Payne: Honda Civic raises the bar

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
View Comments

I think I speak for all Honda pocket-rocket owners when I say that — as a lead-footed, rev-it-’til-it-screams owner of the punchy, 100-horsepower-per-liter 2006 Civic SI — I think Honda should launch the all-new Civic with the Type R performance version. Anticipation for the rabid super-Civic has reached such a fever pitch that we fans are gnawing through our bed blankets. Have a little mercy, please, Honda.

But as product cadence dictates, Honda is releasing its volume-selling Civic sedan first. It’s hard to be mad.

Already the retail sales segment leader for the 500th year in a row, the 10th-generation Civic sedan is simply the best thing the compact sedan segment has ever seen. How good?

This car has the most interior room, biggest backseat, best fuel economy, best center console, most interior room, most (well, almost) horsepower, and is the first car in Autodom to offer both Apple Car Play and Android Auto (my Car Play-starved wife is already halfway to the dealership as I write this — she’ll be disappointed that it’s not on dealer lots until November). Oh, yes, and the Civic has its handling mojo back too, meaning it’s a challenger for best-handling car in segment.

Have a little mercy on the competition, please, Honda.

If there is a flaw in the Civic juggernaut, it’s styling and all-wheel-drive. Or the lack of it. Want four-clawed security in Michigan blizzards? Buy a Subaru Impreza. Civic will refer you to its crossover sibling, CR-V.

As for styling, Civic redefined compact good looks two generations ago with a futuristic, bullet-shaped bod. From raked windshield to sculpted tail, the eighth-gen’s slippery shape and economy of line looked like it has been penned by a German master. Son of Audi? With time, alas, it became misshapen and the new Civic is more traditional with an upright windshield and fat butt.

As a consequence it takes on a more familiar family look and is harder to distinguish from big brother Accord — much less compete with class lookers like the Mazda 3 and Ford Focus.

With its conventional lines, the Civic adopts a flashier wardrobe. It’s a mix of the good, bad, and ugly of current Japanese fashion. The good: Chrome, wrap-around front grille and headlights borrowed from Cyclops’ X-Men eyewear. The bad: Nissan-wannabe, rear boomerang taillights. The ugly: Stuck-on, Mr. Potatohead, plastic rear ducts a la Lexus RC350.

In a fleet of media testers in Dexter, I was eager to get around other Civics to spare my eyes those plastic ducts. Fortunately, overtaking isn’t a problem because this Honda is quick.

Stung by media criticism that the ninth-gen was a drunken bucket of lard (we exaggerated a bit), Honda engineers got mad. “We’re returning Civic to its roots as a fun-to-drive car,” admits Honda Product Planner Jenny Gilger.

Her team benchmarked the Civic to European performance sedans like the Audi 3. Ambitious little bugger. While I love any compact sedan for its throwable short-wheel base, Civic takes handling up a rung. Reducing the center of gravity — engine and seats are an inch lower — Civic is planted and intuitive. Over Dexter’s serpentine roads, the FWD Civic may not have been an A3 all-wheel-driver (ahem, another AWD hint, Civic) but it gained my confidence with every tire-squalling turn of the wheel.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Not content with agility, Civic also packs a punch with Honda’s first turbocharged engine. Civic restores Honda’s reputation as an engine company. And none too soon as Ford has been on a roll with its Godzilla-in-a-can, 1.0-liter Ecoboost entry-level engine for the Ford Focus. Civic’s turbo is its premium mill, and — like Ecoboost — does a lot with a little.

With just 1.5-liters, the “Earth Dreams” engine (Ecoboost, Earth Dreams ... jeez, what’s next: “Brawny Treehugger”?) is wired on turbo caffeine. Nail the throttle and it jumps like a scalded cat. And unlike my 2006, 2.0-liter V-TEC terrier, it betrays little torque steer. The torque comes on like a fever at 1,800 RPM making it a blast to drive with 174 horsepower — a whopping 31 more than the outgoing 2.0-liter.

Honda loves feeding red meat to its motorhead base — but the biggest Civic advance over last-gen (and everyone else in class) is the interior.

I crossed swords in parking lot autocrosses with the wee Honda Civic CR-X hatch in the ’80s in my compact VW Rabbit (now Golf) GTI. A lot has changed in 30 years. While the Golf has grown slightly from a 97-inch wheelbase to 103, the once-diminutive Civic has ballooned from 90 inches to 106! Haven’t seen a growth spurt like that since Shaq O’Neal in high school.

Most cars have grown, of course, but the Civic’s spurt was spurred by the introduction of the roomy Honda Fit subcompact in 2007 (now the Golf’s natural competitor).

The ’16 Civic may not be Audi’s equal in the handling department, but it’s pole-vaulted it in size. The Civic is the roomiest compact car — luxury or mainstream — that I have tried on with 6-foot-5-inch frame and size 15 shoes. I can “sit behind myself” in the rear seat with ease. Knees forward, head upright. Try that in a Mazda 3. Ouch.

I dig the console too. Credit the diminished windshield in the tenth-gen which forced interior designers to rethink the space. Where the ’15’s console looked like a library of stacked shelves, the ’16 is smartly laid out with a digital instrument panel and flush, iPad-like infotainment screen.

Upon entering Civic I immediately synched my Samsung to Android Auto (which requires a little more patience than Apple Car Play), then stashed my phone under the console. Yes, under. Like those clever sub-trays in the Lincoln MKC and MKZ. Honda’s versatile center console includes sliding cup-holders on top — and a deeper one for Big Gulp drinks that will enrage soft-drink despot Michael Bloomberg.

From Pilot SUV to Civic, give Honda interior designers a blue ribbon. From losers to winners in one generation.

Civic is such an all-around athlete, its omissions are curious. Winter warriors (like Mrs. Payne) will stick with their AWD Subarus no matter how loud the Apple Car Play sirens sing. As for me, I’ll keep patiently waiting for the SI and Type R performance variations.

I love big back seats — but the driver’s seat is where I live.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at HenryPayne.com

Vehicle specs.

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact sedan

Price: $19,474 ($25,535 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, inline-4 cylinder; 1.5-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 158 horsepower, 138 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter); 174 horsepower, 162 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter)

Transmission: 6-speed manual; Continuously variable automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.4 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 2,742 pounds base (2,899 EX-T trim as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 27 city/40 mpg highway/31 mpg (manual, 2.0-liter gas); 31 city/41 mpg highway/35 mpg (CVT, 2.0-liter gas); 31 city/42 mpg highway/35 mpg (CVT, 1.5-liter turbo)

Report card

Highs: Super-sized rear seat; Turbo-riffic

Lows: Those plasticky, rear-duct thingies; AWD option, please


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★

View Comments