There are certain cars that, even in the event of the total collapse of civilization and humanity’s descent into a post-apocalyptic hellscape, will still be sold by the tens of thousands each month. The Honda Civic is one of them. But even though the Civic’s sales are as sure as death and taxes, when was the last time one was really worth buying?
(Full disclosure: Honda sent me a 2016 Civic with a full tank of gas for a week.)
I had this conversation with a friend in the market a few years back. She had a Civic once, then a string of unfortunate small General Motors sedans, and wanted a Civic again. Our discussion went thusly:
Me: The Civic’s always an okay choice, but have you considered the Mazda 3? It’s my favorite, and…
Her: Nope. Honda Civic. Four doors, automatic.
Me: Well, sure, but also the Hyundai…
Her: No. Civic. CIV-IC.
Me: Yes, but these days Ford…
Her: CIVIC CIVIC CIVIC.
And so on, because Civics are just those cars that people buy as a matter of course. Honda must have figured that out, because the last Civic—and probably the one before that—was a thoroughly phoned-in product.
It still sold well, because it was the Honda Civic, but it was a wildly uncompetitive, boring, low-tech offering in a segment it once led without question. Even the emergency update didn’t help it to not suck, and yet the car still sold 335,000 copies last year. Somehow.
Honda aims to do even better with the all-new 2016 Civic. And after spending a week in one, I can tell you Honda hasn’t just succeeded, they hit a gigantic home run.
Honda seemed willing to nuke everything and start over, and that begins with the design. Gone is the Civic sedan’s long-running three-box snoozefest; it’s replaced with a tapered, faux-hatchback/coupe look, even though it is very much a sedan with a trunk and not a hatch.
Honda’s gigantic, obnoxious front shield aside, I like the way the car looks. It’s the first Honda Civic that’s even remotely visually interesting since that weird old Civic Si hatchback of the early 2000s. Some have likened it to an Accord Crosstour; I think that’s a bit harsh. It’s not as elegant-looking as any of the current Mazdas, but it’s striking and different.
Striking! Different! Honda Civic? Waaaaaaah? Stranger things have happened.
My tester was a loaded top-trim Civic 1.5T Touring model. It sported the new 1.5-liter turbo four with 174 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque. In 2016 we find ourselves in an era where the top engine is the smaller turbo one; a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four goes on the base car, but it’s had some problems lately.
The 1.5 turbo’s the one you want anyway. It’s no old-school VTEC high-rev screamer, but it provides loads of midrange torque great for quick city maneuvers or highway pulls. It’s a smooth, punchy, capable engine that never once felt underpowered or like a cheap economy car motor.
Instrumented testing at Car and Driver puts the 0 to 60 mph time at 6.8 seconds, which is really not bad at all. Faster than the last Civic Si, apparently! The point is, the Civic is finally pretty fun to drive again, and that in and of itself is a win.
Right now, however, the only transmission option with the 1.5 turbo is a CVT; a manual is coming, and one can be had now on the 2.0 base engine. The thing is, the CVT here is really not that bad.
I know that’s like saying “I have one of the more preferable forms of irritable bowel syndrome,” but hear me out. This CVT does a good job of simulating the “step-down” feeling under acceleration you’d get with a conventional automatic, especially at freeway speeds. Around town, it’s a tad more sluggish.
There are no paddles or a gear lever to simulate the act of shifting, like Subaru offers, but Honda’s CVT is a better unit, more livable and less frustrating to drive. Of all the CVTs I’ve sampled, this one bothered me the least. I didn’t mind it much. Would I still advise you to wait for a manual version? Absolutely.
Inside, it’s tasteful, cleanly attractive, and very clearly aimed at tech-savvy younger buyers; it’s a huge step up from the old Civic’s explosion of screens everywhere. But it has its quirks. There’s no physical buttons for the A/C controls, just a button that says “climate” and triggers those operations on the touch screen. There’s no radio volume buttons on the dash when the big touch screen is opted for, either. And that slidey volume switch on the left side of the steering wheel? You’ll hit that with your thumb a lot by mistake.
But overall, it’s a nice place to spend time. Most of the plastics and other materials feel upscale. Like its engine, this new Civic never feels cheap on the inside. The seats are decently bolstered and there’s a ton of room in the back seat.
Speaking of, I couldn’t shake how weird it felt that this new Civic got so big. Unlike millions of other drivers, I never owned a Civic; but my first car was an early 2000s Corolla, its competitor, and this new Civic is by comparison wider, taller and longer than that by almost half a car. If you’re used to a Civic being a “small” car, the way this one feels more like an Accord is kind of unsettling.
Despite being heavier and bigger than the car it replaces, it’s more fun to drive. The steering is light and accurate, turn-in is relatively quick, and it’s solid and composed at all times. It can’t quite match the dynamics of the current king, the Mazda 3, but it’s in the same ballpark. Better than I could say for the last one.
Where it does score a big win is all the tech, which I’m sure will help with those coveted young buyers. Hell, I’m the last person to covet a bunch of tech features in my car, but even I walked away impressed with the side view camera that engages when you flip your turn signal right, radar cruise control, emergency auto-braking, lane-keeping assist, and Apple CarPlay (a separate review of that is coming but it beats the hell out of all the other infotainment systems out there, including Honda’s, which is why I didn’t mess with that much.)
I turned a lot of those safety nannies off, but the fact that they could be had on a humble Civic at all is quite impressive.
Those features, plus leather, sunroof, front AND rear heated seats, a premium audio system, and more for a sticker price of $27,335.
You are getting a LOT of car at that price, and a car that happens to be sprightly and fun to drive, interesting to look at, and hopefully Honda-reliable. Fuel efficient, too. I managed 30 MPG in a week of mixed highway and city driving, and Lord knows I don’t drive slow. All of that together is enough to make me actually want to recommend the Civic to people again.
More than that, I missed this Civic when I had to part with it. That usually only happens when I’m in an F-Type or something, but equipped at this level at this price, the new Civic was a car I’d be pretty happy to live with and drive every day. You’re going to see these everywhere, because it’s the Honda Civic, but its buyers actually made a smart decision this time around.
I would, however, prefer mine with slightly better handling. And a manual. And maybe an Si version north of 220 HP. Or the full-on Type R treatment for America, finally.
Oh wait, we’re actually getting those things later. You done alright, Honda. You done alright.