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Car reviews - Honda - Civic - VTi-S hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Size, economy, slick manual, gutsy drivetrain, comfy interior, versatile rear-seat arrangement, offbeat styling
Room for improvement
Rear vision, no cruise control, driving position for taller people, low rear cushion, rear headroom, road noise

10 Aug 2012

THERE’S both more and less to the enigmatic new Honda Civic hatch than meets the eye.

There are greater changes than the samey (albeit completely different) styling suggests, with virtually every single component either revised or redesigned, to give the British-built five-door a more contemporary look.

The net result is a body that is smaller than you might expect of a modern C-segment hatch, yet that’s no bad thing for many urban-based buyers seeking a compact runabout.

However, while little luxuries like dual-zone climate-control air-conditioning, daytime driving lights, alloy wheels and even tyre-pressure monitors are included, specification shortfalls remain in the entry-level VTi-S, which is priced from $22,650.

As with the visually revolutionary previous-generation Civic hatch – which only made it to Oz in piping-hot Type R (2007) and extortionately expensive Si (2009) guises – the tenth iteration was designed in Japan expressly for European tastes.

That’s why the now five-door only hatch is solely sourced from the UK, and partly explains the compact exterior dimensions.

Not that people contemplating, say, a Corolla are going to feel like they’ve squeezed themselves into a sardine can. In fact we’re glad Honda hasn’t dished up an oversized box. Some C-segment cars these days such as Cruze and Focus are often needlessly big, larger even than medium sedans of not so long ago.

Though they’re not especially broad, the Honda’s doors all open wide, and close with a reassuring thud.

The dash is quite Mazda-like in its swoopy driver-focussed orientation, yet the Civic again employs a uniquely split fascia featuring a large digital speedo and trip/audio info on top, while a very Mazda3-style trio of blue/white-lit analogue dials dominated by a big sporty tachometer are sited down below.

With a low and wide driving position that ought to suit most body shapes, the overall cockpit effect is quite racy, and unmistakably Japanese in flavour despite the left-hand indicator stalk (that infuriatingly lacks a lane-change function).

Honda has obviously worked hard on improving its front seats in recent times. They may look uninvitingly flat but they at last offer longer-distance comfort despite the lack of a lumbar support lever.

But taller occupants will find that there is neither enough rearward nor downward adjustment, making for a cramped cabin experience. And rear vision – while much better than before thanks to a deeper rear window and the inclusion of a rear wiper – is still like peering at the world through a narrow slit.

Plus-points include a pretty little steering wheel, logical audio controls, an abundance of storage solutions, and a cute lozenge-like hazard flasher switch bang in the centre of the fascia.

With some tuition, the trip computer menu is a breeze and boasts some nice graphics, while the clear climate-control air-con layout, soft velour elbow rests either side of the front-seat occupants, sliding cupholder lid and rubberised upper-dash plastics all add a touch of class to the Civic’s interior.

So why does Honda spoil the effect with hard, cruddy and scratch-prone trim in the lower cabin reaches?

The second row seating area could do with some improvement as well.

With the Jazz light car providing some of the rear under-structure to accommodate its ‘Magic Seats’ – which fold down into the recess usually reserved for the petrol tank that is now located beneath the front seats (explaining the lofty driving position) – it seems clever cargo versatility has been prioritised over occupant comfort.

Our issue is that the rear cushion is set too low, forcing a tiring knees-up posture for the back seat passengers. Headroom is compromised for anyone over 180cm, and no rear-seat map pockets smacks of penny pinching.

On the other hand, kiddies and canines will appreciate windows that drop all the way down, you can park a bike or pot-plant in the back with the seat cushion tipped upward, and even position an armchair in a cavernous cargo area (1130 litres) immediately behind the front row when the backrests are folded down with one easy manoeuvre.

Honda helpfully places child-seat tether hooks immediately behind the 60/40 folding rear backrest, and also provides a low loading lip as well as a large opening cavity so owners won’t have to struggle too much when manoeuvring awkward or heavy objects.

Beneath the long flat floor lurks a neatly packaged space-saver spare wheel.

Up front is the least-changed aspect of the new Civic hatch, the 104kW/174Nm 1.8-litre single-cam petrol engine that is improved for efficiency’s sake over the previous unit but is just as puzzling as the rest of the package.

On paper, its relatively small capacity (for a naturally aspirated unit) and lack of a twin-cam head paints a picture of a dated and potentially plodding powerplant, but it feels strong, with enough torque to provide spirited and flexible performance.

A willingness to race to the red line, combined with a sweet, short-throw, six-speed manual gearshift and a rorty exhaust note, add a sporty edge, yet like all good Hondas there’s a silky effortlessness to the way this Civic drivetrain does its stuff.

Throw in excellent economy – ours hovered around 7.2L/100km across a variety of driving scenarios – and it’s clear there is no need to worry about the apparent lack of mechanical sophistication. It does, of course, employ advanced variable valve timing among other advanced technologies.

Note, though, that the hatch’s preferred tipple is from the 95 RON Premium Unleaded bowser.

Much of the real-world frugality is due to an ‘Eco’ mode that encourages economical driving and drops available performance slightly.

Keeping the dash lights green instead of lead-footed blue while building the digital tree sprouting within the instrumentation works surprisingly well and, frankly, after a time you don’t even miss the extra oomph on offer in the default Normal mode.

Keen drivers are likely to appreciate the hatch’s quick steering, since it is nicely reactive around town for quick cornering squirts and effortless low-speed parking manoeuvrability. The chassis shows plenty of balance and poise for those who like to zip from one urban destination to another.

But the steering can become skittish once the Civic hits the highway, for it lacks the required weight or road surface feedback. Making for a far less relaxed driving experience than it ought to be, the car just doesn’t feel as planted as expected at speed.

Furthermore, quite a bit of road noise intrusion, especially on coarse bitumen, was disappointing, falling short of its more refined sedan sibling for cabin quietness.

The hatch needs more finesse and is not the advance over its predecessor that the surprisingly competent sedan is – even though the hatch is built for Europe while the sedan is made for America.

Perhaps this is due to the simple torsion-beam rear axle compared to the sedan’s multi-link set-up. Once upon a time, when Honda Motor was the fear of Europe, all Civics boasted complex double-wishbone suspension.

As it stands, the hatch feels more like a well-sorted B-segment Fiesta competitor than a C-segment Focus opponent.

Which brings us back to the beginning with this enigmatic little Honda.

Yes, the Civic hatch is significantly cheaper and better than the last one, and you won’t find anything approaching its cargo versatility, but you would hardly call the styling changes revolutionary and it’s not as spacious or comfy in the rear as the class leaders.

Despite pleasing performance and fuel economy, the steering and road noise need to improve to match the toweringly competent Golf and Focus.

And, while equipment levels are long, we would gladly swap the fancy alloys, climate-control and tyre pressure sensors for Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control and at least one front-seat map pocket.

After 40 years, the latest Honda Civic hatch is likeable, but flawed.

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