2016 Honda Civic First Drive

October 18, 2015
  • The tenth-generation Honda Civic drops almost all the economy-car pretense; in Touring trim, it could wear the same "premium" label that Acura's ILX does.
  • Honda's first turbocharged engine appears in EX-T, EX-L, and Touring models
  • Advanced safety technology is available on every trim level
  • Prices span from $19,475 (LX) to $27,335 (Touring)

Now well into its fifth decade on sale in America, the Honda Civic is at one of life's big turning points--the extreme-makeover point.

The suspense is palpable: Will it quit its day job and open an Etsy boutique? Put itself on a honey-and-sriracha detox cleanse? Grow a %^@$ man bun?   

Breathe a sigh of relief, America. The Civic steers clear of those cliches gracefully as it rounds the corner into middle age. Its secret to keeping the existential peace: staying trim and fit and clear in purpose, even while it leaves the last of its compact economy-car roots behind.

The Civic's now in its tenth edition, and it's a crucial one. Through the first seven generations, it built a vast following and a hoard of goodwill. It became the go-to economy car by executing perfectly on all the big economy-car concerns, from reliability to frugality. It may have hit a peak in its third and fourth generations--from 1984 to 1991, when the utter practicality of all its forms, from wagon to hatchback to sedan, were underpinned by classic Honda virtues like efficient engines, thin roof pillars, a low cowl, and extreme durability.

ALSO SEE: 2016 Kia Optima First Drive

Through the early part of this century, those virtues remained intact even as rogue compacts from America and South Korea nibbled away at its lead. But by 2006, the Civic's hazards were flashing. An unfortunate redesign bowed with compromised rear-seat space, unexciting styling, and an oddly tiered dash. In 2012 the trouble was compounded by a budget redesign that slashed sound deadening and soft-touch trim, leaving the Civic dumbed down when its rivals were growing more savvy.

For its latest iteration, Honda decided, nothing less than a ground-up redesign would cut through the clutter. The Civic needed a clean-sheet design with a new look, a stiff new body, a compliant new suspension, efficient new engines, and a liberal dose of advanced safety technology. It would need a globally benchmarked set of bona fides to call itself the best car in the world in its class--a class that bridges the gap between compact cars and mid-sizers.

And eventually it would need a whole suite of body styles and performance profiles--everything from the standard sedan, to a coupe and hatchback, to heady Si editions and even a track-minded Type-R.

It all starts with the 2016 Civic sedan, a car that drops almost all the economy-car pretense, a car that could wear a premium label more compelling than a simple "Touring" badge.

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

At long last, love

We've been wanting to have a sit-down with Honda for roughly a decade to talk about what it's wearing. Ridgeline? Crosstour? Honey, just....no. With so many of its cars engineered so fondly, it's been a shame to see them wrapped in sheetmetal that's ranged from pedestrian to vaguely off-putting. Not that it was Honda's problem alone; Toyota was a more prominent fashion speed bump until late.

The prognosis at Honda is rapidly improving, with the recent Accord and especially, the new Pilot SUV wearing comely details and pitch-perfect proportions. And in a brilliant about-face, the Civic is now one of the best-drawn, sleekest, most appealing shapes on the road. It's as if every bad panel from the Crosstour had been recalibrated on the proper scale, with its worst fun-house angles resolved.

There's lots of Acura in the Civic's elegantly drawn-out shape and its chiseled details--and it wears it well. At the nose, there's a strong band of chrome that brackets the grille and headlamps and knits them together. It's not alone, though. There are slits, intakes, creases, not to mention a bevy of textures and colors--black, metallic, and body-color trim. It's more formal, more busy in appearance than the simpler deep-set grille on, say, the new HR-V hatchback.

Down the side, the Civic gets swole with big wheel wells. They intersect with steeply surfaced sills that hijack the shape to the rear quarters, where the lovely roofline tapers into another set of bracketed lamps. The LED taillamps give a lift to the rear end that's like an episode of Empire--all drama, all payoff. For its final trick, the new Civic plays the same visual sleight of hand as the Chrysler 200. It cuts a trunklid into a shape that could easily be interpreted as a hatchback.

If there's a legitimate complaint about the look, it's for violating of the Chanel rule: it could lose an element or two, and doesn't, hanging on to every cutline and surface like they're a rapidly dwindling national resource.

The calm that can elude the Civic's sheetmetal is parceled out to the cockpit. The dash has adopted a broad, horizontal theme, not unlike recent BMWs in the bow and swell of the major trim pieces. In the Civic, the dash pans from left to right, starting thick and tapering as it moves toward the passenger door, paneled with embossed metallic trim. The old two-tier dash has been banished to some third-world automaker's future design notebook; in the Civic, the clutter of screens is now focused on one area, where a five-inch base color screen grows into a seven-inch touchscreen on the nicer trim levels.

Facing the driver in base models is a clean, crisp set of real dials; on pricey Touring models, the dials are swapped out for an LCD screen with a 270-degree tachometer arc framing a digital speedometer. It's not a little ironic that the Civic's digital display displays real digits, while other automakers are using superwide TFT panels to mimic the dials they virtually ripped out.

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

Full of grace

The 2016 Honda Civic splits the difference between economy and performance by splitting its personality. It is a tale of two cars, one relentlessly predictable and naturally aspirated, the other turbocharged and far more adventurous as it forges ahead into uncharted, quasi-luxury territory.

In its lesser form, the Civic generates power with a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Rated at 158 horsepower and 138 pound-feet of torque, it's offered on LX and EX models, with either a six-speed manual transmission or a carried-over continuously variable transmission (CVT) from the last-generation Civic. While it's a new design, there's not much surprise in this base power unit. It's comparable in output to the out-of-the-box powerplants in the Mazda 3 and Hyundai Elantra, and like them, this base Civic turns out its power in an even-tempered but unengaging way. Pulling about 2,800 pounds of Civic around, it's fairly vocal once it's pressed past 5,000 rpm, and it provides the kind of acceleration that promises to offend no one, and excite about the same number of people. 

The emphasis is on efficiency and it's quite brilliant at that, with either of its available transmissions. With the manual transmission, the Civic LX 2.0-liter earns the lowest fuel-economy ratings of the lineup, by a wide margin--but some automakers would slay to have "low" numbers this high. At 27 miles per gallon city, 40 miles per gallon highway, and 31 miles per gallon combined, it's a superbly tightfisted combination that almost none of you readers will ever drive. And that's fine: we think that the manual is offered at all, is more of a real-estate play. Other Civic body styles will use manuals, and probably the same console design too--so the manual is penned in to the architecture. Its mere presence alone is a bit of PR and calling-out that sets the Civic in the class with cars like the Ford Focus, VW Jetta, and Mazda 3, which still have manual gearboxes.

If only the manual shifter were more visceral--it's almost devoid of shift-lever feel and clutch-uptake sensation--or more widely available, we'd be begging for more of it. In reality, driving it mirrors the driving experience of the carried-over CVT that will be the version almost every LX or EX driver pilots. There's almost no change, other than a slightly higher ratio span, from the last-generation Civic that alters the CVT's driving feel. That is to say, it's a slurry of gear-ratio changes that happen a bit more quickly and cooperatively than in CVT-equipped cars from Toyota and Nissan. The CVT comes without paddle shift controls or pre-programmed "gears", as do some other CVTs--but, in the end, its stellar fuel economy ratings of 31/41 mpg, or 35 mpg combined, are what most Civic buyers at this price are concerned with. For comparison, the base Hyundai Elantra is rated at 145 hp and tops out at 38 mpg highway; the base Mazda 3 checks in at 155 hp and 41 mpg highway.

With Honda's first turbocharged engine, the Civic drops the mic on power, finally. With a small-diameter turbocharger and an electrically-driven wastegate, the 1.5-liter turbo four pegs the performance meter at 174 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque--and with under 3,000 pounds to pull around, it's more fleet-footed than ever, with the same asterisk we apply to the Subaru WRX. Here, the turbocharged four makes the right approach--it sounds Honda sweet at full blast, not as joyfully noisy as a classic VTEC, but still happy enough. It's the combination of CVT and turbocharging that befuddles its low-rpm performance.

On full boost and fully cooking through our favorites corners in Malibu and Hell (really, Hell), the drivetrain slides its way through a glissade of power that used to be the province of the Si models. At launch or in low-speed corner work, it's a constant joust between CVT ratio-changing lag and turbo spooling. The same CVT in the Accord Sport feels better matched to its naturally aspirated four-cylinder--but in the right light, the turbo Civic's power delivery isn't unlike the old VTEC powerplants, with their dramatic on-cam personality change.

The CVT responds to sharp throttle inputs in Sport mode, hanging on to revs, without dropping the fuel-economy ball. Highway economy improves to 42 mpg, while other numbers remain the same. In "L" mode the transmission handles mountain passes more easily. There's also a separate Econ button that slows throttle progression and cuts the A/C's fan speed to trim fuel use; at 35 mpg combined, we felt sufficiently green to ignore it.

The powertrains have their peaks and valleys, but in ride and handling, the Civic excels--especially beyond the prominent mid-range gap. No matter the metric--precision, stability, composure--it's a magnitude more mature than the last Civic.

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 93H 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.

Creeping up on mid-sizers

The auto industry calls it bracket creep. We call it astonishing, when a 1980s Civic sits next to a 2016 Civic and they pretend to be relatives. The new Civic is big, so big it's not just a Focus/Mazda 3 rival--it's sized very close to other tweeners like the VW Jetta, Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200.

Honda says that's no bad thing--in fact, with a lot of high-strength steel in its body, the new Civic is down nearly 70 pounds over the previous model, even while it's grown in almost every direction. It's grown 2.9 inches overall in length, to 182.3 inches long. It's 1.9 inches wider, at 70.8 inches, but lower by 0.8 inches, at 55.7 inches tall. The proportions have changed within that bigger envelope, too--hood and cowl height have dropped 1.6 inches, front overhang is down 1.2 inches, the trunk is 3 inches longer, and trunk space is up to 15.1 cubic feet from 12.3.

All told, the Civic wraps up 112.9 cubic feet of space in its bod, putting it within a few cubes of the Chrysler 200 at 117.4 cubes, and well over the usual EPA yardsticks for mid-size cars. A Mazda 3 falls just shy of that marker at about 108 cubic feet of interior volume.

Those numbers might glaze your eyes over on a spec sheet, but inside the Civic they pay very big dividends. The slimmer, tailored front bucket seats sit much lower than before--this Civic might be the first car in its class where I've had to raise the power seat higher, not lower, for the best driving position. (The driver seat adjusts for height and tilt even in base models.) The dash structure itself is less pronounced than before, and the tilt/telescoping steering has a longer stroke, so finding an ideal driving position is easy for a wide range of body types, though the prominent headrests might push too far forward for some. There's excellent leg room and a comfortable incline to the footboard--and I had at least a couple of inches of headroom left in a car not equipped with the sunroof.

In the back seat, the Civic outperforms almost all the cars it names as rivals, and some others, too. There's enough head and leg room for six-footers to sit behind six-footers, with an inch of knee room to spare. The seatbacks recline at a natural angle--but on the base LX they don't fold forward or open into the trunk.

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

2016 Honda Civic Sedan (Touring)

Thoughtful touches abound in the Civic's cabin, but nothing's quite as clever as the reconfigurable center console. Taking a cue from full-size trucks, the Civic's bin goes all Transformers as it toggles from padded armrest, to deep iPad bin, to dual-cupholder tote, to key tray. There's also storage for smartphones ahead of the shift lever and a glovebox big enough for a lunch cooler bag. The molded-in door pockets are square and can hold small Fiji bottles.

There are some niggling haptic issues in the controls, though the Civic gets credit for not interfacing all the things. Honda devotes two big knobs to climate-control temperature; can we straw-poll for changing them out for volume and fan speed? The steering-wheel controls look like the softly matted ones in an Accord, but they're clear plastic on top of cheaper switches; the volume slider accepts swipes and clicks but feels thrifty. While we're pitching minor bitches, there's no tilt on the passenger seat at all, and the reach to the Civic's tilt/telescope lever is too long--just like the tongue of plastic that sticks out of the gauges to reset the tripometer.

Those aside, Honda's pretty much mastered the concept of keeping cost-cutting out of plain view, a lesson it learned the hard way with the 2012 Civic. This car's flaws are limited to an unlined trunk lid and exposed hinges, places you want money to come out of if it needs to come out.

Not just to be safe

Honda has made a goal of achieving superior safety ratings for all its vehicles, and it's planned the Civic for Top Safety Pick+ and five-star ratings. There's no crash data in yet, but the Civic shows promise all around, from the wider adoption of safety technology and high-strength steel, to the wider availability of some safety features.

Every Civic gets the prerequisite airbags and stability control, with hill-start assist. A wide-angle rearview camera is standard, and so is Bluetooth. The Civic's very design offers an added measure of safety--like those on most Subarus, the Civic's roof pillars are thin and yield excellent visibility, though the high decklid at the rear cuts into that view more than in the past.

Honda has finally uncoupled its most advanced safety features from the top trim levels of its products. So while features like adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warnings, and forward-collision warnings with automatic braking are standard on the top Touring level, they're available on all other versions for $1,000, even the LX.

The LX is the Civic likely to be most scarce on lots. Priced from $19,475, it comes standard with power windows, locks, and mirrors; an electronic parking brake; automatic climate control; automatic headlights; LED taillights and LED daytime running lights; cruise control; keyless entry; a four-speaker, 16-watt sound system with a 5.0-inch LCD color display; Bluetooth; and a 1.0-watt USB port that can charge smartphones.

On the $21,875 EX, the Civic gains a LaneWatch camera that shows the right-side view down the car when the turn signal is activated; a split-fold rear seat; heated mirrors; remote start; a 7.0-inch touchscreen interface; Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability; a second USB port in the console; an eight-speaker, 180-watt audio system; and pushbutton start.

From the $23,035 EX-T and up, all Civics offer the turbo/CVT drivetrain, as well as fog lights; heated front seats; XM and HD radio; dual-zone automatic climate control; and 17-inch wheels. The $24,535 EX-L adds leather; a power driver seat; and makes Garmin navigation available.

At the top of the lineup, the Civic Touring is priced from $27,335, and gains the added safety technology as well as a power front passenger seat; heated outboard rear seats; navigation; LED headlights; and a 450-watt premium audio system.

Almost $28,000 for...a Civic? If you're resistant to numbers like those from one of the benchmarks of the economy-car class, shop around. Fully kitted out Mazda 3 and Ford Focus compacts ping the pricing redline at more than $30,000. With bracket creep comes price creep.

Bigger questions than price are still unanswered, at least for now. What does it mean for Honda when its quintessential economy compact is no longer a compact? Does it need a true compact sedan, or are the HR-V and Fit enough? What does the new Civic and its excellent handling mean for the Mazda 3 and Ford Focus, the cars we love to drive most in the class?

We predict not-so-wonderful things. The Civic has re-established Honda as the small-car company of record--even if the Civic itself isn't so small anymore.

The new 2016 Civic goes on sale in November.

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