Currently reading: Honda Civic vs Peugeot 308 vs Volkswagen Golf: group test
The new Honda Civic has jettisoned the individualism of its forebears for conventionality, but can it beat the establishment? To find out, we've pit it against the Peugeot 308 and facelifted VW Golf

Soichiro Honda wasn’t a man short on glistening pearls of wisdom.

I don’t own an anthology of his greatest musings and I’ve never seen one in print, but don’t doubt for a second that at least one of them exists. It was probably written, printed and distributed by Honda itself. In my head, it’s illustrated entirely by beautiful studio photographs of The Great Man’s many and varied pairs of spectacles, the admiration of which (via a Google Images search) is worth a minute of anyone’s time.

One of Soichiro’s utterances – a pretty key one – comes with every example of the new Honda Civic: “Pursuing a unique identity is the thing that justifies Honda’s existence.” It’s written on the back of the driver’s handbook (which itself is entitled ‘How It Works’ and is a necessarily thick volume; about which, enough said).

Did the previous Civic come with a handbook thusly emblazoned? Perhaps, but it hardly needed to. The same message was writ large across every panel by the car’s quirky styling and it permeated every unconventional feature. But this time around, things are different: Honda is playing it straight.

The new ‘global’ Civic hatchback, built exclusively at Honda’s UK manufacturing facility near Swindon, is at its heart a much more ‘normal’ five-door hatchback than either of the past two generations. It has been the subject of the biggest global research and development effort in Honda’s history, engineered partly in the US and partly in Europe. And yet its fuel tank is now in the usual place (under the back seats); its ‘Magic’ upwards-folding back seat cushions are gone; and its styling, in spite of the impact of the fake air vents and oversized tail-lights, is relatively unadventurous.

The most interesting thing about the new Civic may be that it’s big. At more than 4.5m long, it’s almost 30cm longer than a Volkswagen Golf or a Peugeot 308. But, plainly, it’s also good: this much we’ve already been able to tell from a drive in a prototype version late last year, followed by the European press launch in early 2017.

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So what sort of threat does the new Honda represent to those classically proportioned European family fivedoor hatchbacks whose success it has sought to emulate now for nine full model generations? Is ‘normal’ finally to take this bit-part player into the continent’s hatchback sales big time? Has mellowing out and growing up at last let the Civic come of age? And how much trademark Honda identity has been left?

PETROL LEADS THE WAY

There is no diesel engine available in the new Civic until later this year. The engine in question will be Honda’s commendable 1.6-litre CDTI diesel. If there was ever a time to introduce a volume-selling family hatchback without a diesel engine in the range, of course, it’s now.

And so, until the range develops a bit, power for the car can come from either a 127bhp 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine or a 180bhp 1.5-litre fourcylinder turbo petrol. The 1.0 turbo offers the more interesting blend of performance, economy, refinement and value for money, at least in principle, to show the Civic in the most appealing light for the bulk of would-be owners – and so it’s that one we’ve chosen to pit against its nearest rivals from VW and Peugeot.

The Golf it faces here is the recently facelifted car fresh into UK showrooms, in mechanically matching, 108bhp 1.0-litre turbo three-cylinder guise. The 308, meanwhile, has 1.2 litres of swept volume to call its own and is tested in the less powerful of two available states of tune, with a peak of 108bhp.

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The Honda’s engine is all new and puts the Civic in a fairly competitive place on claimed fuel economy and CO2 emissions. It also provides most of the power and 0-62mph accelerative pace of the outgoing Civic’s normally aspirated 1.8-litre motor and much greater torque.

And so – wouldn’t you know it? – Honda finally embraces engine downsizing and turbocharging at a time when European car makers are just beginning to wonder if sacrificing so much cubic capacity really was such a good idea for real-world fuel economy. Be that as it may. For all the extra size and weight the Civic carries relative to its rivals, it still gets within 0.1sec of the 308 on the 0-62mph sprint and is also within a couple of company car tax brackets of either car.

Another thing we should mention before we get properly stuck in: Honda supplied a quite lavishly equipped car for this exercise, an EX-grade Civic that came with heated leather seats, keyless entry and start, adaptive dampers and a premium audio system. Neither the Golf nor the 308 had quite the same standard equipment level. So when you arrive at the end of this test and discover that the Honda you’ve been reading about looks a touch pricey, don’t worry: a mid-spec SR-grade Civic would have been within a whisker of its rivals on price.

GIVING IT LARGE

The sheer size of the new Civic is striking. We’ve chosen to compare it with two of the more modestly  proportioned hatchbacks on the market here – and it’s worth pointing out that a Skoda Octavia is longer still. Even so, this Honda is plainly not short of sensible, route-one, metal-for-the-money appeal.

On the inside, the same impression gradually builds. Never has a more stark contrast been struck by a new car compared with its immediate forebear, I’d bet, than the new Civic with its remarkably low, saloonlike driving position. Hatchbacks normally seat you slightly bentlegged at the controls to make the most of what limited space is contained within their modest wheelbases and thereby provide rear occupants with an acceptable amount of leg room. That’s how you sit in the Golf and the 308, the VW doing better at acknowledging your sacrifice and laying on just enough second-row space for an adult.

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But the Honda’s wheelbase is within just a couple of inches of that of the Accord saloon, discontinued in the UK only two years ago. It’s one of the longest in the hatchback class – almost 80mm longer than the VW’s wheelbase – and, evidently, it doesn’t need allowances made for it. 

So there you sit, BMW 3 Series low, at the wheel of the Civic. You are made very comfortable indeed by the leather sports seats and you survey a fascia that looks and feels quite expensively constructed in places. The switchgear seems solid and substantial; quietly classy, even, on the steering wheel consoles, where black plastic gives way to glass-aping buttons here and there. In front of you is a TFT rev counter and a digital speedo, flanked by part-digital fuel and coolant temperature gauges.

A high centre console rises under your left arm and houses a short, well-sited gearlever. Around that are grouped controls for the electronic handbrake, adaptive dampers and automatic engine stop/start. That high ‘transmission tunnel’ would never have appeared on a Civic of the past decade, eating into cabin space as it does. But having it there does allow Honda to offer a usefully deep armrest cubby and also to surprise you with a split-level hidden storage cubby at the very base of the centre stack. With USB, 12V and HDMI input jacks housed on the lower deck of this neat little feature and space to pass cabling through a gap to the upper level, you can plug your smartphone or iPod into the car neatly without being made to stare at the messy associated wires and stillleave your devices easily accessible. And with that, Honda’s celebrated ingenuity makes a token cameo appearance in this car.

Switch from the Civic to the Golf and you instantly feel more perched in the driver’s seat, although far from uncomfortable. Hop from VW to Peugeot and you’re aware of a few ergonomic foibles for the first time (short seat cushions, slightly offset pedals and potentially troubling positioning of the steering wheel and instruments).

Overall, there are three important facts to record here. Firstly, that, with or without Magic back seats, the Civic wins any practicality comparison you’d care to make here: its boot is at least 25% bigger than either of its rivals’ and its passenger quarters are roomier, too. Secondly, that it’s actually the Golf’s more skilfully rendered aura of perceived quality and usability that earns the nod on cabin ambience. And thirdly, that the Civic’s 7.0in Honda Connect touchscreen infotainment system – even though it has most of the functionality you’d want between DAB radio, smartphone mirroring and Garmin sat-nav – still lags a long way behind the very best multimedia systems in the segment on usability and responsiveness. 

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LET THERE BE LIGHT

I’m not sure I believe Peugeot’s claim for the kerb weight of this 308 (1080kg) but it certainly accelerates like it’s light. Even though its torque advantage looks slight on paper and it has one less intermediate gear ratio than its opponents, the 308 fairly zips through the meat of its rev range. It feels like a car with the energetic, frothy performance that a keen driver would hope for from a three-cylinder petrol turbo engine. As a bar for the Civic to reach for and the Autocar faithful to respond to, that’s one of absolutely the right sort.

If only the 308 had better-judged ride and handling and sweeter controls, I suspect it’d make the conclusion of this test very difficult to write. But Peugeot’s mid-sized hatchback doesn’t quite deliver for the enthusiast in the way it first promises to. Its long-striding, longtravel suspension makes for an often noisy, under-damped ride as the road surface deteriorates. The 308 corners neatly enough but steers with too much directness and too little weight and feedback to allow you to place the car with much confidence. Body control is reasonable, but the suspension doesn’t keep the body sufficiently level, or work the tyres sufficiently hard, to generate the handling response that side-platesized steering wheel would need in order to really earn a place on the car. And so, after a promising start, the 308 ends up a jumble of likeable and not so likeable constituent parts. Rorty if unrefined, and engaging to drive albeit in only a slightly contrived and short-lived way, it’s the first of our trio to fall.

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The Honda’s engine doesn’t have quite the same torquey sense of thrust as the Peugeot’s, but it does one thing much better than its French opposite number, and better even than the Golf: it’s remarkably quiet and smooth. It revs with some freedom and urgency, too, as that peak power output would suggest, although it seldom makes the Civic feel very sporty.

The Honda’s ride and handling are quite mature, too – measured, precise and good-mannered, although not exactly agile-feeling. The Civic handles flatter than its hatchback rivals, like a car with relatively wide tracks and a low centre of gravity, and with meaty steering and plenty of big-car stability. But it changes direction with the inertia of a relatively big car. At times, you can feel the Civic’s suspension struggling to keep tabs on its mass, such as when the ride gets choppy on undulating tarmac or as the front axle gently gives way to understeer.

All in, the Civic narrowly misses that easy blend of nimbleness and verve that a really good-handling compact hatchback with a shorter wheelbase delivers. But although the VW has a less refined and wellisolated ride than the Honda in some ways, the Golf nails that dynamic blend so cleverly, so effortlessly, that you wonder how so many hatchback makers could fail to follow suit.

The VW’s engine is quiet, balanced, economical and servile. But it feels a little bit flat and ordinary after the Peugeot’s and is mated to a pretty notchy six-speed manual gearbox that’s no particular treat to interact with. Overall, the Golf’s powertrain isn’t one that lingers in the memory.

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You might observe that the work of the VW’s suspension and steering isn’t very memorable, either, if you weren’t really paying attention to how well both come together in unison. How the suspension springs allow the body to roll just enough through a bend to develop extra grip – and not so much as to affect stability. How its steering directness, steering weight and handling response are perfectly married up. How the ride permits just enough body movement to allow its dampers the space to operate. Dynamic accomplishment like this doesn’t happen by chance, and yet in the Golf, it’s conjured with such lightness of touch that it could almost be naturally occurring.

And so Europe’s top-selling new car, and Autocar’s long-time hatchback champion, reasserts itself in facelifted form at the first time of asking. Meanwhile, Honda’s new British-built alternative shows how far it has come from the very fringes of the automotive left field – and how much more there is still to do. Six out of every 10 new Civics built at Swindon will go direct to the North American market and, authentic Honda or not, that fact ends up best describing the car to me. This is ‘global’ hatchback, bigger and better, in many ways, than the family five-doors we’ve grown used to for decades – but perhaps not perfectly suited to displacing them.

1st place - VW Golf 1.0 TSI 110 SE Nav 5dr

Price £20,120 Engine 3 cyls, 999cc, turbo, petrol Power 108bhp at 5000-5500rpm Torque 148lb ft at 2000-3500rpm Gearbox 6-spd manual Kerb weight 1246kg Top speed 122mph 0-62mph 9.9sec Economy 58.9mpg CO2/tax band 109g/km, 20%

2nd place - Honda Civic 1.0 VTEC Turbo EX

Price £23,200 Engine 3 cyls, 988cc, turbo, petrol Power 127bhp at 5500rpm Torque 148lb ft at 2250rpm Gearbox 6-spd manual Kerb weight 1348kg Top speed 126mph 0-62mph 11.2sec Economy 55.4mpg CO2/tax band 117g/km, 22%

3rd place - Peugeot 308 1.2 Puretech 110 Allure

Price £20,525 Engine 3 cyls, 1199cc, turbo, petrol Power 108bhp at 5500rpm Torque 151lb ft at 1500rpm Gearbox 5-spd manual Kerb weight 1080kg Top speed 117mph 0-62mph 11.1sec Economy 61.4mpg CO2/tax band 107g/km, 20%

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michael knight 24 April 2017

Plastic fantastic

That Honda interior is a hotpot of plastic. Not nice in anyway. Exterior is a matter of taste, but it's odd to find the go-faster look that is less fashionable these days in the West still pushed by Japanese car-makers. They don't like change do they.. Also, the 308's weight / torque / accel looks off..compared t the far heavier Golf and Civic?
hardshoulder 24 April 2017

Problems with the Civic

I admire the fact that Honda has admitted it's previous strategy wasn't working. However I don't think moving the fuel tank and removing the majic seat was a good idea, as this was one of the Civic's best features. I'm also concerned with the ever increasing weight of cars. As this article states you can really feel the extra weight when you drive heavier cars and for me it spoils the drive. However this has always been the case that cars keep getting bigger and heavier, so I'll just keep on downsizing not to a Jazz though.
hardshoulder 24 April 2017

Golf facelift

I've come across one of these facelifted current Golf's on the road. Where'as it's styling may have improved (though not to my taste) I think VW have missed the functional necessities of restyles. Basically it was broad daylight and the Golf in question had it's indicators on, but neither the one with the headlights nor the one on the door mirror were visible until the car had actually turned across the round about as it came from the opposite direction and was turning across me,effectively making the front indicators useless.