A Civic to explore the fickle world
The new Honda Civic arrives next year. Can it beat the Focus and Golf at their own game, asks Shane O'Donoghue
It's a funny, fickle world we live in. When the current, eighth-generation Honda Civic was launched in 2006, it was criticised for being a sci-fi oddball. Triangles, not usually known for their use in car design, dominated proceedings, shaping everything from the front fog lamps to the rear exhaust openings. And the interior was even more bizarre, with its multi-level mix of analogue and digital instruments; something called "magic seats"; and a spoiler splitting the rear window just where you'd like to be seeing out via your rear-view mirror.
Now, as we accelerate towards 2012, and Honda reveals a replacement, there are murmurs of dissent from commentators. Apparently the new car is too evolutionary, too much like its predecessor. You just can't please some people, can you?
Away from the glare of the Frankfurt Motor Show lights (where the new Civic was unveiled for the first time), the new car is more interesting than you might first think. Choose a bright colour, preferably metallic, and the dark-coloured centre section of the nose stands out, while the new headlamps and LED daytime running lights are thoroughly modern.
The overall side profile is familiar, though the sculpting of the body is all-new and Honda has restyled the rear end, too. Annoyingly although Honda admits that customer feedback told them visibility was an issue, there's still the characteristic split in the rear window. It has been lowered, the overall glass area is larger and there's a rear wiper now, but it still can hide the lights of a following car. I was not alone at the launch in wondering why Honda persisted with this design feature.
Thankfully, Honda has also kept the 'magic seats' and the name is not completely undeserved. Along with doing the useful (though fairly widespread) trick of folding flat, the base of the Civic's rear pews can be lifted up and locked against the back rest, opening up a massive extra space for large items.
This is made possible by mounting the fuel tank further forward in the car than is the norm and hence it is unique to the segment.
Ah yes, the segment. You can't review a car of this size without referring to the leaders in the class, namely the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf. They're both good to drive, yet comfortable, built of solid stuff and available with a wide variety of engines and trim levels. On top of all that, they have a huge following among Irish buyers. The previous Civic was no lemon, yet its sales figures languish next to its rivals'. The new one has to be particularly good to change that.
In terms of how it drives, the new Civic is a real gem. It's comfy like the Golf, but just as capable as the Focus on a twisty road. Importantly, it's stable on the motorway and its handling is safe and secure. Yet direct steering and well-contained body roll give it a sporty feeling. A good start.
At the time of writing, Honda Ireland had yet to divulge its plans for the model range, though I'd wager that the 100hp 1.4-litre petrol engine will remain one of its biggest sellers, despite an obsession in the market for diesel power. As before, it's in Band B for tax and it'll be the cheapest model. We don't expect the 142hp 1.8-litre petrol engine to make a dent in sales here, though it can be had in Band B form. The updated 2.2-litre turbo-diesel engine (150hp) is now in Band A, so it may get more of a look-in than before. It's just a shame it's more expensive than the petrol engines. Honda is working on a 1.6-litre turbodiesel, but it's unlikely to hit Irish shores until 2013.
From where I was sitting, the 2.2-litre diesel engine is the pick of the range. It's not as quiet as the petrol options, but it's significantly quicker and more rewarding to drive. Where you need to drop down a gear on hilly motorways in the petrol cars, the diesel engine has bags of grunt and is hence more relaxing overall. It'll be interesting to see how it's priced here.
Honda will announce full pricing and spec levels later this week, but a quick glance at the official Honda Civic microsite for the Irish market throws up a few clues about what to expect. The line-up will be SE, ES, EX and EX-GT, in order of price and specification. The latter appears to feature large alloys and a panoramic glass roof, while it and the EX version share leather seats and a touch-screen infotainment system with satnav. Click the button for "SE" and, if you're a stickler for details, you'll notice that the phone system buttons on the steering wheel disappear, so that possibly doesn't come with Bluetooth.
Anyway, that's guesswork on my behalf, but it shouldn't be too wide of the mark. At the end of the day, the overall purchase price is going to be the most important factor in this car's success rather than detail spec changes.
The new Civic is not what you'd call blindingly better than its key rivals, but it is at least as good as them in many areas.
I can confirm that it drives as well as its peers, is suitably comfortable and mostly refined. It is also more economical than before and thankfully through all that remains one of the most practical, versatile cars in the class. However, fickle a world as we live in, brand loyalty in cars is still alive and kicking.
Sunday Independent Supplement