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.