Despite a paradigm shift that has largely taken buyers away from the C-segment sedan market, Honda believes there is still quite a bit to play for in the segment, and is looking at the 11th-gen Civic replicating the purple patch run accomplished by its predecessor.

When it arrived on the scene in 2015, the tenth-gen FC entered into a field that was dwindling, increasingly hemmed in by the likes of the SUV and increasingly upsized B-segment offerings. That the car effectively rejuvenated the segment showed that there can still be validity – and relevant numbers – if you get the product right.

Of course, the fear has been that, based on the ebb and flow history of the nameplate over the past two decades (seventh-gen ES, no show, no go; eighth-gen FD, wowwee; ninth-gen FB, the cost-cutting car, enough said; 10th-gen, home run), the new FE – launched here in January – would somehow come up short. It probably didn’t help that it looked rather underwhelming when it first appeared on the horizon in early images, its shape not very striking visually.

What’s in a shape?

In terms of styling, the move away from the edges and kinks of its predecessor to solidly hemmed lines makes the car less eye catching, but the clean lines actually fall quite nicely, with the car coming across much easier on the eye in the metal than it does in photos.

Yes, it does look stoic, in that it follows a safe, predictable approach in how it is sculpted, but there’s an European feel to it, almost Audi-esque at times, even BMW-ish at points, which will appeal to those who find such forms attractive.

It really is one of those cars that get better the more you look at it. And, having finally driven it over a run from KL to Penang and back, there’s much more than meets the eye with this one.

Size-wise, the dimensions have grown a little, the new car measuring in at 4,678 mm long, 1,802 mm wide and 1,415 mm tall, which makes it 30 mm longer, three mm wider and one mm lower than before. At 2,733 mm long, its wheelbase is also 33 mm longer than the old car. If you don’t view them side by side, you’d think the FC is the bigger car, such is the way the lines project on that one.

Exterior kit includes automatic LED headlights and LED DRLs across the model range, and the E rides on two-tone 16-inch alloy wheels. The V adds on LED fog lamps, chrome accent door handles and goes a size up with its wheel, the 17-inch two-tone unit from the RS model in Thailand.

As it was with the pre-launch preview drive in Sepang, only the range-topping RS was present for the media drive of the car, which sought to gauge the road-going capabilities of the car. The variant, which Honda Malaysia says is currently outdoing the V in sales, adds on RS-specific cues such as LED headlights with darkened internals, matte black side window trim and twin tailpipes.

It also features a unique rear spoiler, gloss black highlights on the wing mirrors, door handles and shark fin antenna as well as attendant RS badging and an 18-inch five-double spoke wheel, finished in matte black. As a package, the accoutrements work better with some exterior colours than others; the Ignite Red Metallic we ended up with is one of them.

Taking things up a notch, or two

The exterior isn’t the only thing to have become cleaner, because the same philosophy has also been applied to the interior, best evidenced from the frontal perspective of the cabin. Gone are the swoops and assortment of angles from the dashboard (and centre console) seen previously, replaced by an unfettered horizontal surface on top of which sits a freestanding infotainment touchscreen display.

The taut approach of the dashboard is not new – think Audi and, if you will, Mazda, and you get the picture, but the pitch towards decluttering can be seen everywhere now. Even Ford ditched the complexity (and wasted space) of the third-gen Focus’ dashboard for the same approach with the fourth-gen. Clean is in, and so it is, for the moment at least.

In any case, Honda has imbued enough styling into its process that it is distinct enough. The air-conditioning vent design is one such element, now integrated within a slim panel and tucked away from direct sight by a honeycomb-styled metallic mesh cover, with pin adjusters demarcating their position. The steering wheel is another, the three-spoke unit featuring slimmer horizontal spokes to continue the lean projection.

Competition spurs innovation, it is said, or at the very least a response, and for that, new Civic buyers will have other players to thank for the improvements made along these lines. Honda material and trim hasn’t always been the brightest and nicest, but that on the new car has taken an upscale turn. On the whole, things have become decidedly more premium, both to feel and touch in non-contact trim and switchgear.

Elsewhere, the seats have been redesigned on the new car, and are a jump up in support and comfort from the previous one. The media drive offered a lot of seat time, and there’s nothing to complain about the front unit in how it seats the occupant. Like before, you continue to sit low, but the visual perspectives are clean, and the unit bolsters well.

Likewise, nothing untoward in the report card for the rear seats. There’s plenty of legroom and the overall ergonomics of the bench, which has now allowed more recline to be introduced as a result of the additional length to the wheelbase, provided decent seating over the course of the drive.

Standard fit items include keyless entry (with remote engine start), push-button start, single-zone automatic climate control with rear vents, fabric upholstery and a reverse camera. The V adds on paddle shifters, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, an eight-way powered driver’s seat, illuminated vanity mirrors and leather upholstery. The RS adds on automatic wipers, suede elements and red stitching to the uphostery, alloy pedals, a black headliner, footwell lighting and ambient lighting strips integrated into door trims.

Legibility across both displays, a seven-inch semi-digital instrument cluster (the speedometer is analogue, like on the Accord) and the nine-inch touchscreen infotainment unit (also on the V; the E gets a seven-inch unit) is good, and from a connectivity viewpoint, there’s Android Auto and wireless Apple CarPlay – colleague Jason Chung connected his iPhone to the system, and the latter worked smoothly and without hiccups.

Likewise, the performance of the audio system – the car’s eight-speaker audio system (four on the E) actually sounds decent, and is miles ahead of that on the current Accord’s, with which I spent a week with post-drive. While room for further improvement is there, it’s nice to see that automakers are paying attention to aspects of the infotainment system beyond the allure of a sparkly large screen.

One engine to fit them all

With the 1.8 litre normally-aspirated unit being dropped from the line-up, all three Civic variants now come with a 1.5 litre VTEC Turbo four-cylinder engine. The unit now comes with Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control, and revisions – which include reworked turbocharger components for improved response as well as a revised crankshaft and oil pan for increased refinement – lend to an improvement in output. The unit now offers 182 PS at 6,000 rpm and 240 Nm of torque from 1,700 to 4,500 rpm, an increase of eight PS and 20 Nm from before.

The partnering transmission remains an Earth Dreams CVT, but the automaker says that the unit now benefits from improved responsiveness through extensive software calibration work done on it. As before, the ‘box provides seven virtual ratios and selection via paddle shifters on the V and RS variants.

Safety-wise, the Civic now comes fitted with the Honda Sensing suite of driver assistance features across the entire model range, with only the LaneWatch blind spot camera and the automaker’s Connect system of telematic services omitted on the base E variant.

The Sensing kitbag consists of autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control with stop and go, lane centring assist, lane keeping assist and automatic high beam, and new to the car is a lead car departure notification system, which alerts the driver if the car in front is moving off from a stop.

There was ample opportunity to try out the various components of the system during the drive, if only to see if any significant changes have come about. All continue to work as advertised, although the forward collision warning system felt a bit trigger happy in reacting to perceived obstacles, and the low-speed follow function remained pretty much the same in how offered stopping distance, which means you’re not likely to use it in heavy traffic, unless you want cars to keep slipping in to the space in front of you.

What? Continental in feel and presentation?

All the good work done elsewhere would be for nought if the Civic didn’t offer improvements in how it drives, and in this regard, the pluses continue, with significant strides being made in the areas of ride and handling.

Handling-wise, the Civic doesn’t alter the formula that much, the response to steering being a little quicker and the overall behaviour less fidgety compared to the old car, at least from what was perceivable. With most of the course on the journey consisting of highways and urban travel, the gains weren’t very evident, at least from a road-going perspective (see here for track-related notes on the car prior to its launch) – more on this when the car comes in for the usual review session.

However, in terms of ride, things are fairly obvious. Having taken a decidedly European flavour, the Civic is now closer in feel to a Volkswagen Golf (which, along with the Audi A4, was a performance benchmark) in how it reacts to the tarmac across most of the speed range.

The ride is well damped, firmish in nature but never jarring, even on poorer surfaces, and you’d be forgiven if you closed your eyes as a passenger and thought you were in some Continental offering, a well-sorted one at that. The prev-gen FC rode well enough, but its ride was never as sophisticated or broad-ranging in scope as this. Arguably, this is the area where the Civic shows the most progress.

In terms of acceleration and push, the extra ponies and twist from the reworked mill aren’t really noticeable, but the delivery is now more refined and quieter, and the progression up the speed range feels more linear. The transmission also feels a bit more sprightly on the whole with its new mapping, although it did continue to exhibit a tendency to remain efficient rather than sporty when asked to go at times.

As for NVH, the cabin has also improved in terms of quietness, a definite leap from the old car especially in the area of tyre noise intrusion. While it’s not completely absent of this, there still being some creep of it evident from the rear, the interior is well insulated from external noise.

There is however a caveat to this. At speeds of up to 130 km/h, the cabin remains well damped and isolated, but cross that point and the level of external noise (wind, road) jumps up, and in a light switch manner. While there’s no sacrifice in stability or loss of poise, the audible nature of the sonics does cut into the driving enjoyment. Given that most drivers won’t be doing speeds above that mentioned earlier, this should be a non-issue for just about everyone, but it’s there if you go looking for it.

Everything comes at a price

I came into the drive sort of guessing how the car would shape up, but came away from it more than pleasantly surprised at how well it exceeded expectations. The shape, as it turns out, is very likeable, especially presented in its RS form, but it is the workings elsewhere that scores the real hits and makes for more than just an evolution from that before.

The polished veneer of the interior and the immense – and very agreeable – ride are the most obvious picks, but it’s how the entire car is packaged that makes for the appeal. Sophistication, luxe and maturity are not buzzwords usually associated with the Civic, but here they are.

All this does come at a cost, and quite literally at that. Prices for the new Civic start from RM125,635 for the base E, moving on to RM138,043 for the mid-level V, and tops off at RM144,350 for the RS. That’s a significant increase (ranging from RM10k to RM16k) from their respective FC examples. For added perspective, the RS comes in at a price point the Accord was at not quite a decade ago.

On the drive, someone posed the metaphorical question – will the FE outsell the FC? The answer is surely no, not because it falls into the up/down trap associated with the car over the previous few cycles, but because its price will determine that total numbers won’t get it close. Which is a shame, because the 11th gen Civic is a better, more complete offering than the car it replaces. Right now, I’d venture it positively towers over everything else in the segment it is competing in. Over to you, Mazda.