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The Honda Civic is an impressive achievement and a worthy rival to the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus, but it isn't quite up to class-leading standards

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It's never been the kind of car maker to measure success exclusively in terms of units sold and overall market share captured – but as far as UK sales of its Honda Civic are concerned, that’s probably just as well for Honda.

This engineering-led innovator has been making Civics for four decades and more than 20 million examples have been sold worldwide.

Honda wants to compete more closely with established European firms

But despite having been built in the UK for more than a quarter of its life now, the Civic has never featured among Britain’s top 10 annual best-selling new cars.

Into that context of unexploited potential, and borne out of Honda’s will to compete more closely with the established local powers across as many of Europe’s new car market segments as possible, comes the ninth-generation Civic five-door – the third to be assembled at Swindon.

With carbon dioxide emissions, running costs, prices and kit levels that position it shoulder to shoulder with the likes of the Volkswagen Golf, Vauxhall Astra and Ford Focus, this Civic at last looks as if it has the platform from which to deliver sales results. 

Even the car we are looking at here has been described as 'too conservative for younger buyers' by the Civic's project boss, Mitsuru Kiraya. That is why Honda is readying its tenth generation Civic for launch in early 2017 to carry on its fight againsts its European contemporaries. Like the current generation the new Civic will also be built at the Swindon plant, with Honda earmarking £200 million of investment in new production technologies and processes.

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So should European drivers be pricking up their ears?

DESIGN & STYLING

Honda Civic rear

Honda was always likely to struggle to reproduce the sense of amazement that it created with the design of the 2006 Civic, so it hasn’t tried. Although the wider, more prominent tenth generation Civic comes bearing an more aggressive look.

The company describes this new version as “a thoughtful evolution”, saying the exterior styling is more athletic and elegant than that of the last car and its profile lower, wider and more aerodynamic. As much as it can be, at any rate, while retaining the old car’s basic mechanical platform and fixed references, or ‘hard points’.

This Civic is less visually appealing than the old car

The shortage of design freedom that implies might explain some of the less visually successful parts of the Civic’s styling, such as its front wings, bodyside surfaces and rear bumper treatment.

This, as most testers agreed, is not an attractive-looking car. From a functional perspective, however, design improvements have been made.

The drag coefficient is a close-to-class-leading 0.27 and rearward visibility has been improved by a more intelligently designed tailgate with a standard wiper.

Heeding feedback from dealers and customers, the Civic hatchback underwent a mild dynamic and styling refresh for the 2014 model year, aimed at giving the car a slightly more upmarket feel.

The key exterior styling changes are at the rear, which gets privacy glass on the lower rear window, and piano black finishes to the tailgate, licence plate surround and lower bumper.

The front bumper finish is made piano black, instead of anthracite grey, and there are darker wheelarch garnishes. The changes are extremely subtle, but a side-by-side comparison with older versions indicates a more cohesive appearance for those who look closely enough.

Upfront there are three engine choices, which include a 1.4-litre and 1.8-litre petrol engines and a 1.6-litre diesel engine to choose from, while the Civic Type-R comes with a turbocharged 2.0-litre VTEC engine producing 306bhp.

The 2017 model, which will be launched initially as just a hatchback followed swiftly be the tourer and the hot hatch Type R, is naturally longer and wider than its predecessor, with a longer wheelbase and 20mm lower too. As for the engines, the diesel unit, which makes up 50 per cent of UK sales will remain, however Honda are introducing two new turbocharged petrol engines in the shape of a 128bhp, 1.0-litre three-cylinder unit and a 180bhp, 1.5-litre four-cylinder powerplant.

INTERIOR

Honda Civic interior

Honda has set out to make the cabin of the new Civic more luxurious and upmarket than its predecessor’s and it has achieved this up to a point.

The interior of our test car looked and felt very pleasant, fitted out in soft, tactile plastics and leathers with all the integrity and finished with all the attention to detail that you expect of a true premium product.

Shorter drivers can find speedo obscured by the top of the steering wheel

All it really lacks is the material variety and richness, as well as the more imaginative and contemporary styling, of the plushest luxury hatches of the moment.

There are three trim levels to choose from when speccing your Civic - Sport, SE Plus Navi and SR. Opt for the entry-level model and you will find DAB radio, climate control, front and rear parking sensors, and Honda's Connect infotainment system. Upgrade to the SE Navi Plus and Garmin sat nav is included, along with auto wipers and lights, and 17in alloy wheels.

The range-topping SR models get heated leather seats and a panoramic sunroof on top, while the Type-R trim sees the addition of an aggressive bodykit, adaptive dampers, low profile tyres, a reversing camera and LED headlights.

The dashboard architecture is very much driver-orientated, made up of two arcing swathes of plastic that wrap around the right-hand seat, encompassing the binnacle below and the speedometer and new intelligent multi-information display above.

The logic of having an analogue rev counter underneath a digital speedo may seem flawed, but the car’s instruments are clear and work well.

However, we can’t say the same about the rest of the car’s secondary controls. Although the steering wheel-mounted shortcut buttons are easy to get on with, controlling the audio system and sat-nav is made needlessly difficult by fiddly switchgear. The labels are small and tricky to read, too.

Elsewhere, the cabin is designed more thoughtfully, but it’s far from the class’s most accommodating car. In the front, a high-mounted driver’s seat conspires with shallow A-pillars and a low roof line to make headroom tight; there’s over 100mm less of it than some hatchbacks offer.

In the rear, there’s about 60mm less headroom than you’ll find in a Volkswagen Volkswagen Golf, making it an uncomfortable place to travel for anyone taller than 6ft.

The boot is quite generous, though. The absence of a spare wheel makes for a split-level load bay that’s almost a metre tall. And the ‘magic’ rear seats not only fold down totally flat but also have squabs that flip upright to allow you to accommodate more ungainly things such as bicycles.

All told, there's 477 litres of boot space with the rear seats in place and a healthy 1210 litres when the bench is folded. Naturally, to keep pace with its nearest rivals Honda also offers the Civic Tourer which gives ample space and access for most carrying needs.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Honda Civic side profile

The new Honda Civic’s petrol engines range from 1.4 to 1.8 litres in capacity and 98bhp to 140bhp in power output.

Fresher to the range is a sub-100g/km 1.6-litre oil-burner, the poster child for Honda's latest, frugal engine range. It has replaced the larger capacity all-aluminium 2.2 i-DTEC unit.

Impressive new 1.6-litre diesel takes CO2 emissions down to 94g/km

The smaller 1.6-litre turbodiesel's 118bhp of peak power and 221lb ft of torque, combined with CO2 emissions of 94g/km, make it an outstanding on-paper prospect among its peers.

As is the class norm, the engine sits transversely under the bonnet and drives the front wheels through a standard six-speed manual gearbox. As with the outgoing Civic, suspension is via MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam at the rear.

The smaller diesel is pleasingly unaffected by the usual rattle and clatter of diesel engines at low and middling crank speeds, and pulls as hard as many 2.0-litre units at times.

It doesn’t like revving beyond 3500rpm too much, and isn’t as refined at high revs as it is lower down. But throttle response is good, and there’s no sense at all that what you’re driving might be in any way austerity-minded.

The 1.6-litre diesel engine is very effectively isolated from the cabin, too. Honda makes a big deal of the noise and vibration reduction regime that the Civic has been through. This has resulted in extra insulation in the rear wheel arches, roof and engine bay, better door seals all round and thicker front side windows.

You can certainly perceive the improvement. Although the noise levels we recorded look quite average, they mask a car that filters out the harshest frequencies of mechanical noise and road roar very well, and it suffers with little wind rustle.

Both the naturally aspirated 1.4-litre and 1.8-litre petrol engines are a little outclassed in terms of their figures and overall usability by the more refined turbocharged petrols available in rival cars.

The 1.8-litre petrol engine is a mixed bag. Around town and at a cruise it’s a model of smooth, hushed refinement, but it isn’t particularly satisfying to work hard.

Peak torque – and it is a peak, not a broad spread – of just 128lb ft appears up at 4300rpm, and consequently the 140bhp peak power figure appears high up, too, at a lofty 6500rpm.

Add long, widely spaced upper gear ratios, presumably to help lower the CO2 figure, and the perverse consequence is that you have to rev the high heavens out of it on wide throttle openings to make the car feel reasonable sprightly, which results in anything but low CO2 figures.

It also results in quite a bit of noise in the cabin and the need to shuffle up and down the gearbox to maintain speed – and in the 1.4-litre petrol, even more so.

A six-speed manual gearbox is the default option across all the variants, although the 1.8-litre petrol can be specified with a five-speed automatic transmission. In that form the Civic returns a claimed 44.8mpg and emits 148g/km of CO2.

RIDE & HANDLING

Honda Civic cornering

The last Civic wasn’t exactly a hard act to follow dynamically. And although the new one still isn’t quite class-leading in the completeness of its driving experience, it has been vastly improved by Honda. It’s almost exceptional in some ways, and below par in absolutely none.

Lower spring rates and more sophisticated damping have had a transformative effect on the Civic’s ride. Rather than being choppy and restless, like the last version, this new one is fluent, quiet and compliant at medium speeds, if a little busy at urban pace. Above 40mph, its chassis glides over expansion joints and manhole covers with a hushed absorbency that few rivals could equal.

Long gear ratios make the Civic feel a little lethargic at low revs

Larger, longer-wave lumps and bumps are dealt with in compliant fashion. Apart from a very minor tendency for the suspension to fuss and fidget over sleeping policemen and other urban road furniture at low speeds, you could call this the most refined car of its kind.

A little of the responsiveness and agility of the last Civic’s handling has been sacrificed, but not so much that you’ll miss it during everyday driving. Although it may be marginally slower to react, we’d take the positive, proportional and accurate steering of this new Civic over the overly fast wheel of the last car any day.

There may be slightly more body roll now, and a little more understeer at the limit of grip, but the authority of the car’s body control and the well met balance of its handling are both impressive.

Wheel size doesn’t have a hugely noticeable affect on this, but if you’re not bothered by the appearance, the smaller 16-inch wheels that you get on lower-specced Civics will soak up town surfaces better than the 17-inch wheels that were fitted to our top-spec EX GT car.

This is a Honda tuned with everyday use firmly in mind. The refinement of its ride, mirrored by the excellent manners of its engine and gearbox, will delight the high-mileage drivers it’s likely to serve on company car fleets.

The chief dynamic advantage of the 1.6 diesel – that it has taken almost 50kg off the front wheels relative to the 2.2-litre oil-burner – has been seized upon by Honda as an opportunity to make the car handle, and it does to a point.

Steering feedback is improved and initial turn-in is much more crisp, thanks to a quicker steering box and stiffer front suspension bushings. Press on and there’s also better cornering balance at higher speeds.

The car still isn’t quite as agile or poised as the class leaders, and its ride quality isn’t as highly polished, but unlike in the bigger-engined diesel, there’s no shortage of underlying competence here and little in the way of understeer.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Honda Civic

We've long since lost count of the number of quality, reliability and customer satisfaction surveys that have commended Honda over the past five years.

There is no reason to expect that a brand new Civic will be any less excellent as an ownership proposition than any of its range mates.

You can't select a spare wheel as an option in the Civic

It has insurance ratings four to five groups lower than the outgoing car’s, and competitive benefit-in-kind company car tax, especially since the 94g/km 1.6 D-Tec oil burner joined the list of available engines.

Four trim levels are offered in the UK line-up: S, SE Plus, SR and EX Plus. The price of our top-spec test car looks high, but it comes generously equipped. A similarly specified BMW 120d would cost you more than £30k.

The arrival of the 1.6 diesel has finally allowed Honda to compete with the super-efficient and very popular rivals such as the Volkswagen Golf BlueMotion.

Its figures of 78.5mpg and 94g/km rank among the best in the class when you factor in the performance advantages of the Civic's engine relative to its rivals. More than 800 miles are also possible between fill ups.

The Civic does, however, suffer slightly worse depreciation forecasts than the class-leading Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus.

Still, these cost pitfalls are fairly minor, and even taking them into account, the Civic is a well judged financial proposition by any standard.

VERDICT

Honda Civic rear quarter

At the ninth time of asking, Honda has produced a compact five-door hatchback that seems well suited to European tastes.

The Civic measures up to relevant European market standards, represents a strong value proposition and seems sufficiently well rounded and mature in its performance, ride and handling to make it a convincing alternative to the Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus, and Vauxhall Astra.

View aft is hindered by fat C-pillars and a split-screen hatch

Now, in most of the ways that matter, the Honda Civic can be considered a real contender.

Slightly poor passenger accommodation and some poorly chosen cabin equipment are all that separate the new Civic from a four-star rating.

In most other respects, it is every bit as good as the cars that dominate Europe’s family hatchback class. 

In its refinement, intelligent packaging and material quality, in fact, it’s little short of outstanding. However, the tenth generation Civic hopes its radical, if slightly more conventional look and bigger size will close the gap even more to its closest rivals and address some of the failings outlined in this road test.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Honda Civic 2012-2017 First drives