Welcome back, hatchback.
Honda Civics used to come in a lot of different shapes and sizes, from the stubby little CRX to the tall, all-wheel-drive Civic wagon. But long ago, the funneling effect of mainstream consumer tastes (another way to say that we are all sheep) caused Honda to pare the Civic line to its two biggest sellers, the sedan and the coupe. America even got its own Civic platform, while Europe and other overseas markets continued to enjoy a hatchback body style, which was last seen around these parts as the 2002–2005 U.K.-built Si.
Well, that Anglo-American pipeline is back in business as Honda’s Swindon, England, assembly plant once again swings into action to produce a Civic hatchback for America. The return of the hatch as a younger, sportier, and more male-oriented alternative to the sedan and coupe was made possible by last year’s introduction of a common Civic platform for all global markets.
Now that there is One Civic to Unite Us All, Honda has a better business case for importing less-popular variants to the U.S. Here, the hatchback, which carries a $500-and-up premium over the sedan, is being plugged into the compact segment as a way to grow incremental volume—basically, it’s found money—and, possibly, as a way to stanch the outflow of compact-sedan buyers to crossovers. Honda finally sees some movement in America’s long-dormant ardor for hatchbacks and is hoping for 40,000 to 50,000 sales per year, a number that would give total Civic volume a healthy bump indeed. That is, assuming they aren’t mostly swiped from the Civic sedan and coupe buyer pool. The forthcoming hatch-only Type R will certainly help draw attention to this new bustleback body style as well.
A Sedan with a Garage Door in Back
This is not the return of the CVCC or any of the other thrifty hatchback versions of the Civic that have come here over the past four decades. Along the lines of the Mazda 3and Ford Focus hatchbacks, the new Civic hatchback is basically a sedan with a garage door in back. Besides the body style’s namesake cargo opening as well as the roof, rear doors, and rear quarter-panels, all of the outer sheetmetal is in common with the sedan. Inside, the structure was reinforced around the large hatch hole to maintain rigidity, but the wheelbase and width are identical, and overall length shrinks by just 4.3 inches.
The most obvious physical differences, besides the lack of a trunk, are the goth black face paint for the exterior trim and the faux duct inserts in the bumpers, which make the hatchback seem less like a car and more like a robot with terminally flared nostrils. As we said, it’s supposed to appeal to youth, who, apparently, want to be seen as having a lot of hot gas to expel.
There are two trim-level tracks for the hatch, with the mainstream LX/EX/EX-L on one side and the Sport/Sport Touring on the other. The latter have gauges illuminated in red instead of blue, faux-carbon trim, aluminum pedals, and leather wraps for the gearshifter and the steering wheel. Honda’s new and increasingly ubiquitous turbocharged and direct-injected 1.5-liter four-cylinder (it’s in the new CR-V, too, and odds are the Accord will soon have it) is the sole engine available, but peak horsepower rises from 174 hp in the mainstream models to 180 hp in the Sport. A six-speed manual transmission can be ordered to sub in for the continuously variable automatic (CVT), but only on the base LX and Sport. Once again, as on the Civic sedan and all Accords, Honda punishes you for wanting a manual by locking out access to the upper trim-level features such as navigation and the Honda Sensing suite of electronic safety aids. That may be a worthwhile sacrifice.
The Sport with a six-speed is a pleasure to drive, the 1.5-liter making strong torque across the rev range (rated peak torque in the manual is slightly higher, at 177 lb-ft, up from 162). The requisite lag and drop-off of an intake pressurized up to 16.5 psi have been earnestly, if not perfectly, smoothed over, and the car goes like a dart. If you want, you can be the fastest car on the freeway, as long as everyone else is in ordinary cars, and when the road turns, the Civic likes to play. The grip is tenacious, the brakes are stout, and body motions are well damped, just as you’d find in a Civic sedan or an Accord. The largest wheels you can get are the Sport and Sport Touring’s 18s, with 235/40 Continental ContiProContact tires—neither the fanciest rubber nor the cheapest but a solid tire for the hatchback’s modest price point. The sportier tires generate some noise, but in this car class, it’s not excessive.
Since this is basically a Civic sedan, the controls have the usual Honda delight in their weight and precision, and the gearshifter, if not quite S2000 quality, slips tightly from gate to gate with a gratifying feel. Opt for the CVT, and it behaves more or less like a conventional step-gear transmission, executing “shifts” between what seem like fixed ratios. It’s all a pantomime, but it eliminates the complaint that CVTs make the engine drone endlessly. Most owners will have no clue that it’s a CVT, which surely is Honda’s intention.
The hatchback opens wide, and the cargo area is reasonably deep even with the rear seats up, creating just under 26 cubic feet of luggage space (23 cubic feet in the Sport trims). That’s a bit more than in the more wagonoid Mazda 3 hatch. Fold down the Civic’s rear seats, and all trim levels give you 46 cubic feet, about the same as the Mazda, which is, let’s face it, the car most likely to be cross-shopped against the Civic hatch. One novel feature in the Civic is a roll-up cargo cover, which comes out of a scroll that can be mounted to the left or right side of the cargo area, per your preference.
The Honda Sensing suite of radar-based safety countermeasures, should you spring for it, brings down to the Civic level a lot of capabilities that formerly were the domain of luxury cars, including automated emergency braking, lane-departure mitigation, and adaptive cruise control. Currently, prices range from $20,535 for the base LX to $26,135 for the EX-L Navi; both are already on sale. When the $22,135 Sport and loaded Sport Touring arrive in January, the top price will notch up to just over $29,000. The prices closely track those of the more established—and much prettier—Mazda 3, and that’s probably not by accident.
Honda’s idea of what dudes want in their styling may look a little overwrought to some, and the center-mounted twin exhaust pipes of the Sport and Sport Touring only further accentuate the race-boy elements that the stylists thought necessary to throw in. However, if two giant ducts are good, four aren’t necessarily better. It seems that the more a car proclaims its sportiness with fake racing gear, the less likely it is to be true. The current Mazda 3 has a swoopy elegance that strikes us as exhibiting what Honda used to have: confidence. Still, despite the unnecessary theater, the Civic hatchback has the goods and will stand up well against the Mazda, one of our favorite compacts. That’s as good for shoppers as it is for the Civic—and for Honda.