Herbie Hancock is a jazz pianist with a lesser known passion for all things electronic. After trading his sublime Steinway for some cutting-edge synthesizers, Hancock’s musical career Rockit-ed into interstellar space. It’s unclear why Honda reversed Hancock's career path for their eighth generation Civic. Here we have a machine that harkens back to the time when funk-fusion hit the airwaves and flying wedge concepts littered the world's design studios. What’s up with that?
The retro echoes are obvious, but let’s be clear about their execution: the new Civic’s tall profile, cab forward silhouette and skaterboi ramp cum windshield is less old school Lamborghini, more "Minivan Jr." Despite Audi-esque tail lights, the four-door’s strange proportions clearly say “I wanna be a hatchback!” About the best that can be said about the design: it's unmistakable from ten feet or ten furlongs away.
Too bad the windows aren't opaque. Honda’s interior decorators invite you to savor their first ever KITT car cabin. This ode to seventies sci-fi chic sports a two story gauge cluster. A digital speedometer sits up top; a Cyclopsian analog tachometer lingers below. The lighting effects aren’t quite Peter Max, but it’s not for lack of trying. All that’s needed is a flashing LED display and testy, effeminate voice to protect you against the “world of criminals who operate above the law.”
Fortunately, the Civic’s high quality fit and finish create a suitable cavern for A to B’ers determined to enjoy their daily dose of gridlock or weekly jaunt to the local supermarket. The Civic’s cloth doesn't look or feel cheap, even having the foresight to spend quality time on the inviting door panels. True to Honda’s heritage, both major and minor controls are faultlessly, sensuously ergonomic. And there’s plenty of head, leg, shoulder and trunk space for five Civic-minded adults.
The Civic LX' rear cargo-hole also makes the win list, with decklid operation and load height that's Verne Troyer compliant. But the hood's Dustbuster profile and long arm A-pillar make forward visibility a game of chance on the turnpike or within Wholefoods’ parking lot. Once you get over the front end's lack of visual reinforcement and the video game interfaces, taking a commanding grip on the Civic LX’ slick two-spoke wheel is child's play.
But not in the Atari 2600 kind of way. Honda's funky-fresh wedgemobile handles in a manner more befitting a Gran Turismo endurance race. Most everything from the ghosts of Civics past is present and accounted for: linear steering, powerful brakes, confident handling and reasonably well controlled body motions. The Civic’s 16" wheels encourage fast cornering and deep braking, even if the chassis’ limitations are strictly R&B (reached and breached).
While it’s nice to think that frugal little cars are driven by financially challenged enthusiasts, an automatic transmission is mandatory in this neck of the woods. The Civic's slushbox shifts effortlessly between five well-matched gears.
That's a good thing. With a 1.8-liter four cylinder mill huffing out 140hp at 6300rpm, the amble from rest to 60mph require more than a couple of cogs and almost nine seconds of the Civic driver’s time. Let’s face it: the Civic LX’ acceleration isn’t exactly the stuff of NOPI folklore. But the mill gets the job done with a vario-cammed powerband that revs freely, with minimal thrash and complaint. More importantly (at least for the target market), the $17k sedan clocks in at 30/40 EPA mpg.
Granted, the LX-trimmed Civic won't set souls afire with greasy bits worthy of The Temple of VTEC. But the little Honda is a direct hit on the average American’s big car sensibilities. The diminutive sedan serves-up the kind of calm, confident ride and sound isolation normally associated with premium priced luxobarges. And that's what makes this package special: strict attention to dynamic details while catering to the comfort-oriented demands of penny-pinching customers seeking reliable basic transportation.
Yes, but– somehow the Civic’s small car persona got lost in translation. While you gotta love all those airbags and the superlative passive safety, there’s no getting around the fact that the 2750lb Civic is a bigger beast than ever before. Which begs the question: was adding extra heft the right path for a car known for catering to both the entry-level dynamically dense buyer and the performance crazed Import Tuner crowd?
In this age of bigger is better, the current gen Civic bowed to market trends and sold the pistonheads out. Yes, the Civic is still a comforting method of family transport with unique styling and respectable performance. Sure, it’s still a modern day Model A: a blank canvas for street savvy tuners to make a, um, “strong” visual, auditory and performance statement. But the Civic is no longer a sport compact. Forget about the questionable nostalgic styling; this may be the biggest letdown of them all.