Quick Drive: Mountain Carving in the New Honda Civic Sport Hatchback
Honda has been slowly but surely building up quite the climax, hasn’t it? What started with a Civic reveal in Detroit has led to behind-the-scenes plant tours, first drive impressions of the coupe, week-long reviews of the Touring coupe, and firsthand admiration of the brutish Type-R at SEMA 2016.
But before we get to the finale to this Civic saga, it’s important to appreciate what is being offered along the way. While both the Civic coupe and sedan have garnered praise for their ingenuity and Honda-grade aptitude, it’s the hatchback model that is getting our undivided attention for our latest drive. The hatch version of the 10th generation Civic has been on sale since September, and while it may not have appeared on most of America’s radar yet, it soon will.
Unlike the coupe and sedan, the hatchback is not an American creation, but a Japanese-engineered machine that retains the nose of the Civic family, along with some of its interior design ideas and 1.5-liter turbo motor. But outside of that, there are a plethora of differences to be found within the all-new Civic hatchback.
We recently got the chance to drive a manually-equipped Sport trimmed model from San Francisco to Monterrey, California and were amazed by how acute it feels once the tires warm up. Does it offer anything close to what we expect to find in the Si or Type-R model when they arrive next year? Well, yes and no. This vehicle is a bit of an oddball; it bridges the gap between performance fun and daily driving practicality, and utilizes a lot of bright ideas and inspiration from what has worked well for the brand in prior generations. So while it may not be the speed demon enthusiasts salivate over, nor the CVCC classic of yesteryear, the Civic Sport hatch does bring us one step closer to an R-rated climax and wins big points along the way for its capabilities as a daily driver and sharp driving characteristics.
We’ll start things off with the vehicle’s driving dynamics. While we could have opted for a CVT-equipped model, we chose a base Sport so that we could gain access to a manual gearbox. While we lament the fact that the Touring trim, with all of its interior amenities and LED additions, cannot be had with a stick, it’s important to understand that demand for a car with a clutch is not what it once was.
When we had lunch with the hatchback’s design chief engineer Hideki Matsumoto and vehicle dynamic chief engineer Hiroshi Ito, they revealed that the manual model actually gets six extra ponies and 15 additional pound-feet of torque. The engineers explained that for as well-engineered as it is, Honda’s CVT has a torque converter that can’t match the freedom that a stick shift offers, and with the ability to rev harder and higher, popping the dual-mass flywheel into the clutch and barking the tires proved to be easy.
When driving hard, we found that this car tackles corners surprisingly well for having the same springs and underpinnings of LX, EX, and EX-L models. While we harbored some doubts as to whether the Sport would be any good because of this, we relished in how the torsional stiffness toward the rear of this hatchback in particular gives a fresh feeling of driver confidence.
Agile and secure, the rigid chassis features additional bracing in key areas, a reinforced subframe floor structure, and a ring-shaped rear bulkhead. Attach that to a set of Sport model exclusive 18-by-8-inch alloys, W-rated 235/40R18 Continental ContiProContact tires, fluid filled bushings, a hyperactive Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) feature, and a dual pinion variable ration rack and pinion layout, and driver confidence skyrockets. There also is a MacPherson setup out front and an independent multilink configuration in the back that features spring rates that hover somewhere between sharp and street oriented.
While both clutch and brake pedal feel could both be a little sportier, and the gearbox itself could benefit from some shorter throws, it’s important to remember that Honda is saving a lot of these goodies for the Si and Type-R, and this model is an economical daily driver first and foremost. Once put into this context, the Civic hatch stands out in front as the new king of economy sport performance, and a lot of that has to do with how that manual gearbox works in tandem with its turbocharged Earth Dreams counterpart.
Honda’s clutches have always been one of the most forgiving transmission components to engage, and this car is no exception, especially when holding higher revs leaves the turbo spooling. This 1.5-liter engine may be small, but get over the initial turbo lag off the line and most drivers will quickly realize why we opted for a manual Sport model that can go from zero to 60 in 7.8 seconds. It may get an astounding 40 miles per gallon on the highway, but it’s the way in which all 177 pound-feet of torque fluidly feed into 180 horsepower that make us want one as a daily driver. After snaking one through the California coastal mountains for a few hours you’ll realize that keeping revs around the 3400-3800 RPM range is this engine’s sweet spot, and that brakes aren’t as necessary as you’d imagine when rounding corners.
But this car isn’t just about snubbing brakes and building boost for track sessions. Smart daily commuting is the reason why the original Honda Civic CVCC was such a hit with Americans, followed by every hatchback Honda released thereafter. Honda has gone to great lengths to make sound deadening, clever storage options, quality cabin materials, and attractiveness central points of focus. Useful cabin touches include 25.7 cubic-feet of rear storage space, a center console that is large and customizable, door insert pockets that accommodate all manner of water canteen, and a tonneau cover that can slide to the left or right in order to eliminate mounting bars.
It also has loads of sound deadening materials and an aerodynamic layout that gives it class-leading cabin quietness, and when you tie that into overall passenger space (which is quite good), you get a very pleasant cruising experience. But safety is a major focus as well. While we have qualms with the fact that Sport models cannot be had with a Honda Sensing safety suite, which gives you lane keep assist, road departure mitigation, and collision warnings, this trim is still targeting an industry-leading IIHS crash safety rating courtesy of all of its airbags and rigid structure design.
Some of our favorite small touch items on the Civic Sport hatch are its grippy aluminum and silicone inserted sport pedals, steering wheel proportions and weight, red illumination accents, and its aggressive halogen headlamps. It also has a duo of sharp spoilers out back, sleek piano black ground effect garnishes, and a signature dual port center exhaust. Factor in an attractive cabin layout that is tiered in a 3D manner and accented with various trim materials, along with a Rallye Red shell that is Euro-inspired and sharply sculpted, and the new Civic offers no shortage of buyer appeal.
Major qualms include not being able to get Honda Sensing on either Sport models, that fixed headrests in the rear can cause tension issues for certain car seat anchors, and that you can’t get a Sport Touring model with a manual. Other complaints were the sizable trim gaps we found on the A-pillars in our car, the use of faux carbon trim, seat bolstering that’s anything but sporty, no rear USB ports, and missing seat-back pockets. This car’s center stack also sports bland, non-contrasting buttons and dated graphics, a shift knob that is about half a pound too light, and black plastic mesh inserts on all four bumper corners that cheapen the look of the car instead of adding value.
Despite all this, closing thoughts on the base Civic Sport hatchback are overwhelmingly positive. It’s a sharp entry-level commuter car that performs on a level that most buyers in the segment will appreciate, it’s practical as ever, and with a starting price of just $21,300 for a stick shift-equipped version, value is on the Civic’s side once more. For those who prefer paddle shifters, a CVT model can be had for just $800 more, and an entire suite of Honda Factory Performance (HFP) parts can be outfitted on the car for those who want more aggressive styling and sportiness. This vehicle is the perfect segue to the forthcoming performance Civics, and while it may not be the ideal answer to everyone’s hatchback needs, the overall product is outstanding, especially when you factor in the various trim lines and available package options.