The Honda Civic has been around in one form or another since 1972. From those early beginnings, when it had the role of trying to increase Honda’s sales of passenger cars by offering something bigger than the diminutive N360 and N600 model city cars, and the S and Z sports cars (let’s ignore the ill-fated air-cooled 1300 saloon, as that was hardly a sales success), it has become a cornerstone of the range. Whilst there is generally a model that Honda produces that now outsells it in most world markets, its typically not far behind in volume terms, whether it be the larger Accord, or the CR-V crossover, or even the smaller Jazz/Fit supermini. So getting it wrong is going to have significant implications. And when it came to the ninth generation car launched at the end of 2011, but conceived and developed directly after the 2007/8 credit crunch, Honda did get it wrong, and in a big way. The US market model was deservedly panned by the American press for its dull appearance, particularly cheap interior and driving dynamics which were not as good as the model it replaced let alone those of a raft of strong competitors. Stung by the criticism, Honda rushed through a major revamp program, and the changes that appeared a couple of years after the model’s launch went sone way to addressing the issues. From my own experience, as I did manage to sample the “before” and “after”, I can attest to the fact that Honda probably did the best they could with such an unpromising start point. It was enough to ensure that the model’s slide down the sales charts was only the same as that experienced by others of its type, as the market moved inexorably to crossovers, and enough to ensure that the Civic was competitive with the equally uninspiring Toyota Corolla, perhaps its greatest US market rival, but no more than that. For the tenth generation car, Honda clearly intended to do a whole lot better, and they started with pretty much a clean sheet of, well, a computer screen, as paper is not what cars are designed on these days.
For the tenth generation of the Civic, Honda have reconverged their offerings globally, so what look like the same cars are sold in North America as they are in Europe. The US market was the first to see this iteration of the Civic. with a four door saloon appearing in September 2015, at the You Tube Space LA, with production starting a couple of months later and a two door coupe being added to the range at the Los Angeles Show in November 2015. Both are built locally, in the US, for this key market. But the five door hatch model, the full production version of which came out at the Paris Show in October 2016 after a so-called prototype, which – unfortunately, in the view of many, me included – looked exactly like the end result, was shown at the 2016 Geneva Show, is actually made in Swindon. And it was America that received it, some months ahead of UK and European markets, with sales starting in late 2016, whereas Europe had to wait until early 2017 for their cars. During the summer of 2018, Honda announced that they would now sell the four door sedan in the UK, though sales of any model of this type are never that great, and I’ve yet to see one on British roads. However, you see plenty of them on American streets, as whilst the car may have slipped out of the Top Ten most months, it is now outselling the dread Toyota Corolla rival, and is the biggest seller in its class in the US. Where you don’t generally see them, though, is in the rental car facilities. Honda have long been a rarity, with just the occasional sighting, as evidenced by my tests of both an HR-V and a Pilot on my last trip. On the first day of the December 2018 visit, I came across this 2017 model year car parked up. It bore Florida plates, and there was a rather badly attached sticker bearing the name “Hendricks” under the badge, the name I suspect of a supplying dealer. Although the grey paint that Honda call Modern Steel Metallic did not immediately shout “pick me” to the photographer in me, knowing that I might never see another Civic available like this was the clincher, and I took it for a day up in the mountains to see what it was like.
Ignoring the Type R for now – and how could you do so, with its really shouty looks, one might ask? – there is a choice of two engines in US market Civic models. The entry level one is a 2 litre 4 cylinder naturally aspirated unit generating 158 bhp, and there is also the option of a 1.5 litre Turbo that, depending on the trim it is associated with, puts out a further 16 or 22 bhp, making a total of 174 or 180 bhp. Needless to say, rental car spec meant that I had the former. It also meant I got the automatic transmission, which is a CVT unit, as opposed to the 6 speed manual. I set off, onto the roads that lead to the nearest exit of the 405 freeway, destination of the mountains to the north of Los Angeles, and initially I was not that impressed. For sure the engine is willing enough, and it seems quite smooth, but it it also seemed rather ordinary. The CVT was a bit better than that, though, responding quite well to movements of my right foot, with none of the apparent lag in reaction that you still get with some of these gearboxes. As this was a Saturday, traffic on the freeway was flowing well, so there was no real test of the urban crawl that you would get from the same road on a Monday morning at that time. Once clear of Downtown, there is a quite significant climb on the Sepulveda Pass up over the Hollywood Hills, past the Getty Centre and UCLA, and here the engine had to work that bit harder. Something it does quite readily, but you soon find that this unit which sounds quite refined when you are on a light throttle and relatively low revs gets really quite raucous once you exceed 3000 rpm. Push it over 4000 rpm, which it will willingly do – this is a Honda after all – and it is plain noisy. Performance is not lacking, with response available from the engine whenever you ask for it. That is also partly a reflection on the CVT transmission, of course, which does more or less fulfil the promise of ensuring you are in the right gear ratio at any point in time. All the US reviews I found talked about a lively performance from both engines, but it was noticeable that every single one of them seemed then to have tested the 1.5 litre Turbo, so there was no direct experience of the less potent 2 litre unit. Whilst 158 bhp is more than you will find in most of the Civic’s competitors, the car did not feel noticeably more rapid than the better of them Those reviews all talk of excellent economy. As I only covered around 200 miles, I did not have the chance to brim the tank, so it is possible that the Civic was only “rental car full”, though I did drive quite a long way before the needle move at all, suggesting it was probably better than that. I put in exactly 6 gallons of regular at the end of the day, which calculates to exactly 33 mpg US, or 39.42 mpg Imperial. Whilst they might sound like a good result, I have seen better from cars a size bigger than the Civic, and the Toyota Corolla has always returned better fuel economy than that, too.
It was when I got to the canyons that the Civic seemed to come alive. In everyday motoring, the steering strikes you simply as being fit for purpose, typical of many an electrically assisted set-up, where there is not too much weight to contend with, and as a consequence, that extra bit of feel that so marks out a Mazda or a Ford is not there. But, once I got to the twisty bits, with swooping bends, it was a different story. Here, the chassis was in its element, and the Honda handled and gripped the road in a way that surprised me. And all in a good way. You really could feel that the engineering heritage that had – long ago, now – made Honda the pick of the Japanese brands, was back. This car was a lot of fun on those roads There’s not much body roll, and as each curve was tackled with some gusto, you could feel how the car was turning-in following just the line you wanted, and the back would follow with it. It was a surprise, and a pleasant one at that, just how good the Civic turned out to be. I found that I could tackle all those curves with greater speed, and yet a feeling of total control, than I would have expected, and enjoyed the experience of so doing. What’s more, there’s no penalty to be paid with an uncompromising ride, as the Honda is sufficiently well damped that it is comfortable as well as being fun. The test car rode on 215/45 R17 wheels, and it coped well with both the undulations and the ridges and pot holes that characterise the roads of Southern California. The brakes were well up to the task, too. There is an electronic parking brake, operated by a small button to the left of the gear lever. Manoeuvering this Honda was not that hard. The steeply sloped rear window would be a problem but with America now requiring a rear-view camera on all new cars, the image, although a bit blurry, projected on to the audio screen helped massively in determining just where the rear of the car was. In other respects, the car was easy to see out of, with a decent field of view from the door mirrors.
It was the particularly cheap feel to the interior of the launch versions of the last generation Civic that got a lot of the brickbats, and you can tell that Honda have tried to avoid a repeat here. I would say that they’ve been partially successful. If you are expecting anything with the material quality of a Golf, then you are going to be disappointed. There are a lot of different materials, textures and colours here, and some of them still look and feel cheap, but the overall effect is one which treads a reasonably successful line between imaginative and functional. The steering wheel is a plastic moulded item, but it was a nice thickness and was actually pretty decent to hold. The split level instrument display of previous generations is gone. You now get a single instrument cluster, which has a large central rev counter, with digital speedo inset in the middle, flanked by water temperature and fuel gauges. The central dial also contains a moving bar chart showing instant fuel economy as well trip mileometer functions. It is all easy to read. There are two column stalks, with the lights operated by twisting the end of the left hand one. Small buttons on the steering wheel spokes are used for audio repeater and cruise control functions. The centre of the dash has an integrated 5″ colour touch screen display, which in the case of the LX trim is used solely for the audio unit and to set the clock. You don’t get XM Satellite radio in this version, so the unit is very simple to use and there are buttons on either side and an on/off and combined volume knob to one side of the base and a tuning knob to the other. Beneath this are the buttons for the single zone climate control. The centre console has the electronic parking brake to one side of the gear lever and the ECO model button to the other, along with a number of other blanked off positions. The ensemble is easy to use, and a little less futuristic than has been the case with previous generation Civic models.
This being a base model car, I expected manual seat adjustment, and that is what I found, with a bar under the seat for fore/aft movement and two levers on the side for backrest rake and seat height. the front passenger does not get the height adjuster. It was obvious that the column moved, too, but it took quite a while to find the release, which was well hidden very low down and to the left. Once I located it, I could push the wheel in and up to get the right driving position. The seats are covered with a cloth type upholstery, which is typical of cars at this price point, and is no nicer or less pleasant than you will find in rivals. I did not spend long continuous periods in the Civic, as I was hopping in and out quite a lot doing photos and taking in he scenery, but the chair seemed comfortable enough.
Those in the back may or may not be as comfortable. The Civic is now easily the largest car in its class, and that does mean that there is that bit more legroom, so even with the front seats set well back, there should be ample space for those with legs longer than mine. There is something of a transmission tunnel, but the issue will more be whether there is enough width for three to sit comfortably there anyway or not. Less of a doubt is the fact that the sloping rear roofline does compromise headroom. My head was wedged pretty tightly against the rooflining when I tried it. Further evidence of the rather miserly LX trim is the absence of a rear armrest, and there are no map pockets on the back of the rear seats. Occupants here get two small bins on the doors for their odds and ends and that is it.
The sloping rear styling means that there is not much length to the boot lid, so although the luggage area is quite reasonable, the aperture to get things in and out is pretty small. There is a spare under the boot floor, but precious little room around it for odds and ends. More space can be created by dropping the rear seat backrests down. Inside the cabin, whilst rear seat occupants are not well provided for in terms of places for bits and pieces, up front there is a good sized glovebox, bins on the doors, a recess in front of the gear lever, and a larger space under the main centre console (which is a little awkward to access and the rear part of the centre console contains a pair of cup holders and a stowage area with a sliding armrest lid acting as partial cover.
The Civic comes in three body styles: sedan, hatchback, and coupe. The Sedan comes in five main trim levels: LX, EX, EX-T, EX-L, and Touring. The EX trim is probably the best bet, as it comes with many desirable features – including Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, a larger 7-inch touch screen, and a moonroof – that you can’t get in the base trim. It also comes standard with Honda LaneWatch. The Civic hatchback comes in LX, Sport, EX, EX-L Navigation, and Sport Touring trims. The EX trim is the best value option, and it has similar features as the EX sedan. The coupe comes in LX, LX-P, EX-T, EX-L, and Touring trims. To get similar features as the EX sedan and Civic hatchback, opt for the coupe EX-T trim. For more spirited drivers, there’s the high-performance Si sedan and Si coupe, and the Honda Civic Type R hatchback. Si models have a 205 bhp turbocharged 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine, while the Civic Type R increases power output to 306 bhp from its 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine. There’s an abundance of options to choose from, and these are the main ones. Start point – which is what the test car was, is the Civic LX, with an entry price of $18,940. Coupe and hatchback models start at $19,350 and $20,150, respectively. LX sedans and coupes come with a 2.0 litre 158 bhp four-cylinder engine. Civic hatchbacks come with a turbocharged 174 bhp four-cylinder engine. No matter which body style you choose, you’ll find a rearview camera, Bluetooth, a 5-inch display screen, and a USB port. An automatic transmission ($800) and the Honda Sensing system ($1,000) are available. The Honda Civic Sport ($21,750) is a hatchback-only trim. The Sport gets a more powerful 180 bhp turbocharged 1.5-litre engine and sporty enhancements like dual exhaust pipes, a spoiler kit, and sport pedals. Other additives include a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a rear-seat armrest, and fog lights. A manual transmission is standard, but you can get a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) for $800. Honda Sensing isn’t available in this trim. The Honda Civic EX starts at $21,340 for the sedan and $23,250 for the hatchback. Both the sedan and hatch come with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, push-button start, satellite radio, a 7-inch touch screen, an eight-speaker audio system, HD Radio, a moonroof, Honda LaneWatch, and two USB ports. The EX-T trim is available as a sedan ($21,600) and a coupe ($21,700). This trim features the 174 bhp engine and adds fog lights, dual-zone climate control, and heated front seats in both body styles. An $800 CVT and a $1,000 Honda Sensing system are available. The EX-L trim has a starting price of $24,000 for the sedan, $23,725 for the coupe, and $25,750 for the hatchback. It adds an auto-dimming rearview mirror and leather seats. Hatchback models also come with a navigation system, and sedan and hatchback models gain a power-adjustable driver’s seat. For an additional cost, you can add the CVT and Honda Sensing. The Honda Civic Touring comes in sedan ($26,800) and coupe ($26,425) body styles. It adds the Honda Sensing system, heated rear seats, and rain-sensing wipers. Sedan models add a power-adjustable passenger seat, and coupe models add a navigation system. The hatchback-only Sport Touring trim ($28,750) also adds a power-adjustable passenger seat and the Honda Sensing system, as well as an upgraded audio system and the 180 bhp engine.
Nothing is going to persuade me to like the look of this tenth generation Civic. Even a couple of years after release, I find it awkward and contrived, though it has to be said that the four door model is not quite as fussily detailed as the Hatch. That is a car that someone once said they thought was made out of Lego! However, from inside, you don’t have to look at it, and you can consider what it is like to drive. And here, it impresses. I suspect that an upgrade to the 1.5 litre turbo is worth the extra money, and the LX trim really does feel like it has been pared back to keep the price low. Get the spec right, though, and you have a car which is surprisingly good to drive, scores well on practicality with plenty of space in it, and with all the attributes of a Honda in terms of predicted reliability. It is no wonder that it is now out-selling the Toyota Corolla in the US, though a fight-back in that regard will start with the launch of an all new Toyota in early 2019. By that time, there will also be a new Mazda 3, which has good looks on it side, even before understanding how well it drives. And the current one is pretty much at the top of the class in that regard. I suspect that the Mazda will remain the family-sized car of choice in America, as having now driven all the protagonists that are on offer in 2018, I would say it holds that position right now. But be in no doubt that the Civic runs it closer than I was expecting.