderfully premium-feeling Golf – the Civic can barely cut it for refinement and dynamic aptitude, making that steep price seem insurmountable despite a generous standard specification.

Honda isn’t being greedy though.

GFC-related currency freefalls, combined with costly Australian Design Rule changes half way through the hatch’s homologation process for sale here, are mostly to blame.

Customers won’t care though. If value is paramount, then buy the Golf or Mazda and you won’t look back.

But what if you tweak your perception, forget about the relatively lowly Honda badge that will undoubtedly bother many against the premium brands, and cross-shop the $38,990 Civic Si against models such as the Mini, Alfa and Fiat?

Tested in $41,290 auto guise, we would nevertheless argue that it deserves consideration against this lot, as well as low-end versions of the BMW 118i, Mercedes-Benz A-class and Audi A3, because the Honda can actually, oddly enough, cut it.

The truth is, all the premium babies – including 1 Series, A3 and A-class – are flawed in their own way.

And, anyway, you would consider the brilliantly loutish Civic Type R against other hot hatches such as the VW Golf GTI and Mini Cooper S without a second thought.

And you know the Honda will be much more exclusive than any of the others …

Design wise, the Civic Si is still fresh enough to stop you in your tracks.

Imagine how it would have seemed when released in Europe back in 2005? Futuristic, and full of rectangular sci-fi motifs in the details (check out the exhaust and door handles), this Honda is Barbarella among the currently dull small-car herd – especially in the fetching spaceship silver finish of our test car.

And while some might think that Honda aped the Alfa 156 and 147 with the Civic Si’s hidden rear door handles, consider that the gone-but-never-forgotten Honda NSX supercar had them earlier, back in 1989. Too bad the rear door apertures themselves are a tad too small for larger people to negotiate without having to squeeze through.

Once inside, a space age fascia that juts out like the Enterprise’s impulse speed control panel dominates all. Civic sedan owners will feel an instant familiarity with it, except the hatch’s is a little edgier and cooler.

All black and brash at first, with its arcade-game style multi-level features and oddly facing angles, the dashboard is just as striking as anything found on the Civic’s exterior.

The instruments – back-lit in white and electric blue – are divided, with a lower area housing a circular tachometer and centrally sited LED screen for the odometer and trip meter info, as well as a fuel gauge and gear selector indicator. Directly above that, and placed at some distance away just below the windscreen, lives a large digital speedometer that is always in line with the driver’s eye sight.

To the right of that, high up and in the middle of the centre console, is a digital screen for the time, radio/CD/MP3 info and climate control displays, and – like the speedo – they are all styled in a fat and friendly font for easy legibility.

The controls for all these are scattered below, mostly within a series of knobs and buttons, and the effect is rather messy. But after familiarisation sets in, all work with that preciseness you might associate with a Honda.

Several ‘technical’ grains are used in the various plastics that make up the dash, doors and console, and they look better than they feel, but there are tightly screwed together and appear long lasting. Good design, they say, is timeless.

In fact, this Civic’s interior is quite lavishly presented, thanks to the quality leather-covered and white-stitched seats, door cards, steering wheel and centre console, aided by the classy roof lining, contrasting grey metallic trim and sliding cupholder cover. This is no less appealing than the interior of, say, a Mercedes-Benz B-class, and it goes a long way to making the customer forget the hatch’s price.

Nobody should have any issues finding a comfortable driving position, thanks to an attractive tilt and telescopic steering wheel of virtually perfect size and feel. The European lane-change indicator is a pleasant surprise too.

Both front seats are set low for a sporty feel, yet (manually) adjust forwards and upward if need be, and provide a high degree of lateral support, even if there is no lumbar control.

But while forward vision is good, and the exterior mirrors are large, rear vision is hampered by the split rear window and massive C pillar, and the lack of a rear wiper (why?) does not help, either.

Driver face-level ventilation is not great because the centre outlets are angled away, and the gimmicky push-starter button needs to be continually pressed until the engine fires up, which is a chore.

On the other hand, there are plenty of places for storage (including a deep glovebox and a sizeable console bin), the heated front seats fire up quickly, and all outboard occupants have a damped overhead grab handle.

Being built off a stretched light-car platform, you might expect legroom and shoulder room to be tight for a C-segment small car, but this car has Jazz DNA, remember, and so that car’s Tardis-like cabin qualities translate into the Civic hatch too, thanks to the rear seats that fold right down low into the floor, or lift up from their base to provide a floor-to-ceiling loading well.

This means that the rear bench is not a bad place to sit, particularly as Honda has sculptured the cushion for comfort and support – except if you are the hapless centre-row passenger. There is also enough space for broader people to sit back there without complaint. The rear windows go all the way down too, pleasing smaller people and animals trying to peer out.

About the only thing that might rise someone’s ire out back is road noise intrusion, which – though not as bad as the Mazda3 or Ford Focus – still makes its way inside.

Honda has incorporated a large and long hatch door with a handy low loading lip, so you can throw stuff inside the 415-litre boot area (stretching to 1285 litres with the rear seats folded flat), thus adding another facet to the Civic’s larger-than-it-seems packaging and versatility.

Indeed, compared to the previous Japanese Civic Vi hatch from 2000 to 2005, the Euro version definitely looks smaller. Yet the hard facts tell a different story.

Yes, the Si is 35mm shorter and stubbier, but it is also 65mm broader, while the front and rear tracks measure 34mm and 45mm wider respectively. With a nod to the original Mini, you could even say that the Si is more of a brick shape than before …

Under that snubby nose is Honda’s familiar 103kW/174Nm 1.8-litre single-cam 16-valve i-VTEC four-cylinder petrol engine/five-speed automatic gearbox combination, which is pretty much identical to the one powering the $25,290 Civic VTi sedan …

Quiet at idle, very smooth, sweet revving (to beyond the 6700rpm red line), and with that mechanical unburstability that Honda engines are renowned for, it provides responsive off-the-mark acceleration, but then begins to feel under-endowed in the torque department when you need to overtake, or have more than a couple of occupants on board.

Prod the go pedal and any veneer of premium refinement evaporates as the gearbox kicks down a gear or two and the engine ups the noise ante considerably. A base Mini might be similarly coarse, but remember that the significantly cheaper Golf 118TSI seems lathered in treacle in comparison.

Weighing in at around 80kg more than the Thai-made sedan, it simply never sparkles.

The Civic’s gearbox also feels out of its price league, as it lacks the sequential shift function of virtually every other similarly sized small car. We recommend a drive of the slick six-speed manual before settling on the auto. Or, better still, the Civic Type R …

However, while the Si auto might feel languid against some of its far-more fiery rivals, it is sufficiently quiet on the highway, and does return better-than-expected fuel consumption, as highlighted by Honda’s own combined average figure of 5.7L/100km.

The dynamics are also a mixed bag. Keen drivers will appreciate the quick-witted steering, eager handling and stable roadholding in normal conditions, but a bit more weight in, and feedback from, the helm would be appreciated.

Push the Honda harder through a tight corner and much of the Civic’s finesse evaporates as it pushes forward widely to settle into scrubby understeer. There’s no joy at all to be garnered here.

Remember, we’re taking the view that a BMW 118i buyer might be considering one of these Hondas.

Plus, the ride can feel a little too busy over urban surfaces, and at times there can be a fair amount of road noise intrusion, further eroding the luxury feel.

Typically Civic, the Si’s overall driving characteristic is defined by its wide-stance feel and low bump threshold.

However, we were impressed with the suspension’s absorption properties and stability at speed on loose gravel and rougher roads.

And the brakes react quickly and progressively, with the electronic driving aids not interfering too early as they often do in many other cars.

Interestingly, as we spent more and more time driving the Civic Si, it occurred to us that it might make for an interesting alternative to the old-generation Accord Euro, since the newer version has grown up significantly.

But the Civic hatch isn’t grown up enough, since Honda does not offer Bluetooth connectivity or satellite navigation, despite a long list of standard features that include leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic air-conditioning, fog lights, 17-inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlights, rear parking sensors, cruise control, an alarm and the world’s most baffling speed limiter. You still get a hell of a lot more with the Golf 118TSI Comfortline Sportline – let alone a Mazda3 Maxx Sport …

Yet, the Civic Si is a striking, charming and beautifully presented small car that is pleasant, comfortable and satisfyingly spacious and versatile.

That it is completely undermined by being overpricing is a tragedy, because there are so many positive points to savour.

May we suggest that before you buy a base Mini Cooper, A3, 118i, or Benz A170, that you take the Civic Si out for a long test-drive first, because it does make sense against these if you are into long-term ownership, especially if you go hard on the haggling.

For regular small car buyers who cannot possible justify stretching for the Honda, there is a glimmer of hope though.

Soon, when that great leveller – the used-car market – properly adjusts the Honda’s price down to where it should have been all along, the Si will make for a cracking second-hand buy.

But as it stands, and like we said earlier, Volkswagen and Mazda do it better right now.

Perhaps what the Civic Si really needs is a premium badge to match its BMW Mini Cooper Clubman price.

That Acura brand would come in handy for Honda Australia right about now …

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