REVIEW DATE: 12 Feb 2008
Honda's Civic makes the chasing pack suddenly look very old indeed. Andy Enright reports
It's not too often a car is launched that, at a stroke, manages to make all of its rivals look way behind the curve. This however, is what Honda have managed with their latest Civic. This car marks a new generation of family hatches.
In times past, despite the success of the excellent Type-R version, the rest of the Civic range would rarely appear on the radar of anybody under fifty years old. Majoring on impeccable practicality, space and reliability, this family hatch was loved by its owners but perhaps a little short on inherent 'want one' factor. This was one of the key changes Honda had in mind with the development of the eighth generation Civic. In a market where utility vehicles were invading the old version's client base, the MK8 model needed to have instant desirability and an appeal that would turn the heads of younger buyers. It has exactly that.
Buyer behaviour has changed and Honda are reacting to this shift. Bucking the trend for successive Civics to be bigger and heavier than their predecessors, the latest car is significantly more compact than the seventh generation model. Overall length is 35mm less and the car stands lower by the same amount. In order to create a more dynamic stance, width has increased by 65mm. It's this change in dimensions that give the Civic its rather pugnacious demeanour.
Honda are quite upfront about the shift in target demographics, heading their marketing material with phrases like "your granny wouldn't like it" and dubbing the car a "premium sports compact." The Civic's face is quite unlike any other car on the road, bringing to mind the glazed-in nose of the old Citroen SM. Headlamps sitting at the front corners are obviously old hat as the Civic adopts an illuminated bar. Few cars pursue the one-box look quite as aggressively as the Honda either, the cab-forward design and wedged side profile giving the impression that the car has been moulded rather than designed on a computer.
"The Civic is instantly striking in a way that few family hatches ever achieve"
The detailing is very neat, with a repeating triangular theme appearing on the front fog lights, exhaust pipes and rear trim. Many manufacturers have tried to combine sharp angles with rounded curves and the results haven't always been very happy. The Civic shows how it should be done. Although the car has a coupe-like roofline, look carefully and you'll spy blade-thin door shutlines and a handle concealed into the glass. Yes, this is a full five-door. Whereas the old Civic five-door was a rather frumpy thing, this model is far sassier - though if you don't agree, there's the option of going for one of the sportier Type-S or Type-R three-door models. Prices start at £14,490 for the five-door and £15,490 for the three-door bodystyle.
The adventurous styling doesn't stop on the outside either. Where the previous generation Civic introduced a lot of new ideas when it came to packaging, the eighth generation Civic again offers a novel approach. The dashboard is designed on two levels, the main instruments housed on the nearer one with a surrounding 'tier' that includes auxiliary functions like stereo, heating, ventilation and trip meter. This sophisticated, three-dimensional feel to the fascia is backed up with quality materials and interesting textures.
Now comes the bit that may well have you scratching your head. It did for me. Although the latest Civic is significantly smaller than its predecessor on the outside, the company claims that room inside is just as generous as before. Instead of trying to understand how Honda have warped the time-space continuum, it's easier to spot the simple engineering solutions they've employed. Like the Jazz, the Civic features a fuel tank that's centrally mounted along the cross member below the front seats. This means that the seats in the rear can fold flat and there's no intrusion into the cargo bay floor. Borrowing technology from the innovative FR-V, the Civic also features seats that fold and flip with one smooth action.
All versions of this Honda are generously specified, with the top models featuring equipment usually only found on far bigger cars. Standard across the range are features like climate control air-conditioning, Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA), trip computer, front, side and curtain airbags, rake and reach adjustable steering column and rear 'Magic' seats. High grade models feature innovations such as automatic lights and wiper functions, high intensity discharge headlamps, Dual Zone Climate Control and retractable door mirrors, in addition to options such as alloy wheels, DVD satellite navigation and leather trim.
Previous Civics have built a reputation for Honda as being amongst the safest cars in their class and this car continues the theme. With a stronger body structure and subframes, recessed pedals, double pretensioners on the front seatbelts and side curtain airbags, this car has achieved a Euro NCAP five star result for front and side impact safety, three stars for pedestrian safety and four stars for child protection safety.
Four engines are offered at present. The entry level powerplant is an 82bhp 1.4-litre petrol unit, with a 139bhp 1.8-litre petrol engine offering a bit more punch and a 2.0-litre unit offered on the flagship Type-R. The most popular engine in the range is the 139bhp 2.2-litre diesel unit. All are mated with a six-speed manual gearbox, making the Civic the first car in the family hatch sector to be equipped with six-speed gearboxes across all of its range. The 1.8 and 2.0-litre petrol units are assembled in Swindon (as is the diesel), while the 1.4-litre engine hails from Japan.
This Civic will be causing many rival industry executives to come to the sobering conclusion that their next new product launch is already dead in the water. Honda have upped their game. Now it's up to the rest to follow suit.
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