It is as much a part of South African society as Mrs. Balls or Koo baked beans, it’s been here as long as we’ve had television and, if you weren’t driven home in one after your mother gave birth to you, odds are you will find yourself in one at least once, before you’re daisy fodder. No, not the Honda Civic. I’m talking about the Volkswagen Golf of course, a car that has outlasted governments and that was just as happy ferrying you from Pretoria to Jan Smuts 30 years ago, as it is between Tshwane and Oliver Thambo today.
When it comes to competing against the Golf, you need to have your wits about you. The Golf is Europe’s number one exported vehicle. By the 1980s it was South Africa’s most popular model name. That’s a record paralleled on a global scale with 27 million Golfs sold worldwide.
What does that have to do with Honda and the new Civic Hatch? Well, everything actually. Honda has been making the Civic for four decades now (this is the ninth generation) and its global sales are in the region of 20-million. You could accuse Honda of becoming a little dispassionate of late in their drive to consolidate their position as the official opposition to Volkswagen and Toyota. The latest Honda Civic sedan speaks to that. It’s actually a brilliant car, but it shouts about its achievements so haphazardly. It’s hard to imagine the market will take much notice when it comes time to fork over money.
Lest we forget, 2011 was a tough year for Honda with regards to parts supply problems because of their earthquake and tsunami ravaged factories in Japan and Thailand, as well as the rising competition from value added Korean brands that have put even more pressure on the once self-assured company.
Despite this torrid state of affairs for Honda, the latest Civic Hatch has been developed with an eye to maintaining its status as one of the company’s best global sellers. It’s been developed in Europe for European customers to satisfy European driving dynamics and is being built exclusively in Swindon and exported to 20 countries. Honda say its new Civic Hatch is a jump ahead, by two generations. It retains the good points and improves on its weak points. How the new Civic Hatch seems to have tackled this is by adopting a ‘best of all worlds’ philosophy. More inclusive styling to appeal to its diehard customers, more European refinement to tempt new buyers and more fuel efficient performance for well, everyone, I suppose.
Honda clearly recognized that a style makeover was needed to bring the new Civic back from the edge of space, to where it had floated off with the last design in 2006. So Honda went for a safe approach to the styling that covers what is essentially the same mechanical platform as the previous hatchback, but not the same platform as the sedan. Honda call it a ‘Blended Wing body’ design, with F1 aerodynamics designers having been brought in to work on the road cars since the demise of the brands F1 team. The new swerved bumper and integrated day time running lights are distinctive enough to speak of their evolved influence, while not deviating too far from a familiar Honda Civic ‘look.’ A 10% better drag co-efficient and better rear facing visibility is assured from the redesign, however, most road testers are in agreement that despite the practical merit, the end result isn’t an especially good looking car. I put my hand up as one of them. If you do specify a ‘Sports Pack’ (pictured here) you will get 18-inch wheels and some carbon fibre styled side sills. 17-inch wheels and a panoramic sunroof are standard on the Exclusive specced models.
I’m not going to make the same mistake I did with the Civic sedan though and right it off completely because of that. Tweaks to the suspension like new fluid filled bushes on the rear suspension and a stiffer rear torsion beam are part of Honda’s retuning to the ride and dynamic qualities of the car. That, and improved steering as well, bodes well for the Civic Hatch experience when it’s out on the open road.
Under the bonnet we get the same 1.8-litre, 104 kW and 174 Nm, from the 1.8-litre normally aspirated, i-VTEC motor we know so well. They are probably being a little left behind in the economy and performance stakes by smaller, turbo charged motors of the current era however, think Volkswagen’s TSI for example.
The top of the range, 110 kW and 350 Nm, 2.2-litre i-DTEC has been given a good working over in Honda’s engine department and now emits a lowly 124 g/km CO2. It also makes do with a new intercooler and more efficient lubrication to ensure that power versus emissions is hugely improved. Six speed manual gearboxes and five speed auto gearboxes with paddles shifters are available on the petrol and diesel models. The diesel is only available in a manual. It will get the Civic to 100 km/h from a standing start in 8.8 seconds. Power delivery is very responsive and ‘meaty’ in the mid-range, making it usable in any gear, if a little breathless right at the top of the rev range. It’s quiet as well. An all-new, 1.6-litre diesel with ‘Earth Dreams Technology’ (Honda’s Blue Motion) will arrive next year.
The 1.6 ton weight ensures the new Civic, much like the old Civic, is immediately demoted to the solid if unspectacular performance league. Although it may not necessarily show it on paper, it is much improved from a driving involvement point of view. Lower spring rates and more sophisticated damping transform the ride and handling, making it more compliant on bumpy roads and something you’d gladly aim at a few bends when the road is clear. It has sharper steering, more grip and feels fluent, easy and flowing between the bends, much like the new Civic sedan once I got my ‘eye in’ with it. It’s also much less choppy and busy on a regular urban road than I remember the old one. It’s impressive on the ride and handling front, the equal if not perhaps even best in class.
Interior wise you get a larger, flatter steering wheel than before and a comfortable, driver focused cabin. The two tier set up ensures the speedo falls into the drivers far eye sight zone. The gear lever is closer to the steering wheel and has an improved ‘longitudinal shift’ to make those gears hit home easier. The handbrake has also been changed to the outer side of the gear shifter. This makes for some inadvertent close touching with the passenger. Overall, the interior may lack the design imagination of other competitors, but it feels like a thoroughly premium product thanks to the improved quality of the switch gear. A new multi-function display sits on the two tier dash and communicates information with ease to the driver. We really feel Honda need to develop a central command system to remedy the ‘many-buttons’ scenario they have going on, but the steering wheel controls work well. Head room in the front row of seats and rear leg room are not quite class leading but the ‘magic rear seats’ that fold flat and flip completely up, should you need to store something ungainly like a mountain bike, are a practical feather in the Civic Hatch’s cap. They afford 1 210-litres of space when seats are lying flat and 477-litres of regular boot space with the rear seats in position.
The Honda Civic Hatch is every bit as good as the C-segment competitors that dominate the market, but is “every bit as good” going to be enough? For a company adamant to sell 4.3-million cars this year, sales success will surely be the marker by which the Civic Hatch is judged.
|Pricing (incl. VAT and CO2 Tax)|
|Honda Civic Hatch 1.8 Elegance M/T||R248 000|
|Honda Civic Hatch 1.8 Elegance A/T||R261 000|
|Honda Civic Hatch 1.8 Executive M/T||R270 000|
|Honda Civic Hatch 1.8 Executive A/T||R283 000|
|Honda Civic Hatch 2.2 Exclusive M/T||R343 800|
Prices include a 3-year/100 000km warranty and 5-year/90 000km service plan