The 2016 Honda Civic is two cars offered in the same body. In one configuration, it's a pleasant but average performer; in the other, it's a more adventurous piece with some near-luxury attributes, including exceptional ride quality.
The base Civic gets its power from a new 2.0-liter inline-4 rated at 158 horsepower and 138 pound-feet of torque. Available in LX or EX trim, it delivers its power to the front wheels through a 6-speed manual transmission or an available continuously variable transmission (CVT), which has been carried over from the last-generation Civic. Though it's a brand-new engine design, it feels familiar. Power output is similar to that delivered by a base Mazda 3 or Hyundai Elantra—it's more than adequate for commuter use, and it's delivered in an unobtrusive and unexciting way.
The CVT in the base engine is carried over from last year's Civic, with just a wider span in its ratios. Nothing has changed the way it feels—CVTs use pulleys and a belt to provide an infinite number of transmission ratios, unlike the set gears of a conventional automatic. Accelerating via a CVT means wading through a slurry of gear-ratio changes, and usually brings with it lots of engine noise and an imprecise feel. Honda's CVT seems to be a bit quicker and quieter at its job than some, but we've enjoyed driving some CVTs that come with paddle shift controls and a range of programmed set points that simulate automatic transmission gears. The Honda CVT has neither of those—at least, the sedan doesn't. In the end, the superlative 35-mpg combined EPA ratings are a worthwhile trade-off.
The same ratings hold true for the far more exciting turbocharged inline-4, though, which makes the base four seem less a bargain. With a small-diameter turbocharger and an electrically-driven wastegate, the turbocharged 1.5-liter inline-4 pegs the performance meter at 174 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque—and with under 3,000 pounds to pull around, this Civic is more fleet-footed than ever. It sounds Honda-sweet at full blast, not as joyfully noisy as a classic VTEC-equipped engine, but still happy enough. It's as quick as some Civic Si models from the recent past, too—but at lower speeds and in tight corners, it's a tug of war between the CVT's slower responses and the slight turbo lag of the new engine. The CVT responds to sharp throttle inputs in Sport mode, hanging on to revs, without dropping the fuel-economy ball—but to sip a little less fuel, Honda fits an Econ button that slows throttle progression and cuts the A/C's fan speed to trim fuel use slightly.
It's a wide-track Honda, up almost 2 inches across the front wheels, up more than an inch in wheelbase. It also has a thicker steering column, in part for better crash protection. So the Civic needed a more exotic steering system than in the past. Where Honda settled was on a dual-pinion, variable-ratio setup like the one on the Buick Verano—and an example of the more sophisticated electric power steering we've been promised for years. Instead of applying more turning force at the steering wheel, or even at the point where the column and steering rack intersect, this system lets the column move across the rack directly—while using a motor geared independently further across the rack to provide steering boost in a more gradual, better-buffered way. It's slightly more complex but yields very good steering consistency when winding and unwinding in turns. The Civic also can apply a brake on the inside front wheel in a corner to tighten its line.
Steering supremacy is teamed with a suspension design that's half-classically Honda. In the front it's struts; in the back, a multi-link design with rigid mounted subframe. The front struts are fitted with hydraulic front bushings to damp out some unfavorable ride motions. On EX-T models and above, the rear bushings are also hydraulic—and it makes all the difference. While it's isolated fairly well even in cheaper trims, the Civic LX and EX roll on unambitious 215/55R16 tires. They run out of grip early and have less ability to absorb the worst pavement conditions.
On EX-Ts, EX-Ls, and Touring models, the Civic wears 215/50R-17 treads, paired with those hydraulic dampers on the rear, and on the Touring, a slightly thicker rear stabilizer bar. The result is a wonderfully compliant, composed ride quality and excellent tracking. These Civics don't bobble and dance over bumps, they micromanage them. They filter off the economy-car levels of compliance we're used to feeling in the best-selling Korean and American compact cars. Add in firm, quick-reacting brakes with short pedal stroke, and the Civic has its performance act together in a way it hasn't, really, since the middle of the last decade.