Without going either too long or too biographical, allow me an abridged version of my automotive history. Honda’s Civic first provided a ‘surprise-and-delight’ moment around 1975. An import mechanic in Lincoln, NE had taken what I believe was the base Civic, flared the wheelwells, swapped the exhaust and modestly lowered the suspension. Finished in silver, it looked just like you’d hope a hot hatch would look, although I’m not sure if – as a base Civic – it had a hatch.
In ’79 my wife and I would buy a new Civic 2-door; there was no money for suspension or exhaust, but it is remembered as an eminently fun car to drive. And while we had it but a couple of years, later in that decade we purchased two ’89 Civic hatches – again, both in base trim – equipped with more aggressive rubber and (if memory serves) Momo steering wheels. One of those Civics later went to my son, while the other was kept ‘til an issue with its throttle body looked to consume more money than the Civic’s book value. (I still wish we had it.) A ’94 4-door EX was our last brush with Honda’s entry level brand, and while it wasn’t a car you fell in love with, it was certainly a car – with its high-revving four and well-connected 5-speed manual – you could enjoy. This observation is slightly crazy, but our ’94 Civic was quietly visceral, something you don’t often see in unassuming, efficient sedans.
Quietly visceral was what we were hoping for from the all-new, 2016 Civic 4-door delivered this week to our driveway. Coincidental to its delivery was the announcement that a group of ‘international journalists’ (which translates to US and Canadian media) had elected the new Civic their 2016 Car of the Year. Competing in a rather crowded field (which was ultimately narrowed to the Civic, Chevy’s redesigned Malibu and an all-new Miata), the Civic won – presumably – through Honda’s belated recognition that most Civics over the last decade, despite selling in huge numbers, had been relegated to bench warmers by the bulk of that same automotive press. Having last gotten the COTY nod from the COTY panel in 2006, a lot has changed in the automotive environment in the last decade. And in its mainstream compact, Honda hadn’t begun to keep pace.
In the 2016 Civic, as we discovered both in its press kit and cockpit, Honda has checked most of the boxes. In my first look at the exterior I was taken by its similarity – at least initially – to Nissan’s all-new Maxima. The Civic’s sheetmetal – at second glance – is far more conservative, but you can tell the design team was stretching, in both the Civic’s contours and its footprint. There has been size creep in the Civic (and Mustang and Camaro and 911) seemingly forever; my ’79 could be squeezed into the ‘16’s backseat! But from the chrome-bedecked front fascia to the lip-bedecked(?) trunk lid, this is about as all-new as Hondas will typically get.
Inside, it’s more of the same – which is to say, ‘more’. Within the context of a 4-door sedan and not – notably – a 4-door CUV, the interior environs are fully grownup (interior volume is up over three cubic feet relative to its ’15 predecessor) and, at least in the guise of our upmarket Touring variant, benefit from higher quality materials. As you’d guess, there are the usual suspects among ‘premium features and technologies’, none of which enhances the core driving experience among those wishing people would just shut up (SHUT UP!) and drive. But it’s there, and if you want to enjoy either Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, go ahead and enjoy…but please remember to dim your lights for oncoming traffic and signal before each turn.
With the exterior providing some of that old ‘surprise’, while the interior – again, at least in the Touring spec – supplying ‘delight’, we were hoping for the best from the Civic’s available 1.5 liter, turbocharged four. Admittedly, the specs are relatively modest, with the 1.5 turbo delivering but 174 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque. While that’s a tic – or two – up from what GM delivers in a Cruze or Verano, Vin Diesel can find more horses among his pocket change and cigarette butts. And if you think the specs are modest, wait until it hooks up (or more correctly, tries to hook up) with the Civic’s mandatory CVT. I think the descriptive is ‘tepid’, but before quoting us we’ll dig out the Thesaurus…now that we have, ‘tepid’ works about as well as anything. This, of course, isn’t the first time that a CVT has sucked the life out of an otherwise promising powerplant, but we didn’t think it would happen at Honda.
Were it our money, we certainly wouldn’t write off the Honda showroom or its shopping experience; we’d simply put our $27K on an Accord Sport. Admittedly, the Accord is a larger car, and that more generous footprint may or may not work in some driving or parking environments. But it’s also a car that has remained consistently up-to-date, with no need to rush on the way to a seriously needed revamp.
Were we on the COTY committee we’d have gone with the Miata, preferring ‘visceral’ to ‘visual’. And that’s most days of the week…