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Car reviews - Honda - Civic - VTi-L sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Price and value, improved suspension, quality craftsmanship, zippy drivetrain, roomy interior, sharp steering, classy styling, large boot, resale value
Room for improvement
Poor rear vision, road noise, tight rear-seat access

29 Jun 2012

FEW cars in living memory have been more maligned before launch as the latest Honda Civic sedan.

Unveiled overseas in early 2011, the American press soon turned on the one-time darling of the small-car fraternity due to unadventurous styling, a dreary interior and questionable value for money.

Influential US publication Consumer Guide even went as far as to not recommend the Civic for the first time in nearly 40 years – a slap in the face for the Japanese company reeling from ongoing economic recession and last year’s earthquake and tsunami tragedies.

Amid rumours that a quick fix was on the way, a publicly humiliated Honda Motor president and CEO Takanobu Ito took responsibility for underestimating the competition when developing the Civic sedan, and admitted that Honda must try harder. Astonishing stuff.

But is the new ninth-generation Civic sedan really that bad?

Some of the Australian motoring press think so, bagging the samey design, citing sub-par cabin plastics, and complaining about how boring it is to drive. Hmmm, sounds familiar.

However, after a week behind the wheel of the base model, we don’t agree.

Confusingly, the base model is now called VTi-L, which was the higher-spec version in the previous Civic sedan, as well as the latest flagship hatch from Britain that has just been launched from $29,990.

We acknowledge that the FB series is nowhere near as revolutionary in design (if not engineering) as its futuristic FD predecessor of 2006 since Honda is obviously playing the evolution game.

Stylistically, the newcomer is clearly a contemporary Civic inside and out, and the company makes no bones about that. But, while it won’t win any beauty contests, the design does retain a dignified elegance that might not date as quickly as, say, the brassy though undeniably fresher visage of the Hyundai Elantra.

And the changes for this generation run deeper than a superficial glance might suggest.

Not only are no body panels shared, every component underneath has either been revised or completely redesigned. And the engineers have aimed to improve driveability, refinement and efficiency levels in the name of lower running costs.

The VTi-L auto is priced from $23,290 – $2000 less than the FD VTi equivalent we tested and disliked in early 2010 as it was deemed too expensive, unrefined and dull for the money.

Before going any further, it is worth noting that our press car was an early Japanese-built model and not the Thai version arriving in Honda dealerships about now. It will be interesting to see if there is a difference.

We were certainly impressed with the fit and finish of our VTi-L, though we know from experience to expect minor alterations with the sourcing changes.

Whatever the case, we poured over our example’s plastic dash searching for signs of cheapness or slapdash workmanship, but could find none. Quite the contrary, the subtle texture contrasts, precision fitment and smooth surfaces were noteworthy.

There isn’t much in the way of premium plushness and the dashboard is a little Fisher Price with its big buttons and large labels – some might even use the word austere to describe the look inside – but this is a base model costing less than before, yet nothing seems cheap or low rent.

Like Civics of yore, the driving position is defined by a commanding view, with a low-placed fascia, deep side windows and thinner pillars. All make for a light and airy ambience that’s in stark contrast to the hemmed-in darkness of the hatchback version, which only comes with a black interior.

The instruments are confronting as, to cut fatigue, Honda again places a digital speedo and fuel gauge high up in a horizontal strip to catch the driver’s sight line. Meanwhile, a large analogue tacho and lesser warning lights are located below in a separate binnacle viewed through the (delightful) steering wheel.

Fascinating details abound. A bar of vertical lights on either side of the speedo alter from blue to green depending on how hard you drive the car, encouraging a lighter right foot to save fuel – to the tune of 15 per cent, apparently.

Next to that is a screen for trip computer, audio/media info, and the option of two clocks – one digital and one analogue.

Ample dash-level ventilation, plenty of storage options (including a centre bin with an adjustable fabric-covered elbow rest) and a wide as well as flat – though sufficiently comfortable for this particular tester – set of front bucket seats underline the Civic’s useability and practicality.

Equipment levels are lavish for the price. Along with six airbags and all your usual electronic safety aids that provide the requisite five-star rating, the Honda includes Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming, alloy wheels and cruise control on every model.

Entry and egress is fine up front, but the roof curvature hinders rear seat access for even people of normal height. Taller passengers might scrape their scalps on the ceiling once inside, but otherwise the space available is akin to many medium-sized sedans of quite recent memory. A trio of pre-teens should have no problem sitting there comfortably.

The usual array of cupholders, overhead grab handles and phone storage slots abound, but there are no air vents and the levers that split the rear backrests are only accessible from the boot.

The boot features an appreciably large aperture as well as 440 litres of capacity, helped in no small way by the space-saver spare wheel lurking beneath the cargo floor.

Even without the spongy soft plastics of a Golf, the latest Civic sedan makes quite a positive impression.

Looking at the fact sheet, the long-lived single overhead camshaft 1.8-litre i-VTEC four-cylinder engine might seem a bit past it, particularly as it only pumps out 104kW of power and 174Nm of torque.

It also makes do with a five-speed transmission while most rivals now have six-speeders, so it’s not exactly the cutting-edge tech once associated with Honda drivetrains, but on the go there’s a crisp slickness and flexibility to the engine’s performance that belie both its age and outputs.

Since maximum power peaks at 6500rpm, there’s plenty of pedal pushing necessary to get things going, but the Civic delivers sufficient oomph, partly because of the intelligently geared automatic gearbox that is quick to shift up or down to the appropriate ratio.

Though we drove the VTi-L with a variety of different loads, its performance remained remarkably robust, so long as you were prepared to rev it out towards the 6700rpm redline.

Mid-range acceleration was stronger than anticipated, with the Civic charging along like the well-oiled machine it is. Only when overtaking on the open road is the relatively small four-pot’s power limitations really noticeable.

With all that flooring of the throttle, though, it should come as no surprise that fuel economy isn’t a strong suit. We hovered in the high 8s, and even rose up to 9.4L/100km during more spirited driving sessions.

From the moment we first turned the wheel it became apparent that Honda’s re-engineering of what on paper looks like a carryover chassis has been very successful indeed.

The steering is light – perfect around town thanks to a tight turning circle, but perhaps a bit too much for keen driving – yet it responds instantly and confidently to inputs, tipping the car into corners with an alacrity that is at odds with the Honda’s homespun styling.

Thrown into a series of tight and messy uphill turns, the Civic also impressed us with its sturdiness, carving right through some very ragged edges with unflappable nonchalance.

Later, on gravel, we noted how the stability control setting is tuned with a bit of play, so the tail will kick out a bit before the electronics reel everything back in seamlessly.

Even on loose surfaces, braking hard saw the Civic pull up cleanly.

Finally, while the suspension might benefit from a bit more spring travel over larger speed humps, it still soaks up smaller potholes with surprising aplomb.

After the half-baked handling and ride of the old sedan we tested in 2010, we had braced ourselves for more disappointment, but instead revelled in a chassis that feels rooted on all fours at all times. Aided by the fabulous forward visibility, the Civic ended up being much more fun than it had any right to.

Real dynamic downsides are few. Riding on Bridgestone Turanza 205/55R16 tyres, plenty of road noise entered the cabin, especially on coarser bitumen at speed, while the suspension could benefit from a bit more suppleness overall and more steering weight would be appreciated.

A week in the latest Civic sedan left us wondering if we’re becoming too soft or others are being way too harsh, but the more we drove our Japanese-built VTi-L – and particularly over punishing conditions – the more we appreciated what Honda has achieved.

In the world of small sedans, none are cool and few are attractive, so the inoffensively styled Civic is already ahead of the game.

Add the fact that the VTi-L drives well, costs less than most rivals yet is better equipped for the money, and has a 40-year record of uninterrupted reliability to reassure buyers, and you can understand why we reckon this is a top contender in a fierce segment.

Don’t buy a Ford Focus Ambiente, Mazda3 Neo or Subaru Impreza 2.0i without trying the Honda first.

Unless the Thai-built car really drops the ball, the crucifixion of the Civic sedan should stop here.

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