2017 Honda Civic Hatchback First Drive Review - It's The '70s Again
2017 Honda Civic LX Hatchback
As I drive the new 2017 Honda Civic Hatchback through the yellow leaves of Ontario’s autumn, a very tired metaphor comes to mind. You probably know the one. It includes a guy with the initials R.F. — and no, not the one who founded this particular corner of the internet.
I’m going to refuse this inspiration. Leveraging The Road Not Taken in automotive journalism is as banal as quoting Dom Toretto.
Instead, let’s talk about something else entirely: The ’70s.
Disclosure: Honda Canada invited us to Muskoka, just north of Toronto, to put the new Civic Hatchback through its paces. We partook in food, drink, and axe throwing on the company dime. Oh, and they gave me a Civic Nation toque. How Canadian.
It was 1973. After successfully selling motorcycles and two-cylinder cars to Joe Everyman, American Honda introduced the Civic to North American shores. The new four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive Civic was, by most accounts, far superior than the Vegas and Pintos Detroit was cranking out at the time.
As the oil crisis hit American checkbooks, Honda’s footprint in America grew. The Civic was a hit. Honda’s CVCC tech meant the Civic didn’t need a catalytic converter to pass emissions, thus ensuring the its diminutive four-pot was less restricted than the much larger engines propelling the Civic’s much larger competitors. Still, no car can go on forever without a refresh and, in 1979, it was time to follow-up the first Civic with a new and improved iteration.
But, just before the second-generation Civic went on sale at American Honda dealers, things got … interesting.
The first Civic was introduced as a three-door hatchback in America and American Honda needed to keep the Civic line fresh until the second-generation Civic arrived. So, American Honda imported a small number of first-generation five-door hatchbacks in 1978.
That, my friends, is the last time Honda sold a five-door hatchback Civic in America.
Seriously. 1978. 38 years ago.
That is until now.
Taking a page out of its own playbook, Honda is again bestowing us with a hatchback built in the United Kingdom (hold the “British quality” jokes), this time a five-door instead of a three-door hatchback a la seventh-gen Si (SiR in Canada).
Less is more
Unlike the Civic sedan and coupe, the hatchback is powered solely by Honda’s new 1.5-liter turbocharged engine, though it’s available in two different tunes.
I tested the LX model, equipped with the lesser of the two turbo recipes. But it’s not that simple. Your selection of transmission adds another level of complexity to the final output figures. Opt for the manual and you’ll have 174 horsepower and 167 lb-ft of torque on tap, which returns 30 city/39 highway/33 combined miles per gallon on the EPA five-cycle test. Go with the CVT and the torque number falls to 162 lb-ft, but fuel economy increases to 31 city/40 highway/34 combined mpg.
Should you want a bit more oomph, traverse up the trim ladder and buy a Sport or Sport Touring model, each good for 180 horsepower no matter the transmission choice. In this guise, a different engine map and freer-flowing exhaust increase torque output to 177 lb-ft — but only for the manual model, which is only available on the Sport. Option the CVT on the Sport or go for the Sport Touring that gets the CVT as standard equipment and the torque figure drops back down to 162 lb-ft.
This is one of the times when it pays in performance to row your own.
But where’s the 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder from the sedan and coupe, you may ask? Honda says it wants to position the hatchback as a premium product and the 1.5T is the Civic’s premium engine. Period.
Still, one wonders if the duties and tariffs applied to a UK import might have a bit to do with engine selection: if a car is already going to be expensive, may as well chuck premium gear at it and bring up the profit margin. But, even in Canada, duty is only 6.1 percent, which is barely enough to influence major decisions such as engine selection.
The most likely culprit is a bit simpler: Honda won’t be selling the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine in Europe, so why bother going through all the extra effort of shipping 2.0-liter engines to the UK, only to ship them back in a base model car? Doing that is a logistical and financial nightmare — so why bother? Honda hasn’t.
This isn’t your high-school hatchback
As for the car itself, the new hatchback is no EG reprise.
Up front, a slightly more aggressive front bumper and blacked-out grille beak are the only defining characteristics separating the hatchback from its sedan and coupe brethren. Instead, most of the hatchback’s changes are aft of the C-pillar, with a slight change in the roof line behind the first row of seats.
Even with those changes, the hatchback doesn’t add much capability over and above the sedan. The hatch is more liftback than short wagon. Much like the Mazda 6 hatchback, which did nothing to improve cargo capacity, the Civic enlarged rear door gives one the ability to store larger widgets, but not necessarily more of them.
Open the rear hatch and you’ll be greeted by 25.7 cu. ft. of cargo space (22.6 in Sport and Sport Touring trims) with the rear seats up, which Honda claims is a 10.6 cu. ft. increase over the sedan. Putting the seats down nets you a total of 46.2 cu. ft. of cargo volume. However, with the seats up, don’t expect to fit more square objects, like luggage, in the hatchback’s trunk than you can in the sedan. This increase in cargo comes from the extra space above where the sedan’s decklid should be, and it’s an oddball shape to be sure.
Aside from that, the hatchback offers the exact same passenger space up front and a little less in the rear versus the sedan. Rear passengers will have a little more head and hip room, but legroom is where the hatchback loses ground to the sedan — 37.4 inches for the sedan versus 36.0 for the hatchback.
More of the same, and the same is good — usually
Last year, I drove the 2016 Honda Civic sedan and was pleasantly surprised by its on-road demeanor. No longer did the Civic feel like a cheap tin can. No longer did it feel like the value option. No longer did I wonder if Honda had engineered the engineers out of one of its most important products.
And the same can be said for the hatchback.
If you’re looking for a firm ride, look elsewhere. The Civic hatchback is engineered with comfort in mind. The Civic smooths over small road imperfections and large bumps as best it can with its 106.3-inch wheelbase. Much of that comfort comes from the tall sidewalls surrounding its 16-inch alloys. But don’t let that fool you — the Civic wants to hustle.
On my drive over an incredibly bumpy, twisty country road, the Civic took everything I chucked at it: sweepers, tight corners, off-camber twists, and undulating apexes. Not once did it become unsorted. Not once did I feel on the verge of losing control.
The Civic’s chassis may display understeer at the very limit, but I wouldn’t know. This is a public road test, after all, so I was nowhere near flirting with the limits of grip. But for your spirited driving on a Saturday afternoon, the Civic isn’t going to all of a sudden commit vehicular suicide into a ditch. Steering is light, as are all electric systems, but that didn’t slow us down.
That said, maybe we were pushing a bit too hard. After a particularly twisty section, we did notice a fair bit of brake fade after overheating the brakes — but that’s totally okay. The Civic won’t be enduring the same abuse during a morning commute unless you live at the bottom of the Rockies and work at the top of them.
For all of its technical, dynamic progress, the Civic does feel more staid to drive than its looks would make you believe. It’s not neutered — especially with the manual and turbo mill mated together — but it isn’t heart-pounding. That no surprise, though, and the forthcoming Si and Type R models should remedy that.
But there are two things the Si and Type R won’t fix: the volume knob and other controls in the Civic’s cockpit that are beyond infuriating.
Hopefully, in the near future, Honda will come to its senses and bring the volume knob back to the Civic’s infotainment system. We’re beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel with the new CR-V (which we’ll be testing this week) that brings back the volume knob as God intended. But there’s another part of the Civic experience that will bug you to no end if you share the car with another driver: the adjustable steering column.
Most adjustable columns have a lever just behind the wheel, either under the column or to the side of it. The Civic’s adjustable steering wheel lever is way, way back, to the point where you’re almost eating the steering wheel reaching for it. If you have back problems, this is an issue — and not one that’s simply of the nuisance variety.
The rest of the interior, in base LX trim, is high-end for the price point. Fabric seats feel premium and offer copious amounts of support and adjustment. Honda has even gone so far as to put tweeter speakers in the rear doors.
Unlike the other base model Civics, the LX receives a pretty digital instrument cluster. Even the damnation-worthy HondaLink is standard though without navigation, which you don’t need anyway. At least it has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
There’s one more trick feature Honda has up its sleeve — and it has to do with the trunk. Instead of a trunk tonneau cover that lifts with the hatch or one you much roll for and aft, the cover in the Civic rolls from side to side. The Honda reps said this will save people from removing their truck covers over and over again whenever they need to load large objects. I think it’s an ingeniously simple solution — a solution worthy of Soichiro Honda’s praise
Unfortunately, this rebirth of Honda’s first-generation five-door isn’t priced with ’70s economics in mind.
In the U.S., the Civic LX Hatchback starts at $20,535 USD including $835 USD for destination. In Canada, the LX starts at $23,023.75 CAD — including $1,723.75 CAD for freight, PDI, and levies — which is a whopping $5,000 premium over the sedan. Pricing for the top-end Sport Touring tops out at $31,158.75 CAD in Canada and has not yet been announced for the U.S.
[Images: © 2016 Mark Stevenson/The Truth About Cars, Honda Canada]
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