The ninth-generation Honda Civic has left me scratching my head in bemusement. You see, after sampling it on the local launch a few months ago my first impressions were less than complimentary. I didn’t like the exterior design, the interior seemed of a sub-standard quality and I felt that the 1.8-litre engine lacked the guts of its competitors – particularly when hooked up to an automatic. As you can imagine, I wasn’t too chuffed when the road test car’s keys landed on my desk, but after spending an extended period of time behind the wheel I’ve started to – dare I say – enjoy the Civic, which is surprising given my initial disappointment. That said, the Civic needs to brush up on a few areas if it’s to compete with the C-segment front runners.
There’s nothing particularly exciting to see here. Carrying Honda’s new family face and some Accord and Ballade DNA, you’ll notice that the Civic’s design hasn’t evolved much from the previous model. Nonetheless, an aggressive-looking headlight arrangement, steeply sloped windscreen, wider stance and pronounced shoulder line have given it a sophisticated appearance. From the rear it bears an uncanny resemblance to the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, particularly the tail-light clusters, with reflector panels running along the tailgate that hark back to the fourth-generation Civic Sedan (better known in SA as the Ballade DOHC). The test Elegance model comes with 16-inch alloy wheels.
Despite shrinking slightly in length and wheelbase, passenger space has improved in all areas including shoulder room (75mm) and rear legroom (40mm), but I think more time could have been spent finessing the interior ambience and raising the quality bar – especially the hospital-grey colour scheme. Not only does grey underscore the aesthetical flaws and cheap nature of the Civic’s plastic surfaces, it’s also terribly impractical. The facia lacks the soft-touch finishes of its adversaries but the architecture of the two-tier instrument cluster does lift the interior somewhat with its futuristic design. The display is divided into two distinct areas, with the main instrumentation located above the steering wheel and ancillary information below. An additional full-colour multi-function display positioned to the left of the upper level shows non-vital information such as audio settings. The centre console is also conveniently tilted towards the driver – á la mid-nineties BMW – for easy navigation of the audio and climate control switchgear. As to why Honda chose to cover the seats with a puckered leather design baffles me – a conventional black leather wrap with matching upholstery would do wonders for the cabin. Still, the seats are ergonomic and offer substantial support and comfort levels. The standard amenity list is fairly large and includes a multi-function steering wheel, heated rear-view mirrors, Bluetooth connectivity, iPod and USB ports and cruise control.
Honda has retained the services of the venerable 1.8-litre i-VTEC engine but the airflow intake volume, valve timing, pistons and cylinder head have all been tweaked to deliver more power and lower fuel consumption. You’ll need to red-line every gear of the five-speed manual ’box to harness all 104kW and 174Nm of torque – maximum power appears late in the rev range. Keep your foot planted and you’ll be rewarded with a raspy induction sound as the i-VTEC comes on cam at 6000rpm. Is it quick? Hell, yes. A seven per cent reduction in weight has given the Civic an impressive power-to-weight ratio of 87kW/ tonne. It surprised on the acceleration tests, beating the claimed 0-100kph time of 9.1 seconds with relative ease. At 8.6 seconds it’s still not as quick as the Hyundai Elantra we tested last year but feels just as eager and would make for an interesting head-to-head drag race. The Civic continues to impress with its fuel consumption. In ECON mode – a technology employed across several of Honda’s platforms – the Civic’s engine mapping and air-con cycle have been adjusted to promote better fuel consumption and emission figures. Just like the Jazz, Insight and CR-Z, an instrument display changes colour from blue to green if you follow the correct shift prompts. Driven economically you will see around 6.7ℓ/100km. We managed to, yet again, beat the claimed figure on our 80km real-world economy run, returning 6.2ℓ/100km, a figure that puts the Civic in the same company as the VW Jetta 1.4-litre TSI.
In one word: excellent. Tweaks to Civic’s ride quality and driving dynamics put it head and shoulders above its rivals. A 10 per cent increase in torsional rigidity and revised MacPherson strut front and rear multi-link suspension settings have created well balanced and sporty dynamics that is easy to live with on a daily basis. The set-up never feels too firm and effortlessly soaks up nuances in road conditions. As expected, the electrically-assisted steering offers minimal feedback, and although very much on the light side is ideal for navigating shopping mall car parks or zipping through town. There are loads of driver aids too, such as G-CON, ABS with EBD and EBA, with stability control standard on the range-topping 1.8 Executive. Although sound insulation has been significantly improved, wind and road noise continue to be an annoyance, particularly when travelling at highway speeds in excess of 100kph.
I thought I’d loathe my test time with the Honda Civic, especially after my brief encounter with it on the launch, but I was wrong. Despite the questionable cabin styling choices there are a few elements such as the alacritous engine, the sporty handling and the fuel economy that make it a feasible choice. The Civic ultimately comes undone by below-par interior quality and its price tag. The Elegance model will set you back R259900 – that’s R35000 more than the 1.8 Hyundai Elantra GLS (which comes standard with ESP), with the price deficit increasing by another R10k if you opt for the range-topping Executive. Honda is aiming to sell, on average, 300-plus Civics per month – a tough ask considering the level of competition coming out of Korea, Japan and Europe. But with a typically Honda loyal consumer base, I wouldn’t bet against it selling more.