The Europeans have the Golf, we have the Civic. Together with the Corolla, it’s one of the most iconic car nameplates in these parts. Many have either grown up with one, lusted after one or owned one; some can tick more than one box.
A household name and enthusiast favourite, Honda’s longest-running model has been with us for 43 years over nine generations. Some were groundbreaking (fifth-gen EG, eighth-gen FD) and some were not as well-loved (seventh-gen ES, ninth-gen FB), but by and large, the Civic name stood for reliable family cars with a sporty spirit.
Honda says that the all-new, tenth-generation Civic is its best ever. Pretty big shoes to fill, considering the lineage. After covering the FC on Bangkok and Jakarta motor show stands, we finally drive it to see if the claims hold water.
Remember when Honda unveiled the eighth-gen FD Civic? I do. Fresh in the job back then, this writer jaw dropped at the sight of a futuristic entry in a conservative segment. It may be familar now, but that radical shape and spaceship dashboard was out of the world back then. Still is.
The FD was a great drive too – rev-loving i-VTEC engines, a crisp five-speed auto and nimble feet gave the monoform sedan real verve to go with the style. And we’re not even talking about the JDM Civic Type R sedan (pictured above) that made a surprise official appearance in Malaysia.
After the dull ES, the FD was exactly what Honda needed to revive the Civic’s fortunes, and the bold gamble paid off. It’s hard to improve on a revolutionary product though, and the subsequent FB Civic struggled to move the game on. The ninth-gen wasn’t even a good evolution job, going a step backwards in some areas.
The Civic’s poor form coincided with the rise of the Mazda 3 and the reloaded Toyota Corolla Altis. The Mazda, armed with expressive styling and a sporty message, appealed to the young at heart; while the Altis brought to the table comfort and refinement that was on a different plane from the FB. That, plus a sharp new suit that shaved at least 10 years off the uncle’s age.
A Honda Civic as an also-ran in the C-segment was unimaginable just a few years ago, but there the FB was, uncompetitive in a class its forebears used to boss. Something drastic was needed to address the slide, something bold and radical, something like the FD…
This could be it. Honda says that the tenth-gen Civic project was one of the most comprehensive and ambitious new-model developments it has ever undertaken, requiring an unprecedented commitment of R&D resources and engineering talent. Led by a North American team – a first for Honda and Civic – they set out to achieve “dynamic rejuvenation” and develop a car that’s “in a league of its own.” Honda even went as far as benchmarking European premium compact execs (the BMW 3 Series class) for the FC Civic.
It’s obvious that the Honda folk started with a clean sheet of paper. Today’s Civic looks like nothing else in the market, never mind the mass C-segment, and the novel design draws an advanced impression.
The fastback style and long body is striking, and also a big contrast from the stubby butt of the Mazda 3. Plenty of strokes on display here – aside from the coupe-like flow of the roofline and greenhouse, a prominent character line connects the door handles and defines the car’s rear haunches. The latter is matched by Mazda-style arches over the front wheels. Another rising line and crease occupies the space between the wheels. Slab-sided it is not.
The sculptured FC is rather imposing in the metal for a car in this class, and the dimensions correspond. At 4,630 mm long and 1,799 mm wide, the new Civic is a full 105 mm lengthier and 44 mm wider than the sedan it replaces. The larger footprint is coupled with a 19 mm reduction in height (1,416 mm) for a sleek appearance. The wheelbase – cut by 30 mm from FD to FB – is (almost) back to where it was, at 2,698 mm.
One wouldn’t have guessed that the new Civic is just 10 mm longer than an Altis from just looking at it. Must be the sloping roof and wider/lower stance (24 mm wider, 44 mm lower than Altis) influencing perception.
Two Thai variants were on hand in Chiang Mai, the base 1.8 E and the range-topping Turbo RS. The entry variant rides on 16-inch rims – an inch smaller than the Turbo’s – and lacks fog lamps, chrome door handles and dual exhaust pipes, although the latter is invisible by design (the Indonesian Civic Turbo uses step-down mufflers that feel contrived).
Thais who opt for the RS get LED headlamps, LED foglamps, a gloss black winged grille and a full-length boot spoiler. The latter two items, plus the “RS” name, are Thai-market specials and may not feature in Malaysian-spec CKD Civics. The Indonesian Civic Turbo uses a “VTEC Turbo” emblem instead.
LED daytime running lights and distinctive horn-like LED rear signatures are standard. Expect Modulo accessories, including a bodykit and a shorter spoiler than the one you see here. Like the new look or not, no one can accuse Honda of playing it safe this time around.
The interior designers were a little more restrained. The dashboard of the new Civic follows the trend set by the City and Jazz in terms of layout, but the design is sharper and more technical. The sportier net effect is also due to the high centre console, which effectively demarcates the driving zone.
Gone is the two-tier arrangement from the previous two generations, and in comes a large binnacle housing a central rev meter and digital speedo. The panel is digital with customisable menus (boost meter included) and features a red theme in the Turbo – a great showroom USP – but this stubborn writer prefers the white-based analogue dial in the 1.8, which doesn’t look basic at all as there’s a large digital section.
Same goes for the centre stack, which houses the by now familiar Honda touchscreen head unit in the Turbo. The 1.8’s relatively ancient system – with small screen and physical buttons – allows for simpler/faster operation on the move.
Ditto the air con controls. The Turbo gets dual-zone auto air con, which means that both dials are used as temp controls. This relegates fan speed adjustment “into the screen”, activated by pressing the “Climate” button – that’s one extra step for a frequently used function.
It should be clear by now that the low-tech 1.8 cockpit suits this dinosaur better. Sure, it doesn’t look as advanced without the Turbo’s colourful displays, but it also doesn’t serve daily reminders that you went for the cheaper variant, as many base models tend to do. More importantly, it’s straightforward to operate and distracts less from the business of driving.
The feel from behind the wheel is very conducive. Along with the two-tier dash, FD/FB quirks like the raked windscreen and small diameter steering wheel have been ditched for a more conventional working space.
Unlike the ninth-gen, the FC’s driver seat – which has a unique narrow-at-the-shoulders design – goes down very low; couple this with the tall centre console (a trick shared with the HR-V), high dashboard and shorter distance to the windscreen and you get an enclosed cockpit feel.
Even if you discount the unique cabin shape of the previous two models, this cozy, enveloping cabin feel is new for the Civic. The feel is sporty in a technical way; think BMW and previous-gen Audi as opposed to the minimalist-sporty approach of today’s Audis and Mazda. Speaking of Mazda, the Civic’s carbon-print central belt on the front chairs appears to be inspired by Hiroshima’s 2. Another sporty cue is the mirror-finish push start button, which stays illuminated in red on the move.
Quality is generally good, with a thin layer of soft-touch plastic covering the dash top, the panel facing the passenger and front door caps. The texture is back to normal after the “flowery” pattern of the ninth-gen, and there’s printed stitching and nice metallic inserts as garnish.
The only bits that stick out for me are the panels surrounding the steering buttons – neither gloss nor matte, they look cheap and attract prints. The empty right spoke on the Thai-spec 1.8 E (no cruise control) yields when pressed, and the “glass effect” of the buttons are rather toy-like in sunlight. There’s a new slider volume control that some might find useful.
All gear must be stored away before driving, and there are no lack of holding areas in the new Civic. Like the HR-V, there’s a tunnel below the centre stack housing the power outlet, USB and HDMI ports. It fits a charging phone, and the area ahead of the gear lever is wide enough for an iPhone 6s Plus.
The centre console box is very deep and should have no problem hiding away clutch bags or iPads. There are two cupholders within, one fixed and one removable. We also managed to fit two DSLR cameras head-to-head in the glove box. Top marks in this area.
Like Thailand, Malaysia will get two engines – a 1.8 litre naturally-aspirated i-VTEC engine and the headlining 1.5 litre VTEC Turbo engine. The NA motor – which produces 141 PS at 6,500 rpm and 174 Nm of torque at 4,200 rpm – is the same R-series SOHC engine from the previous-gen. It has been retuned to match the new Earth Dreams Technology CVT gearbox, which retires Honda’s five-speed auto in the Civic.
The L15B7 direct-injection downsized turbo unit makes 173 PS at 5,500 rpm and 220 Nm of torque from 1,700 to 5,500 rpm. It effectively replaces the 155 PS/190 Nm 2.0 litre NA engine in the local line-up, and like the 1.8 NA, is mated to a CVT automatic with paddle shifters. There’s no other gearbox for the turbo engine but this CVT, even in the US, where the base model is a 2.0 litre NA with a six-speed manual.
We started off in the 1.8L, which is expected to take the lion’s share of sales despite the Turbo grabbing all the headlines. Having recently reacquainted myself with the FB Civic 1.8, it’s obvious that the FC, even with a carryover engine, is a much more pleasant companion in urban driving. The difference in noise levels is big, and this is down to the FC’s superior insulation and the CVT.
Driving around town is significantly more effortless with the CVT. The previous 5AT 1.8 needed revs to get going, which meant more engine noise. That typical hardworking Honda motor sound isn’t obvious here; the FC has more urge at low speeds and also gets up to highway speeds with less fuss. It does a pretty decent impression of a regular torque converter auto too, with stepped drops in revs as you ease off the throttle. No manual mode, but it’s not needed.
CVT used to be one of the most dreaded acronyms for those who view motoring as more than just commuting (this writer included), but this CVT-equipped Civic is a better car for most of the time, for most drivers. With this current crop from the Japanese big three, the stepless ‘box isn’t something to be feared anymore.
Slimmer A-pillars improve visibility and we also noticed better insulation from not just the engine bay, but wind and tyre noise as well. It remains to be seen if the Civic can remain hushed on harsh Malaysian roads – my guess is that while improved over the previous Civic, the Altis would still edge it on cruising serenity.
Ride comfort was untroubled by the roads around Chiang Mai, but we did notice a slightly more knobbly quality on the Turbo’s 17-inch wheels. Far from uncomfortable though, it’s no Type R. Like NVH, ride needs to be confirmed by the myriad obstacles our roads boast, but what’s for sure is the Civic’s newfound competitiveness in the comfort stakes.
No tight and twisty sections in our route, so there weren’t any tyre-screeching hijinks behind the wheel, which has pleasing weight (on the heavier side in this user-friendly camp) but precious little feel. None of the sort you’d find in the boisterous Mazda 3.
On to the point everyone is talking about, the turbo engine. VTEC Turbo – can an engine sound more evocative than that? The branding might conjure images of breathtaking Type R performance, but the expectations of enthusiasts can be counterproductive in this case, because the Civic 1.5L Turbo is all about efficiency. Efficiency in getting up to speed and efficiency in burning fuel.
We don’t have figures for the latter, but the Turbo’s FC will beat the old 2.0 NA and current 1.8 NA. What we can tell you is the way the Civic Turbo gathers speed and how one should not approach it. Not like how you would drive a Volkswagen Group turbo dual-clutch car, for instance. What you ask from the VAG car, you’ll get back in real time. Let’s not forget that the boosted Civic is still paired to a CVT, and a progressive right foot is key to a harmonious partnership.
There’s no pronounced turbo effect, or “kick in the back” as some would call it, but a linear build up in speed. The car is undoubtedly fast – never mind our old 2.0, it’ll even outdrag the USDM Civic Si with a 2.4L NA – but doesn’t quite feel that brisk pulling from low speeds. Plant your foot down on the accelerator and the drivetrain’s response is slow. I don’t think it’s turbo lag per se, but the combination of turbo and CVT characteristics.
Adopt a more measured approach and the Civic’s ample torque can be better enjoyed. It’s better at “rolling starts” than traffic light GPs and cut-and-thrust racing, a smooth operator that works best with a smooth driver. Of course, this isn’t at all an issue if you’re not expecting GTI-like sharpness from this family car.
For this reason, the 1.8L is my pick. Paired with the package-improving CVT and an all-round better car, the starter engine serves up more than adequate performance for a daily driver, and its basic amenities serve this tech-averse writer well. If I were to have more power and speed, I’d like to feel the rush as well, and not just arrive there.
Before you forget that this is a family car, here are some notes from the back seat. Honda points out that the narrow-top shape of the front seats (as opposed to a square) gives rear passengers a more airy feel, and we agree. You’ll also find class-leading leg and knee room, and headroom isn’t an issue despite the sloping roof as the rear bench is mounted low.
No more flat floor, although the hump isn’t very high. There’s a plastic panel between the outside of the seat back and the door, and it got in the way of my arm leaning naturally on the door armrest – a surprising find. Even without that flaw, the Altis is better from the rear thanks to a higher seat base and more natural seating position. There are no folding seats, courtesy of a crossbar at the end of the boot, which is not in the US-spec car.
Make no mistake, the Civic is back on form with this tenth-generation, which is probably as revolutionary as the EG and FD were. After the lacklustre ninth-gen, Honda needed something special to regain the initiative, and the FC delivers.
While the Toyota Corolla Altis majors on comfort and refinement, and the Mazda 3 focuses on driver appeal and very little else, the new Civic is an all-rounder. With improved refinement; turbo, tech and toys in the top model; fresh fastback styling and a sporty appeal; many a young man will feel a stirring in the loins dreaming of the Honda Civic. Just like the good old days.
Specs and trim of our Thai test cars may not match eventual Malaysian-spec cars. The tenth-gen Civic has now been launched.
GALLERY: Honda Civic 1.5 Turbo RS, Thai-spec
GALLERY: Honda Civic 1.8 E, Thai-spec
GALLERY: Media drive photos