For the past 10 years, the Honda Civic has provided a handy reference point for anyone shopping for a new hatchback. Family five-doors simply haven’t come any more wonderfully weird.
When the eighth-generation Civic was unveiled in 2006, it challenged accepted norms on mechanical layout, as well as what constituted appealing styling and a tolerably comfortable ride and handling compromise in a modern hatchback.
And when the ninth-generation car followed, the daring styling and innovative packaging (fuel tank located under the front seats, making room for the cleverest and most versatile rear seats that any hatchback has yet known) were carried over, while the jostlingly firm ride and rapier steering were toned down.
Now it’s all change. Civic generation 10 trades ‘alternative’ for ‘competitive’ in so many ways. In a switch that bears witness to how difficult it has become to launch a truly outstanding car in one of Europe’s most crowded market segments, Honda is moving away from the original thinking that made the British-built Civic an exemplar of quirky innovation.
So the new Civic hatchback has switched to an all-new global platform shared with its US-market saloon and coupé derivatives. It is significantly larger than before and is now a whisker under 4.5 metres in length, with a 2.7m wheelbase that becomes the longest in the European C-segment.
Two-thirds of the engine line-up is new. There are two downsized turbocharged VTEC petrols ranging from 1.0 to 1.5-litres and 127bhp to 180bhp. The 118bhp 1.6-litre i-DTEC diesel, which is due to join the Civic range six months after launch, is the only combustive carry-over. The range-topping Type-R is due later this year, and although details remain sketchy the new hot Honda will be the first of its kind to be sold in the US and remain around the £30k mark in the UK.
The Civic is wider and lower than its predecessor, too. Its body-in-white is both 16kg lighter than that of the last Civic and 52 percent more torsionally rigid, and the car’s centre of gravity is 10mm lower. Most of which sounds like good news.
And yet, to lower the floor, roofline and centre of gravity sufficiently, to better locate its driver at the centre of its driving experience spatially, and to create the necessary cabin space to rival the leading European hatchback set, Honda has reverted to sitting the fuel tank in the conventional place, just ahead of the rear axle, and jettisoned those ingenious ‘magic’ rear seats. This will be greatly regretted by pottery collectors, cello players and downhill mountain bikers all over the UK.
A more upmarket cabin ambience and a more engaging drive are the gains offered up as payback for the Civic’s relocation towards the notional five-door mainstream, the latter facilitated by independent rear suspension on all versions of the car and new four-stage adaptive dampers fitted to upper-level Sport-badged models.
While a host of technology will be available as standard on all Civics including Honda’s Sensing systems, which includes autonomous braking system, lane departure warning, traffic sign recognition and adaptive cruise control. There is also an upgraded infotainment system which comes with DAB radio and smartphone integration as standard.
And it was with a short test drive in a 180bhp 1.5-litre VTEC Turbo Sport that Honda allowed us an early taste of exactly what has been gained.
In the metal, the new Civic is unmistakably big. Given tacit permission to grow, in European showrooms at least, by the void where the Honda Accord used to be, the car has what designers call ‘good stance’: it looks wide, with its wheels dragged out towards the corners, and has a gently curving roofline. There’s little of the visual compactness that the Civic has traded on so effectively over four decades.
The oversized grille, air intakes and lights, meanwhile, are fairly transparent attempts to disguise the car’s bulk and decorate what’s a relatively unimaginative shape compared with what Civic customers will be used to.
It may be true that the Civic’s styling has, for a decade now, put certain buyers off – but you wouldn’t bet that this new version, although smart-enough looking, will definitely do the opposite.
The biggest change inside is the driving position. Moving the fuel tank has allowed Honda to lower the driver’s hip point by 35mm, so you feel much less perched up at the wheel than in the outgoing Civic and you have more head room.
But the layout of the dashboard has significantly altered, too. Gone are the old car’s split-level instruments and driver-focused asymmetrical fascia, and in comes an architecture that’s a little more expensive to the touch and space-efficient, albeit much more ordinary on the eye.
The rev counter and speedo are on a colour TFT screen, which is flanked by stylised digital temperature and fuel gauges. But counted together, they lend the interior only a superficial air of technical sophistication that Honda’s new 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system attempts, but ultimately struggles, to build on.
Material quality is high almost everywhere, but the cabin’s sense of perceived quality isn’t so cleverly conjured as it is in an Audi A3 or Volkswagen Golf. The Civic has a soft-touch roll-top dashboard pad, but its plastics are otherwise mostly hard.
Although its switchgear feels very solid and robust, the Civic’s button consoles aren’t as skilfully arranged as they could be and don’t look or feel as designed or expensive as an A3’s.
Plenty of existing Civic owners will be more interested, you’d imagine, in usability than in premium feel, though, and the better news is that making the Civic grow has compensated for the abandonment of what made the previous car so cleverly packaged. Passenger space in the second row is good, with plenty of leg room and head room for all but the tallest adults, and boot space is close to class-leading, at 478 litres with the back seats in place.
But here’s the bad news for all those new owners whom Honda has been hoping to conquest. Making the Civic that much bigger hasn’t, unsurprisingly, made it much more engaging to drive. Not, at any rate, to the extent that you’d notice on the 30min test route that Honda permitted us.
The 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine offers significantly better real-world performance and drivability than the current Civic’s normally aspirated lumps, and there’s refinement and roundedness to the dynamic character that should suit the car's existing customer base very nicely. But even in Sport trim (which buys you those adaptive dampers, sporty styling and a centrally mounted sports exhaust), the Civic isn’t a shining reason for a keen driver not to buy a Seat Leon, Ford Focus, Mazda 3 or any of the other hatchbacks at the sportier end of this segment.
The Civic steers with well-judged pace and weight and it corners precisely, with strong grip levels and more than adequate body control. That it doesn’t exactly feel agile or brilliantly balanced underneath you has more to do with the long wheelbase than anything, but there’s no mistaking the fact that it doesn’t.
There’s also certainly no mistaking what the Civic does best: ride. With those adaptive dampers set to Normal mode, there’s pleasing compliance and decent isolation about the way that the car interacts with the road surface, and the new rear axle deals with mid-corner bumps very effectively indeed. Select Dynamic and the ride becomes tauter but retains a sense of pragmatism and decent bump absorption.
Honda’s new 1.5-litre turbo engine, meanwhile, seems like a worthwhile step forwards for the Civic – without quite seeming like the best motor of its kind. It has good throttle response and a mid-range delivery that’s strong but not so strong as to feel abrupt or non-linear. It’s quiet and smooth at low and medium revs and gets slightly noisy and breathless above 5000rpm – at least a part of which may be exacerbated by that sports exhaust.
Received wisdom suggests that hatchback buyers want their cars to be good at everything, and if that notion is to be trusted – if cars just don’t get on the company fleet lists these days unless they’re all so similar that they’re damn near equally quick, economical and practical and generally of a type – then moving the Civic into the segment’s centre ground could be a sales masterstroke.
As you might have already surmised, this tester is sad to see a car that stood out for being genuinely different replaced by one so conservative. Nevertheless, the new Civic is still a long way from dull or insipid, and if its change of character gives you permission to consider one, chances are you’ll still find it a refreshing break from the norm.