Honda Civic cleaning up with critics - but is it any good?
By Jim Bray
Honda's all-new Civic is being received with plenty of fanfare, has already scooped some prestigious awards (including Canadian Car of the Year) and appears poised to continue the company's long history of success with the model. But is it as good as the hype is making it appear?
I may be a voice barking in the wilderness (what else is new?), but put me down as one for whom the new model isn't the wundercar it's being made out.
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The Civic was the model that first put Honda on the North American map back in the 1970's. Since then, the Japanese company has expanded its lineup to include many popular models, from the Accord to the CR-V - let alone the entire Acura lineup - but it's mostly the Civic that, at least in Canada, has become the company's standard bearer. And it's been a dynasty: as of the latest figures I could find, the Civic continues to be Canada's top-selling car (though it's beaten out by a couple of pickup trucks for overall vehicle sales).
There's a reason why people love the Civic: traditionally, it has offered among the best value for dollar, as well as being a simply great little car.
So why does the new version leave me cool toward it? It's the little things.
But let's talk about the big things first. Honda says this tenth generation represents "one of the most comprehensive and ambitious new-model developments ever undertaken by Honda, requiring an unprecedented commitment of R&D resources and Honda engineering prowess." The company claims almost everything about this Civic is new, including "an all-new vehicle architecture, sporty and sophisticated new interior and exterior styling, a more spacious and high-quality cabin, two advanced new engines, and a host of new premium features and technologies."
Honda Canada's sample was a pretty loaded Touring Sedan and as a friend and auto journalist associate said to me, it's all the car one really needs - and if he were in the market he'd buy one happily. I can't disagree with his assessment about it being all the vehicle one could need, but I disagree with his conclusion: were I shopping in this segment I would look elsewhere.
A big part of the reason for my angst is the CVT transmission. As with most CVT's, it sucks the joy out of the driving experience and if that experience is important to you it can be a deal breaker (depending on the CVT, and the rest of the car, of course). This particular CVT is a typical example of the species, so it not only feels like the power is getting to the front wheels by elastic bands that have been stretched out of shape, it whines and howls like a banshee while it does it. This isn't just a Civic, or a Honda, thing, of course, but all things being equal, a CVT fan I am not - and they've stuck one on this otherwise mostly great car.
Worse, Honda has decided that if you want the hotter of the two engines offered, you can only get it with the CVT - whereas if you opt for the base engine, you can get a six speed manual. I haven't driven this example of the stick six but Honda's manuals are generally great - so why punish the people who most want to actually drive their Civics?
To be fair, there may be hotter versions coming, such as an SI, and I'd love to take one of them on a nice drive into the Rockies, if they give it a proper transmission. But in the meantime, meh.
Civic engines include a two litre inline four rated at 158 horsepower - up some 15 from last year's Civic. The "funner" engine is smaller: a 1.5 litre turbocharged four that puts out a decent 174 horses. It's the latter engine that Honda Canada's sample came with, and it's a lovely unit indeed. Turbo lag is nicely controlled, too: instead of the accelerator feeling like an on/off switch, you get that healthy turbo "whoosh" quite quickly after you tromp the gas pedal. There's plenty of oomph for this small car (the base engine is probably fine as well) and with a proper transmission it could've been a blast to drive.
Helping give the Civic whatever sporty feel it has is a splendid suspension - including a new double wishbone setup for the car's bum (I don't mean the driver…). It's a setup that would probably please Goldilocks, in that it isn't hard like a true sports suspension – which can be a bladder buster – nor does it threaten the dreaded wallow. I really liked its feel.
The electric power steering is fine, as are the brakes, which are discs all the way around. And the ABS and traction control know how to use discretion, not firing up at the least suggestion of slip.
This Civic has grown, and in some ways it almost feels more like an Accord. This helps impart an even more substantial feel while also increasing the amount of room for passengers and their stuff. Alas, the low "kind of fastback" roofline means those getting into the back seat had better watch their heads; I bashed mine a couple of times and I'm a massive five feet, six and half inches on a good day. The subsequent concussion routine ended any hopes I had for a professional football career.
The new exterior is recognizable as a Civic, with some hints of the Accord and dare I say even the new Acura NSX. It all seems kind of busy, though, and the windshield of Honda's sample had a strange space around its edges, almost as if the car were missing a moulding there. I didn't notice this until I had to scrape ice off the windshield and the scraper kept getting caught in the space.
I like the new interior, which eschews the old Civic's two-tiered instrument panel (which was okay but weird) in favour of a more traditional one. It's laid out well, with easy to read gauges and displays. The driving position is about as good as you could want, making the driver feel a true part of the process, and the interior materials look and feel of fine quality.
Honda still refuses to put a real volume knob near the audio system, but they have put a nifty new volume control on the left spoke of the steering wheel. It's a kind of touch-sensitive lever thing with which you can adjust the volume by pressing on its top or bottom edge, or you can scroll up or down the middle section as if it were a smart phone, for those times you want to raise or lower the volume really quickly. I didn't like it at first, but grew fond of it before long.
The other spoke has a bunch of stuff to help you operate the damn adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist features that are being inflicted on a depressing number of new cars these days - and not just Hondas.
And that's where more of my angst about the new Civic comes in: the nannies. Honda has given the Touring version of the Civic the full suite of stuff, from the abovementioned adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist to collision mitigation braking and road departure systems and the intrusive "Lane Watch" that gives you a "camera's eye view" down the right side of the car every time you turn on the right signal light (or press a button on the end of the lights' stalk). I seem to be another voice in the wilderness when it comes to this feature because I hate it, whereas most of the people I had in the car thought it was great. ButI find that when the camera fires up on the central LCD screen it draws my eyes away from the road, and I'd rather not suffer from distracted driving that's caused by a safety feature.
Things are mostly well with the Civic's convenience and comfort features. Nice touches include keyless entry/start-stop with proximity sensing door locks, a decent trunk and a capless fueling system. I've come to appreciate capless fueling after not thinking much of it initially; maybe that'll happen someday with the nannies…
Honda Canada's sample Touring model tipped the fiscal scale at $26,990 Canadian. Base models, "accord-ing" to the company's website, start at $15,990.
Honda has most of the main things right with the Civic, and that's the most important thing. But I found enough off-putting that it wouldn't be my choice in this market niche. I write this in sadness rather than anger, as I'm a Honda fan and one-time owner of a Civic hatchback I loved - back in the "we make it simple" days that seem gone forever thanks to competition and the increasing regulation that has caused even entry level vehicles to get heavier, fatter and supposedly safer.
And despite my issues with the Civic, the new version not only won its "small car" category at the Canadian Car of the Year competition, it was also named the overall Canadian Car of the Year as well as, at the auto show in Detroit recently, the North American Car of the Year.
So give it a try and make up your own mind.
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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