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Honda Civic test drive review: Ready to challenge the Corolla Altis, Octavia & Elantra
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Honda Civic test drive review: Ready to challenge the Corolla Altis, Octavia & Elantra

Sirish Chandran

Honda Civic test drive review: Ready to challenge the Corolla Altis, Octavia & Elantra

The Honda Civic is back! Eight years after it bowed out, Honda’s longest running and best-selling nameplate is back in India, set to wade into a segment that has been dramatically altered by the onslaught of diesel engines and the overwhelming preference for SUVs. Everybody remembers the 8th generation Honda Civic — it had that wonderful 1.8-litre i-VTEC engine that feasted on revs; it was low and sporty; it had a brilliant manual ’box; the cabin felt special with the steering wheel splitting the futuristic digital speedo from the rev counter; and it could not go over speedbreakers without scraping its belly or carry more than two passengers without its dynamics going to hell. But what really killed it were the diesel engines in the Toyota Corolla Altis, Skoda Octavia and later the Hyundai Elantra. That and the fact that Honda decided to take on the mass market and refused to put time and effort into diesel-ising its more expensive cars and SUVs.

“Everybody remembers the 8th generation Honda Civic — it had that wonderful 1.8-litre i-VTEC engine that feasted on revs”

The past is the past. Honda seem to have realised the rub-off value of cars like the Civic and CR-V on the rest of the range. And so after skipping an entire generation the Honda Civic is back, and aims to right the wrongs of the past. This, the 10th generation Civic, no longer graunches on speedbreakers, even with the entire evo India photo and video crew piled in. It can enthusiastically trace the route of the legendary Nandi Hill Climb with said crew on board. And it has that all important diesel engine.

I say all-important but it’s not that important. In fact this C+ segment is dominated by petrols and, as you all have pointed out on Twitter, the motor is a carry over from the 8th gen, obviously tweaked to now meet BS VI emission standards. And now we go up the Hill.

Unconventional styling of the all new Honda Civic

It looks good, the new Honda Civic. Some have pointed out that it looks too much like the Honda City but I think the nose has loaned more to the Honda Amaze than the City. Nevertheless it is a smart nose, appropriately premium with that big fat slab of chrome and then there are those glitzy 17-inch rims to add more bling. But the most striking part of the car is the fastback coupe-like roofline that stands it out from conventionally styled rivals. The taillamps bracket the boot like boomerangs and it all cuts a very attractive shape. It’s also long and low in keeping with Civic tradition, something that I again like but you do have to crouch and drop into the car just like in that old Civic.

“The driving position is a highlight of the Civic. It (electrically) goes nice and low, the steering adjusts generously so you can bring the ’wheel close to you while your legs are nice and relaxed”

Inside though there’s nothing unconventional. “You don’t get that old wow feel”, says our chief photographer Gaurav. He’s right. The old Civic’s two-level binnacle, the digital speedo, the shape of the handbrake — all of it was cool, new and unconventional. Now, there’s nothing to surprise you. Nothing bad here, mind you. The speedo is still digital, now a 7-inch TFT screen that also throws up the trip computer, your phone log and more. There’s a touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (though accessing the USB slot requires some calisthenics) and the handbrake is now electric which brings hill hold and hill start assist to the party. It adds to the list of safety equipment that includes Vehicle Stability Assist, 6 airbags and a 5 star Asian NCAP crash test rating.

As for space, you will be happy as long as there are four of you. The seats have nice bolstering and surprisingly even the rear seats have bolstering making it very comfortable. Of course that is what stops three from sitting abreast comfortably; that and a surprisingly big transmission tunnel. Headroom is adequate despite the coupe roofline. I am 5 foot 9 inches and my head doesn’t hit the roof, and there’s knee room to spare even with the driver’s seat adjusted to how I like it. The driving position, in fact, is a highlight of the Civic. It (electrically) goes nice and low, the steering adjusts generously so you can bring the ’wheel close to you while your legs are nice and relaxed. It’s very nice despite having hard plastics in noticeable areas and an aftermarket-ish looking infotainment. And, before I forget, you can start the car remotely from the key fob to cool it before you slide onto the leather seats.

1.6-litre i-DTEC diesel engine

The engine-transmission speccing of the Civic is a little surprising. The petrol you can only get with a CVT automatic. And the diesel you only get with the 6-speed manual. But what will make your eyes pop out is the fuel efficiency of the diesel — 26.8kmpl. That’s hatchback territory. And it is not like the Civic diesel is sluggish or anything like that. In fact at 1353kg the Civic diesel isn’t a heavy car and the 118bhp, while nothing great on paper, does make for quick(ish) initial progress. In fact it can generate generous wheelspin when launching enthusiastically, and the tyres Yokohama Advans that, in our experience, are good grippy boots. This diesel engine is an enthusiastic motor, it like to rev, builds revs quickly and is mated to a manual gearbox that shifts with precision and slickness. With 300Nm of torque it also has enough in reserve to let you cruise in sixth gear. And you will not be under any illusions as to what fuel is being burnt — the engine is audible enough when cruising at lazy revs and does become noisy when given the stick.

“Take it easy and the petrol Civic is a supremely refined and relaxing car. But cane it, or worse stick it in S mode on the gearbox, and you’re assaulted by the CVT’s rubber band effect”

Zingy petrol hobbled by the CVT

Yes, the petrol motor has been around since 2006. Yes the torque at 174Nm isn’t anything to shout out. And yes the 1.8TSI in the Octavia is a generation ahead. But, still, what a motor the i-VTEC is! At idle, even at cruising speeds it is noiseless. In fact it is so noiseless that you notice a lot of the wind and tyre noise, and that 120kmph speed buzzer irritates you no end. It is also silky smooth, the smoothest petrol engine in this segment for sure. It’s a throwback to the era where every Honda road test would have the phrase ‘maker of the best engines in the world’ thrown in.

Except, Honda have hobbled it with the CVT transmission. Honda say there is no demand for manuals with petrol engines in this class (and diesel buyers want only manuals? I don’t get the logic…) and that means first time Civic buyers (or drivers) will never know the sheer joy of caning all 138 horses and pulling the VTEC to its 7000rpm redline; the joy of banging in another gear and redlining it, of repeating it and then pulling off a deft heel-and-toe as you brake for the surprising number of speed cameras on the highway to Hyderabad from Bangalore.

Take it easy and the petrol Civic is a supremely refined and relaxing car. But cane it, or worse stick it in S mode on the gearbox, and you’re assaulted by the CVT’s rubber band effect. Even though there are paddles and more clearly defined steps for the seven ratios there is no eliminating the rubber band effect altogether, and the whine and constant high revs does grate. It makes the diesel Civic, weirdly enough, the choice for enthusiasts.

The Nandi Hills

The final question, how does the Civic handle? Now Honda have raised the car by 20mm at the front and 15mm at the rear, and along with the stiffer damping it means the car neither touches on speedbreakers nor does it run out of suspension travel and thus bottoming out. In fact raising the car hasn’t affected its styling either with no ungainly wheelarch gaps.

“There’s this nice delicacy, it changes direction with enthusiasm and, for what is a large car, it is quite darty and manoeuvrable”

Like every other car the Civic runs electric power steering and, like every car, there is not much in the way of feel or feedback. But unlike other Honda’s the Civic isn’t over-assisted and flighty. In fact it gives you confidence to throw it into corners and when you chuck it in hard, the nose grips quite well, and understeer is resisted strongly. The balance of the car in corners is actually very good and that’s down to the independent rear suspension, something you only get on the high-end variants of the Skoda Octavia. It means the Civic doesn’t get as unsettled over mid-corner bumps as you’d expect and the cornering grip is very good. Up and down the Nandi Hills the Civic is good fun to drive, you just have to ignore the rather loud squealing of the tyres.

The dynamic character of the Civic is typically Japanese in that it feels light. You drive it with your fingertips. It feels easy to drive, slow or fast. There is no overt aggression and unnecessary heaviness to the steering. It does not hammer the roads into submission like European cars. In fact there’s this nice delicacy, it changes direction with enthusiasm and, for what is a large car, it is quite darty and manoeuvrable. Oh, and there is also a fair bit of body roll. Disc brakes on all four corners does ensure enthusiastic and consistent retardation with no brake fade.

To summarise the new Honda Civic

Obviously a lot depends on pricing but Honda aren’t going to shock you — either by pricing it very aggressively or by overpricing it out of the segment. You can expect it to sit anywhere between Rs 18 to Rs 20 lakh which is par for the course.

So should you buy the new Civic?

If you’re a Honda fan, if you have fond memories of the old Civic, by all means head over to a Honda showroom and pre-book your car. It has all the qualities that made the old Civic the recipient of multiple Car of the Year awards plus there is now a diesel, the ride and handling are sorted, the ground clearance is sorted, and it looks cool. I only wish they’d retained the manual gearbox with the petrol. I know hardcore petrol heads are a small minority in this segment but why deprive this generation of the joys of redlining the sweet iVTEC motor, surely the last of these zingy naturally-aspirated engines before everything in this class gets turbocharged.