Honda unquestionably gets the international wooden spoon for ‘manufacturer most intent on doing itself in’, sidestepping into the path of many a bus on its way to irrelevance. It’s a fact – the once proud company has been playing in the proverbial wilderness for a number of years now, eschewing its history, highlighting the ordinary in a cut-throat contemporary world where sex and aspiration now sell cars more than practicality and restraint.
Somebody must finally have got through to them because, in the design sense at least, the new Civic sedan is a return to some form of excitement. There has been much written about the car’s exotic styling, borrowing firebrand Samurai styling from the equally ostentatious Civic hatch, and the bottom line is that it sets the car apart from the crowd. And that crowd is a throng; the sedan must represent Honda in no less than two segments: straddling the Accord’s D segment as well as competing in its traditional C segment. That means it doubles its potential rivals, fighting off all comers from the lowly Toyota Corolla right up to Volkswagen’s astonishingly good Passat and Mercedes-Benz’s CLA. If you think that’s unfair, well, Honda itself set the bar high when it announced in 2015 that new Civic sedan ‘would better quality and luxury standards set by Audi and Mercedes-Benz’. A brave boast, so has Honda succeeded?
In a word, no. But it’s not quite that simple – there is a great deal to recommend it, even if it falls short of that exaggeration. The irony is that the best of what Civic sedan has to offer can be had lower down the price list. Our test car was the 1.5T Executive, retailing at a frankly absurd R460 000. It’s unlikely that many of these will be sold in South Africa, its presence ostensibly to soak up any Accord sales. The range starts at only a slightly ludicrous R330 000 for, curiously, a larger-engined, naturally aspirated variant, the 104 kW 1.8 volume-seller.
But to the flagship. Talk about bells and whistles. Honda is new to turbocharging, but it’s been approached in typical fashion – test, test and test again till you’re 100% satisfied that it will work, work and work. And so it is. The 1.5-litre engine is a real beaut, pulling strongly from 1 700 rpm without hesitation or murmur. It’s silky smooth and flexible and would be a unit we’d grow to really love. Would, if not for one thing – it’s linked to a CVT gearbox, and a grim one at that. That godawful modern contraption meant to save fuel by minimising off-the-boil rev shortfall is a scourge.
There are a few passable CVTs out there – from Subaru and Toyota, notably – but this is not one of them, despite a built-in attempt to create ‘steps’ like in a normal automatic. It is textbook sewing machine: characterless, raucous when under hard acceleration, with all the charm of a three-day-old boiled egg. Why do manufacturers persist in bringing this awful invention to market? Nobody likes them except for turgid Brussels bureaucrats. A well-engineered dual-clutch setup is so much more rewarding to drive and only slightly more thirsty. But no, all Civic sedans are CVT driven, hence our earlier wooden-spoon statement.
The CVT decision is also all the more frustrating because the rest of the package is genuinely appealing. First, toys. Lots of them. The flagship 1.5T Executive gets
aHonda Sensing package that includes adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and forward collision warning over and above the full leather interior, climate control, keyless entry with remote start and auto lock, heated front seats, cruise control, electric folding mirrors, rear PDC and reverse camera, an 8-speaker sound system and a Bluetooth-compatible touch-screen. I could go on, but it’d bore you. More interesting is the fact that much of that is available on the base model.
Then there’s the dynamism. Thanks to something called Honda Agile Handling Assist, it has a taut, agile, and well-sorted chassis, and the resulting drive is first-class, comfortable as well as involving. Steering is also excellent, almost too sharp, with plenty of feedback and a meaty assurance to its weight. The wheel itself also rates as one of the best on the market – it’s lovely to hold.
Slide inside and the interior is welcoming and well laid out. It sports a careful mix of Starship Enterprise whizbangs such as no-touch volume control and a three-tier dash, and more traditional comfort in the form of fat-man comfy seats, and padded everything. It’s a nice place to be, even in the back, with plenty of glass making it light and airy. Excellent sound deadening and careful attention to aerodynamics mean it’s quiet too, even at speed on bad roads.
And talking of those roads, arguably the Civic’s best feature is its suspension, which manages to be both dynamically engaging and a great soaker-upper of nasty South African surprises. On the test route, we inadvertently ploughed through a number of bone-jarring potholes, or they would have been in anything else; in the Civic, there was a cushioned thud and not much more. Sleeping policemen, bad tar corrugations and even a sneaky 20-minute dirt-road diversion couldn’t unsettle the large sedan – or our spines.
And if it could go fast, we’re sure it would be a total blast in the twisties. Sadly, that’s not on today’s agenda, decent though the 1 500 cc unit is – the Civic sedan is simply too large to play at anything other than being a suburban cruiser with this engine pushing it along. Peculiar, then, that it looks ready to compete in the TCR International Series. Will there be hotter versions? Well, there’s a coupé version in the States due soon with an upgraded 1 500 cc turbo mill, but of course, that’s not coming here. That would be too much like fun and Honda, well… we’re back to referencing the first paragraph. Ai, Honda: back down the rabbit hole…
In a nutshell:
Super sexy looks, decent engine – if you like them small and turbocharged. Interior quality excellent, ride comfort on the money
Nasty little CVT gearbox made to feel a bit like a real automatic but still horrid. And it’s the only drivetrain choice. Startlingly expensive.
- Engine: 1 498 cc, 4-cylinder, turbocharged petrol
- Power: 127 kW @ 5 500 rpm, 220 Nm from 1 700–5 500 rpm
- Performance: 0–100 km/h in 8.2 sec, top speed 200 km/h
- Tyres: 215/50/R17
- Economy: 5.9ℓ/100 km
- Transmission: CVT
- CO2 emissions: 140g/km
- Price: R460 000
Volkswagen Passat 1.4TSI Luxury
Even this base model is streets ahead of the Civic in terms of desirability, drive train and refinement. Class-leading space and economy. 0–100 km/h in 8.4 sec , top speed 220 km/h, power 110 kW/250 Nm, price R432 600
Iconic trendsetter much loved by the younger set. Civic has the same rad design appeal, but the three-pointed star beats the big H every time. 0–100 km/h in 8.2 sec, top speed 230 km/h, power 115 kW/250 Nm, price R452 408