Road Test: Honda's new Civic is refined but sleep-enducing
Unlike the situation here in the UAE, most other countries are waking up to the benefits of small cars. Cities are congested, roads are narrow and costs are skyrocketing. With fuel in Europe being roughly five times the price we pay here, it's little wonder that the bottom is rapidly falling out of the luxury car segment there. Yet seemingly every new version of every model of car is bigger than the last. BMW's 3 Series is huge compared with the model on sale 25 years ago, while the Mini is now anything but miniature. But you know what? Small cars are actually more fun to drive. They're generally more responsive, easier to park and these days are really safe, too.
If you ever want evidence that cars have become too big nowadays, take a look at the original Honda Civic. It was a cute little runabout, launched in 1972 (the latest one is practically the same size as its Accord sibling) and it had a 1.2L transverse-mounted engine. This helped to provide a surprising amount of room inside, considering its lowly physical dimensions. These Civics were fun to drive, had plenty of personality and they had a tendency to rust that was so bad cars transformed into heaps of brown powder before they'd been unloaded from the ships that sent them round the world from Japan.
My brother used to own one. He was a young man at the time with very little money to spend and the Civic got him where he needed to be, but it was always a laugh to be in. The clutch pedal creaked like Dracula's coffin lid, trim fell off as soon as you touched it, you had to hold onto the doors when cornering lest they fly open and only the rust held the bodywork together. But it had character - it made us smile a lot.
The latest Civic is nothing like that, of course. But after driving around in one for three days I'm struggling to think of a single attribute that brought a smile to my face. It does nothing wrong, it doesn't offend in any way whatsoever. It's okay to look at, if a little amorphous. It's difficult to tell it from any number of "small" Japanese saloons - quite unlike the Civic hatchback that I used to see on British roads, which is one of the coolest small cars on the market there. It actually still looks like a concept car made real, even after five years of production. No, this new Civic is bland and ordinary in the metal.
The interior is a marginal improvement (design-wise at least) over the previous (eighth) generation model, with a more space-age dashboard. But the plastics are all hard to the touch, which is a bit disappointing when even the likes of Ford's new Focus are approaching Germanic standards of cabin goodness with cushioned surfaces that are pleasingly tactile. Having said that, despite the brittle surfaces, they don't appear at all cheap.
The leather seats in the 1.8 VTi model I tested are pleasant enough to look at and sit on, with a suppleness to the upholstery not normally seen and at night time the interior takes on a completely new dimension thanks to the futuristic digitalised displays up front. Thinking about it, I did almost raise a smile at that. But the rest of the Civic experience is dull with a capital D.
Perhaps it's because Honda has admirably aimed for maximum efficiency with its latest cars. But when did something efficient ever mean it was enjoyable? I buy washing machines and fridge freezers that are efficient because they provide a most mundane service. I don't buy a television for its efficiency, or a stereo system. No, I buy those with a different set of criteria: how much enjoyment will I get out of them?
And if you're spending an inordinate amount of time, as most of us do, behind the wheel of a car, is it too much to ask for a bit of fun? Even the most fun aspect of the Civic - its electronic displays - saps your driving enjoyment, unless you happen to be a miser. Put your foot down and the two vertical meters that flank the speed reading change colour, ending up an angry red. Take your foot off and they turn green. It's like having Jiminy Cricket staring at you through the steering wheel, reminding you that fuel consumption is a very bad thing. Where's the fun in that? It's not like Honda doesn't know how to make a car that's entertaining to drive - the company has previous form with the NSX supercar and the S2000 - two of the greatest driver's cars of recent years - but the current range is definitely lacking something.
The other notable thing about the new Civic is that, at speeds greater than 120kph (if you're conscience permits such frivolity), the wind noise is quite unacceptable. There's very little racket transmitted via the tyres, at least on the UAE's smooth road surfaces, but the roar through the glass is remarkable.
What else can I tell you? Its ride is nice and refined, thanks to a well developed suspension systems using MacPherson struts in the front and multi-link double wishbone in the rear. It has a button to the left of the steering wheel that operates the "Econ" mode, which helps improve fuel efficiency by controlling the air conditioning compressor load and changing the engine throttle characteristics. I left it switched on and the refrigeration levels were fine, even in Abu Dhabi's fearsome heat.
EXI and VTI models get a handy reversing camera as standard, as well as Bluetooth connectivity and 16-inch alloy wheels. They all have a four-cylinder, 1.8L SOHC i-VTEC petrol engine, which produces 139hp, and a five-speed automatic transmission and are front-wheel-driveeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.
Oh, sorry, I just nodded off in front of the computer for a second there.
That's the new Civic for you. It'll get you where you need to be without fuss, without breaking down and without you having to grab the door handles when cornering. But be warned: operating this machine may cause drowsiness.
Base price / as tested Dh75,000 / Dh90,000
Engine 1.8L four-cylinder
Gearbox Five-speed automatic
Power 139hp @ 6,500rpm
Torque 173Nm @ 4,300rpm
Fuel economy, combined 7.1L/100km
Published: August 26, 2011 04:00 AM