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Car reviews - Honda - Civic - VTi sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Honda engineering promise, smooth drivetrain, flat handling, high build quality, ease of operation, good resale value, spacious back seat, full suite of safety on base model, futuristic styling inside
Room for improvement
Road noise, busy ride, cramped front seat, low roof hinders cabin access, engine lacks low-speed spark, monochromatic plastic cabin, VTi’s lack of a split/fold backrest

13 May 2010

REACQUAINTING yourself with an ageing car sometimes isn’t such a big step back in time at all. Case in point is the eighth-generation Honda Civic sedan.

Launched when Steve Irwin was still croc hunting, Hurricane Katrina had done her worst and Blu-ray was still future tech, the Thai-made four-door small car had a huge task ahead since there would be no affordable hatch version to replace the fine Mk7 Civic VTi.

Back in early 2006 we applauded its bold design that still pays dividends today since, though familiar, the Honda is hardly what you would call old hat.

Only the tiniest visual titivations in early ’09 – ones that even Sherlock Holmes would have a hard time deducing (headlights, tail-lights and bumpers mostly) – were necessary to keep the sedan fresh, along with the long-overdue introduction of VSC stability control.

However, while Honda went further by standardising curtain airbags last December, the Civic still lacks the driver’s knee airbag found on fresher foes such as the Mazda3, VW Golf hatch and Mitsubishi Lancer – and that is one of the few real giveaways of its advancing years on paper.

But how does the Honda sedan shape up away in the flesh? To find out we grabbed a base VTi auto.

First impressions are strong. We were struck once again by the Civic’s standout cabin presentation, dominated by its low-set and futuristic dashboard, extreme rake of the pillars featuring small triangular windows and the laid back seating. From the driver’s perch perspective it’s a little like the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit.

Get in, though, and you are likely to knock your head on the annoyingly angled A-pillars, as you might clambering into an AU Falcon. The roof is also low – more than in many modern hatches – so taller folk are likely to strike that going in too. Our necks are still sore from the awkward manoeuvring.

Never mind. Once settled in, you are likely to be dazzled if the Civic is new to you, thanks to the double-stack instrument binnacle featuring an eye-level digital speedo, fuel gauge and temperature readout cluster. They still stun, particularly at night when backlit (like the rest of the LED screens) in cool electric blue. They are the very definition of clarity.

Below that is a more conventional analogue tachometer surrounded by myriad warning lights. It all looks very late ‘70s Honda Prelude. One must peer through a small yet comfy multi-adjustable steering wheel that appears as if Nike designed it.

More kudos comes from the quartet of gale-force face-level air vents laid out horizontally across the middle section of the fascia, flanking audio buttons so big that a glove-wielding boxer could probably operate them. They’re also easy to reach. Just under these are push-button climate control switches that look like refuges from another geriatric Prelude – the 1987 Mk3 (Si 4WS) one. Well, the ‘80s have been back in for a while now …

And has a small car ever been blessed with this much storage? Not counting the wide (if shallow) glovebox there are no fewer than 10 more compartments scattered in the front section of the cabin alone. Throw in a commanding driving position and the Civic sedan can still show newcomers a thing or two about how it is done.

But spend more time inside the Honda and its wrinkles start to show.

Whoever thought that mouse-fur seat trim and dreary grey monotones works in here was clearly messing with too many Quaaludes. There are also lots of hard and/or flimsy plastics on the doors and lower console area to cheapen the quality image.

The front seat cushions are flat and featureless, causing aches and pains after relatively short stints on them. They feel like they’re made for large square bottoms.

Then there is the lack of seat travel for long-legged people. If this concerns you then alarm bells ought to be ringing by now.

On the plus side, the rear bench is set at an agreeable angle, with adequate space for three smaller people across it, grab handles, coat hooks, and a ‘take away’ bag clip. There are provisions too for phones, iPods and other objects (but not cups strangely enough, for one of North America’s bestselling passenger cars). Plus, there is sufficient knee and legroom and getting in and out isn’t as difficult as it is up front.

But the cushion is uncomfortably short for even average sized thighs, and set too low. Long journeys soon become arduous as a result, while the lack of rear air vents creates a stuffy atmosphere.

Surprisingly there is no split-fold access into the 376-litre boot so the whole backrest (in the base VTi) must come down. At least it folds almost flat, revealing a large aperture into a sizeable luggage area. But the floor is higher than expected due to a full-sized steel spare wheel residing underneath.

The bonnet hides a tried and true 1.8-litre SOHC i-VTEC four-cylinder petrol engine pumping out 103kW of power at 6300rpm and 174Nm of torque at 4200rpm. These figures are in the same ballpark as the Mazda3 2.0-litre’s 108kW and 182Nm.

Determined right foot is demanded for the Civic not to feel lethargic at take off. But this is really just a ruse, for beyond about 3000rpm the i-VTEC unshackles itself to display surprising vigour. It is only now that the driver may wake up to the fact that the VTi’s engine has a much wider rev range than the relatively lethargic low-speed performance suggests. We wonder how many conservative owners have yet to explore the tacho’s upper limits in this Jekyll and Hyde Honda?

Great, you might think, but a mechanical roar that annihilates refinement and decimates the otherwise fine fuel economy accompanies all of this. The choice is yours – pace or peace you cannot really have both in the VTi. In the era of the Golf’s 1.4-litre direct injection turbo, the Honda no longer cuts it with the swagger that the series was once renowned for.

Meanwhile, the five-speed automatic gearbox is smooth enough, with well-chosen ratios and a resistance to flaring up through the gears as on some other small-car self-shifters. But it lacks the Tiptronic-style sequential shift function that many premium small cars offer. At least the lever is placed handily up high on the console, accompanied by a neatly presented handbrake.

On the open road there is enough mid-range punch to propel the Civic swiftly onwards without having to resort to the higher rev ranges. Anyway, at speed, visiting the 6300rpm red line is more tolerable because of all the other noises present.

But the ride is never less than jiggly, and can even get bouncy on some roads, with a queasiness that spoils comfort levels for some. What’s going on? Perhaps the suspension and seat cushion movement frequencies are at odds with each other.

And are the tiddly 195/65 R15 tyres made from concrete? They drone endlessly on some surfaces, infecting the VTi with a boomy cabin that undermines the small car’s premium aspirations.

On the other hand, the Civic’s quite a good steer, with a helm that is agreeably light and responsive, displaying a typically Honda flat cornering attitude for a feeling of security and stability.

At parking speeds, a fairly quick ratio also helps get into tight spots, so this car is ideal about town. Although enthusiastic drivers will enjoy a Ford Focus’ more talkative tiller more, the Honda is not disgraced.

The brakes, too, cope well with the significant turn of speed that the Honda is capable of. Wet or dry, the car hauls up tidily and with no fuss. The VSA doesn’t intrude too obviously either.

All in all, however, the Civic sedan’s sassy styling loses its sheen away from the showroom.

Its unexpected mechanical unrefinement, coupled with excessive road noise intrusion and that fidgety ride, betray the Civic like a bright spotlight close up on an ageing Hollywood diva’s face.

As an easy, frugal, dependable and pleasant-steering small car with excellent resale value and a surprising turn of speed, it still offers plenty. But newer and quieter rivals led by the excellent Volkswagen Golf and Mazda3 now outclass the VTi sedan.

At least the Honda doesn’t look its age. But save up for the far superior Accord Euro, or save your bickies and buy a Jazz instead.

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