Honda Civic 1.8 i-VTEC ES review
by David Finlay (25 September 2012)
Honda's latest Civic - launched in January, 40 years after the first - has some aspects which, for better or worse, are very typical of its maker, and at least one that's far better than before. The overall effect is very positive, to the point where, perhaps for the first time ever, I would seriously look at buying one if I were in the market for a C-segment family hatchback.
You're probably wondering what the big improvement hinted at in the paragraph above might be, so I may as well start with that. For years I've been moaning about how Honda, a company which above all others could be described as an engine specialist, drops the catch on nearly every occasion when it comes to suspension set-up. There is hardly a Honda that I have not criticised for its ride, or its handling, or both.
I can't do that with this Civic. There is no driving condition in which it does anything less than a class-leading job. Around town it requires very little effort, thanks mostly to steering which is precise and just avoids being too light.
On a long motorway trip - and I speak with some authority here, having covered well over a thousand miles in two days - it's comfortable and relaxing. On badly-surfaced country roads it smooths out the worst bumps and is not diverted from its course by them.
And when driven hard over a challenging, twisting, turning coast road - yes, that happened too - it behaves superbly, starting to lose a little front-end grip only in circumstances I should have known better than to get into.
(A quick aside here to mention that if you want to have fun in the Civic you should take it out of Eco mode. When this is switched on, throttle sensitivity is reduced and the car reacts in a manner pertaining to slugs. For general motoring it's fine.)
This, then, is not only the best set-up mainstream Honda I have ever driven. It's also one of the best set-up mainstream cars you can buy at the moment.
But there's more to it than that. I like the 140bhp 1.8-litre petrol engine partly because it's very quiet, and partly because it uses less fuel than I thought it was going to. The official combined figure is 47.1mpg, and depending on whether you believe me or the car I either beat that (48.0mpg measured) or missed it by a very small margin (46.8mpg on the trip computer).
Oddly, it did hardly any better in general town or main-road driving, but it still came very close to the 50mpg-plus-change I managed in a Ford Focus 1.0 EcoBoost in very similar conditions. While I admire the tiny three-cylinder turbocharged EcoBoost engine, Honda has shown that a more conventional unit can still produce impressive results.
Following Honda tradition, the gearing in the six-speed manual transmission is very close, which was ideal on that coast-road run, and quite low. Combine that with an engine which operates well at under 1500rpm (though you do have to rev it hard to get the best out of it) and you reach a situation where the gearshift indicator on the dashboard urges you to change into sixth at just 30mph.
Another Honda habit is to be slightly over-fussy in its styling. The front of the new Civic has proved to be controversial, with that part-black front section, but I'm more concerned about the rear window arrangement. There are actually two windows, and they're split by a light-bar-cum-spoiler which also houses the wiper motor and does a good job of preventing you seeing much of what's immediately behind you.
It's even worse when the glass is wet or dirty, because the wiper covers only the upper window, reducing visibility still further. As for the rear side windows, I will only remark - bitterly - that the Civic doesn't have any.
Like other Japanese brands, Honda is usually good at providing enough room for rear passengers. The Civic isn't its best effort in this respect, but it should be able to carry four six-foot adults without much trouble.
Luggage space is more impressive at 477 litres when the rear seats are in place and 1200 litres when they're folded down. The latter figure is competitive but not startling for the class (much more than the Ford Focus and Renault Megane, similar to the Vauxhall Astra, less than the Hyundai i30, Kia cee'd and Volkswagen Golf) but the former is spectacular - among the obvious rivals, only the Skoda Octavia beats it, which shouldn't be surprising as luggage volume is a Skoda speciality.
The large seats-up volume is helped by the fact that the boot floor is very low - though still with enough room for another compartment underneath - which in turn makes the load sill seem very high. It would certainly be handier if it were nearer the ground, but by class standards it's not too bad.
The Civic comes in four trim levels, ES being second from the bottom, and the 1.8 petrol engine is available with all of them. The entry-level SE is £1320 cheaper, and if your budget permits a step in the other direction you can go for the leather-upholstered EX or EX GT.
This engine is also the only one in the range offered in conjunction with automatic transmission, which adds £1400 to the price and brings the usual penalties in performance, fuel economy and CO2 emissions.