It’s quite ironic that Honda’s latest overachieving product, the Civic is everything Soichiro Honda stood against. At his peak, the late genius believed in the superiority of naturally aspirated air-cooled engines.
In the decades before the VTEC era, Honda engineers spent many hours arguing with Mr. Honda trying to convince him that the days of air-cooled engines are over.
The old man would argue, “Field Marshall Rommel defeated the British in North Africa with air-cooled tanks.”
His head of R&D Tadashi Kume, who later became the President of Honda, would counter argue “I hate to say this sir, but Rommel was defeated in the end by Americans driving water-cooled Jeeps.”
The enraged Mr. Honda would counter with, “Who’s going to check the water in their radiator every day? Why can’t you understand such a simple concept?”
The old man would only step down after his air-cooled H1300 failed to sell, before finally agreeing to approve the water-cooled Civic project in 1970, setting in motion the creation of one of the most important cars of the century.
When Honda-san was still around, extracting 100 horsepower per litre without turbochargers was ideal. His company’s B16A VTEC engine was the benchmark – 1.6 litres, 160 hp, 8,000 rpm of sharp throttle response and unadulterated naturally-aspirated goodness.
Those days are long gone and under the scrutiny of today’s green parties in Brussels, Washington and Tokyo, nobody can make those engines anymore.
In the same way rapid changes have forced Soichiro to drop his ideals on air-cooling, so too must the Civic evolve.
The Civic might have been a hero car for anyone who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but today’s Civic lives in a very different world.
The Civic is no longer the aspirational car it used to be. Ambitious young adults are increasingly tempted to skip the Civic phase and jump towards a premium European marque. They demand quiet, sophisticated cabins rather than loud screaming VTECs. Young families are now less interested in sedans and prefer crossovers like the HR-V.
Which brings us to this Civic FC. It’s probably the most un-Civic Civic, and as you will find out in the following text, that could either be a good or a bad thing depending on what you expect the car to be.
Specifications for Honda Civic 1.5 TC-P
- Engine: 1.5-litre turbocharged transverse four-cylinder 16-valve DOHC VTEC Turbo
- Power: 173 PS at 5,500 rpm
- Torque: 220 Nm between 1,700 – 5,500 rpm
- Transmission: Automatic (CVT) with paddle shifters, front-wheel drive
- Safety: 6 airbags, electronic stability control (VSA), emergency stop signal (ESS), anti-lock brakes (ABS), Hill Start Assist (HSA)
- Price: RM135,800 with insurance
The latest FC-generation Civic comes in three variants, and two engine options – a naturally aspirated 1.8-litre and a turbocharged 1.5-litre. The differences between all three variants are detailed at our launch story here.
Its main competitors are the Toyota Corolla Altis (from RM120,900) and Mazda 3 (from RM108,940). Apart from these two stalwarts, there’s also the Kia Cerato 2.0 (from RM119,888), Hyundai Elantra 1.8 (from RM118,794), Renault Fluence (RM112,178), Nissan Sylphy (from RM111,900), Ford Focus (from RM139,888) and the upcoming new Volkswagen Jetta.
It certainly stands out from the crowd. At night, the tail light’s glow pattern is fast becoming an icon on our streets.
In front, the full LED headlamps mark this particular unit as the flagship 1.5 TC-P model.
The side profile has a low, sloping silhouette, almost like a four-door coupe BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe and Mercedes-Benz CLA.
Vehicle packaging is Honda’s forte and it shows in the Civic’s cabin. It’s a lot more practical and more spacious than any other model in the segment.
Compared to the previous FB-generation Civic, the driver now sits 20 mm lower. The rev counter and speedometer function is now integrated within a full colour LCD centre cluster. It can even show turn-by-turn directions for the GPS navigation function with a reducing distance indicator bar - just like how BMW's navigation system works! It also shows the status of the infotainment and turbocharger.
The plastic switches on the steering wheel are a bit too hard for my thumbs but at least you don’t need to press the volume switch. Simply sliding up/down the electrostatic switch will do.
As you would expect from a car with such a low slung body, the hip point is rather low so elderly occupants or even less fit younger ones might find ingress and egress a little less convenient than other traditional three-box sedans.
Larger frame drivers may also find the narrow front seats to be lacking in shoulder support. The seat frames have been made smaller around the shoulders to increase interior space and to provide better outward visibility to rear passengers.
The rear passengers also sit slightly higher than the front passengers, further improving outward visibility and comfort. Despite the sloping roof line, headroom in the rear is not as tight as what you would expect. In fact, the whole package works very well.
The centre armrest is deep and wide enough to swallow a DSLR camera, while the recess ahead of the transmission’s shift lever is big enough for you to empty the contents of your pocket into. Beneath it is a nicely sculpted pocket to keep your phone while it’s hooked up to the USB and HDMI port.
The 7-inch infotainment system supports Apple Car Play and Android Auto, so you can actually mirror certain approved apps like Google Maps (Waze is not) on the infotainment screen. One problem when running Google Maps though, as the system insists on reverting back to the Home screen shortly after every next turn direction so you can’t take a glance at the map in between directions.
Sitting behind, shoulder room is rather tight with three adults on board, but it’s still within what you could reasonably expect from this class of cars. Fortunately, rear legroom is unrivalled.
There’s an obvious hump on the floorpan even though this is a front-wheel drive platform but there is a reason to that. Honda’s typically flat floor has been sacrificed in this Civic to increase chassis rigidity – torsional stiffness is now up by 25 percent.
The rear seats also no longer split-fold for the same reason. Open the 519-litre boot, you’ll notice a chassis stiffening bar running across the back of the rear seat. It’s a feature that’s only available in the ASEAN market Civic sedan. The same model sold in the US trades tight handling for more practical split folding rear seats.
How does it fare with the Mazda 3 you ask? Mazda cars might typically be known for their high quality interiors but not the 3, which is one of the earlier generation of Kodo design cars and didn’t benefit from the improvements implemented in the Mazda 2, CX-3 and new CX-5 and new 6. We expect the forthcoming Mazda 3 facelift to improve on this aspect.
For now, the Civic clearly has the best interior fittings in its class, as well as the most spacious interior, assuming you can live with the low hip point and are not too big for the seat frames.
The engine cover says VTEC Turbo but there will be no ‘VTEC kicked in yo’ memes to be made. These days, the raison d'être for many cars is to deliver effortless performance with minimal drama, mirroring the character of turbocharged European cars.
Objectively, the 173 PS and 220 Nm makes the Civic 1.5 TC-P properly fast. Honda claims a 0-100 km/h time of 8.3 seconds – the fastest in the segment. That’s 0.1 seconds faster than the now discontinued Volkswagen Jetta 1.4 TSI TwinCharger (a turbocharger-only Jetta facelift will be launched soon), and 0.3 seconds faster than the Ford Focus 1.5 EcoBoost, despite the Ford's 7 more PS and 20 Nm more torque)
But with the drive transferred to the front wheels via an ultra-efficient and smooth CVT, your butt dyno will tell you that the Civic is the slower car. Without the rising and falling of engine revs at every upshift, the CVT-equipped Civic feels slower than it actually is.
At full throttle, the stepless CVT with torque converter will simply hold the revs somewhere in the middle while speed continues to increase, giving you the impression that the car is stuck in the wrong gear but that’s just how CVTs operate.
In the more important ‘in-gear acceleration,’ where the vehicle is already at speed - the sort of acceleration you will do when overtaking slower vehicles - the CVT works well enough but without distinct steps in its upshift, the car feels slower.
Climbing up the tight mountain roads of Sabah heading towards Kokol Haven and Mount Kinabalu Park, with the CVT in S mode, our pack of Civics were often harassing the back of the supposedly more powerful 2.4-litre 5-speed automatic Honda Accord lead car, which could only stay ahead because it’s piloted by BMW Driver Training instructor Kenneth Chiew. So comments about the CVT blunting the Civic’s performance are exaggerated.
The transmission might be a bit too smooth for its own good, but it’s exactly what the Civic’s target buyers want – a fuel efficient and smooth solution for everyday driving.
However we did express our concern to Honda that the Civic’s CVT doesn’t come with a separate oil cooler. Past experience with early generation CVTs suggests that they don’t cope well with sustained high speeds at high ambient temperatures. Many manufacturers now equip their CVTs with standalone oil coolers – Nissan, Renault and Mitsubishi for example.
Assistant Large Project Lead Hiroshi Ito, who has over 40 years of experience with Honda, assured us that even under Malaysia’s punishing driving conditions, a separate oil cooler is not necessary. Ito reckons the current setup copes well even if the vehicle is driven at 180 km/h in our climate for extended periods of time. Ito added that the large opening of the Civic’s grille provides sufficient cooling for most driving conditions.
For the record, the CVTs used by the City, Jazz and HR-V also don’t have a separate oil cooler but they have proven to be very reliable so far. The VTEC Turbo powered Civic however, produces higher torque, and is a paired to a different, larger CVT.
Like all Hondas, the Civic has an overly light steering. It feels heftier than the City and Accord but it’s still too vague for keen drivers. On the upside, the chassis is stiff enough to handle to nastiest switchbacks and it takes a lot of effort to unstick the Civic from the road.
The Civic’s talented chassis has a very breath of talents but fully exploiting it will require the driver to have some faith in the rather uncommunicative steering.
On straight highways, the Civic’s slightly vague steering is actually more comfortable than the sharp but darty Mazda 3, which is nice when you want to have fun but its tendency to hunt for road cambers on uneven surfaces can be tiring on long distance drives.
The Brake Hold function was also a convenient feature to have in stop-go urban traffic. Instead of having the maintain pressure on the brake pedal when stopping in traffic, simply depress the brake pedal firmly once the car is stationary, and you can lift your foot off the pedal even with the transmission still in Drive. What separates the one installed in the Civic versus similar feature in European models like Volkswagen is the smooth and quick manner it engages and disengages.
Honda also provided a Toyota Corolla Altis 2.0 and a Mazda 3 2.0 for us to sample, but as you would expect, neither naturally aspirated engine sedans are a match for the turbocharged Civic. A Ford Focus 1.5 EcoBoost and a Volkswagen Jetta 1.4 TSI would have been a closer comparison, but neither European models are a popular choice.
As expected, the Mazda has a livelier chassis, whose tail can be provoked to step out a little but its engine's 162 PS and 210 Nm is gutless against the Civic's deep reservoir of torque. The Mazda’s 6-speed automatic transmission with a fast acting lock-up clutch might deliver a more direct drive feel than the Civic’s somewhat mushy CVT, but it’s still no match for the Civic’s effortless acceleration, with peak torque coming in at just 1,700 rpm.
The Corolla Altis is a case of two steps forward and one step back. The instrument panel looks premium, sporty and purposeful but the cheap looking locally-sourced infotainment system, and a tacky looking clock that looked like it came from the ‘80s undid all the positives. The Altis’s smaller, almost flat-bottom steering wheel was the best to hold among the trio but steering feedback, while better weighted than the Civic, felt too artificial.
It had a better CVT though. Launching the car from standstill, the Altis’s CVT replicated stepped upshifts of a regular automatic transmission. It’s still slower than the Civic, but it doesn’t have the disconcerting mismatch of a steady engine rev noise and increasing vehicle speed as in the Civic.
Earlier generation Civics were known for their harsh ride. The previous FB generation model, especially the facelift model was more refined but this all-new model has certainly raised the bar for everyone.
Driving on poorly maintained roads, the ones peppered by residual cement leaked from mixer trucks, broken strips of tarmac, uneven surfaces around manhole covers, the Civic soaks them up so well that we thought were in an Audi A3 – which Ito-san revealed that was one of the models the Civic was benchmarked against for ride and handling.
Driving around Kota Kinabalu, there wasn’t much opportunity the assess the Civic’s cabin quietness at high speeds but initial impressions are positive, with little reasons to doubt Honda’s claims of having the quietest cabin in its class.
After 200 km-plus of driving, split among three drivers driving across a wide variety of driving conditions including urban, uphill and downhill drives, we recorded the best average fuel consumption of 12.6 km/litre, before dropping to around 11 km/litre after pushing the car a lot harder in the hill climb sections.
This is a simple one. The all-new Civic simply dominates its peers. When judged as an overall package, no other C-segment sedan (or even several other D-segment sedans for that matter), even come close to matching what the Civic offers.
Yes, boy racers might hate the Civic's too-smooth-for-its-own-good CVT. For this select crowd, we would recommend the Focus EcoBoost, upcoming new Jetta TSI or even the Mazda 3. However do note that the Ford and the Mazda are shockingly cramped inside. The Jetta is an aging package that has seen better days although it still offers a very engaging driving experience.
For the general car buying public comparing the Civic against other popular bread and butter models like Toyota Corolla Altis, Nissan Sylphy, the Civic is clearly the better buy.
The biggest threat to the Civic is not its sedan peers, but SUVs and crossovers - the sort of cars that more people want these days.
To put things in perspective, the far more practical Honda CR-V 2.0 starts at RM142,900, just RM7,000 more than this Civic 1.5 TC-P. The Mazda CX-5 2.0 is even cheaper, starting at RM128,000. Both 5-star NCAP rating SUVs give you all the essential passive and safety features that you get in the Civic, but fuel consumption is marginally higher though.