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Repeating History | Honda Civic VTEC Turbo

BY Azfar Hashim

Expectations are high with the 10th-gen Civic, so now that it's here, can it regain what its predecessor had lost?

Photos by Azfar Hashim

In the past, you’re either a Toyota or Honda person. If you wanted a medium-sized family sedan, you picked either the Corolla Altis or Civic; their popularity so vast, there’s no way on this earth you could ever miss seeing them on the road. But like time, things changed when Volkswagen came and offered their Jetta. Although not a good start initially, over time Singaporeans opened up to the German and almost immediately it rose in rank to be in the similar spot as both the Japanese brands. It doesn’t help that for the case of the ninth-generation Civic, its unappealing exterior design and lackadaisical build quality lost its appeal, to the point Honda was losing customers in this segment.

To make it even worst for Honda, the local Mazda dealer then aggressively marketed the 3; this in turn became another success story, and so whenever the general public looked into this segment, the Corolla Altis, Jetta and 3 were the obvious choices. Even the Fit/Jazz audience who wanted an upgrade looked elsewhere - if in the past they would trade it in for a Civic, the parallel-imported Vezel was the model they would go after instead.

A boot that open up high and rear doors that opens almost 90-degrees wide - family-friendly indeed

A boot that open up high and rear doors that opens almost 90-degrees wide - family-friendly indeed

Which is why this new generation Civic has a huge task in its hands. To back this product assault, the local dealer went for a two variants strategy, for this new-skinned Civic: A naturally-aspirated 1.6-litre, and the one I have today a turbocharged 1.5-litre.

Undoubtedly the exterior is eye-catching, attracting attention everywhere it went. The slightly older crowd may find it a little too 'futuristic', but like how Lexus took the bold route with their IS, in my personal opinion this is the right step in the right direction. Mind you, we were the first local motoring media to break news of the new Civic when it was spotted undergoing final road tests in Michigan without any disguise last year – so ever since then, we've had a liking for this body shell.

Its face is chiselled and highly detailed, a far cry from all its predecessor that projected a more family friendly/inoffensive face. The LED headlamps and grill, together with the front bumper obviously went through rounds and rounds of approval before final production; but because I am in my early 30s and dislike with passion chrome bits on cars’ exterior, I really wished the grille came with a different finish instead. Perhaps brushed aluminium or even flat black.

On all four corners, Honda added more flares which gave more width to the car’s overall stance when viewed directly from both front and back. And because of that, the standard 17-inch alloys needs to be ditched for something else far more aggressive; while I won’t deny it’s a classic case of personal preference, I bet most agree with me. Besides, those design seem so last decade…

Viewed from the side, the Civic is - well, thankfully - proportionate. At the same time, it also hides the 4,630 mm length; it's second longest after the Jetta (4,659 mm), followed by the Altis (4,620 mm) and 3 (4,580 mm).

In keeping up with current trend, the car has also gotten clamp-shell shaped tail lamps. Like the front bumper, the rear’s is equally detailed but you do wish the pair of exhaust tips were not visually hidden; it would enhance the car even further. And this being the turbocharged variant, an S-sized spoiler comes standard.

The cabin is nothing fanciful, but the good thing is how elegant and driver-centric it actually is. Every control button is clearly labelled, and on the steering wheel itself, it’s just short of having buttons for McDonalds delivery. On the centre console sits a screen housing the multimedia, Bluetooth and climate control – the good thing about integrating the myriad of controls into one centralised monitor is it prevents unnecessary mess and gives a premium touch.

In its move to provide better occupant comfort, the Civic comes with comfortable seats for all. The driver’s seat may not be the first call in terms of providing support during sporty driving, but it does its job for the daily commute very well. At the rear, the seats cocoon you and even if you’re, err, slightly on the bigger side, you’ll remain highly comfy; thoughtful rear air-con blowers make things even more pleasant. Oh and in case you’re wondering, the sunroof comes at no extra cost for this variant.

The boot is deep and commodious, offering 519-litres of space with all seats in place; in comparison, the Jetta has 9-litres less. While no official figures were available from Honda for the capacity available with the rear backrest folded, we measured physically and found 193.5 cm worth; this means you could still ferry, for example, an average-sized IKEA file cabinet without much hassle.

Courtesy of the new turbocharged DOHC VTEC powerplant, any driver would notice something was up because there’s such usable, accessible power across the band. Honda claims 170 bhp, but more importantly, torque of 220 Nm at 5,550rpm, making it a big challenge to keep your foot planted and keep it going at legal speeds; there’s that tendency to floor the accelerator once the road opens up. Power is constantly available on demand, and even the slightest prod is adequate to keep the Civic moving.

However, there’s that noticeable lag when you suddenly floor the accelerator; but that’s easily forgivable, seeing how fast it accelerates once it gains back its composure and start climbing towards the redline.

Standard paddle-shifter allows you to toggle between seven virtual ratios

Standard paddle-shifter allows you to toggle between seven virtual ratios

Despite all that, you still cannot escape the fact that the CVT ‘box saps character. Although Honda cited reasons such as (a) better efficiency and (b) provide smoother on-road characteristic, perhaps in this variant particularly, a 6-speed torque-converter unit or, better still, a manual transmission option will add further appeal.

Driven on the expressway, wind noise is no problem; nor is high-speed ride, which is excellent. But the cabin does let in too much road rumble, and it becomes more apparent over badly paved roads.

The sporty bit of the car can be felt when driven hard: Overall it moves and reacts about as fast as you could think, and feels balanced and sharp. Steering is nicely quick and precise, something which is becoming a commonplace in this segment; despite that, the Jetta still provides a better overall feel. Slightly firm suspension does its job well of soaking up bumps and road irregularities, hence you can rest assure that everyone will still travel in comfort.

LaneWatch blindspot monitor greatly assists the driver during lane changes; activate the left indicator and the monitor display gives you a wide view of blind spots from the B-pillar onwards

LaneWatch blindspot monitor greatly assists the driver during lane changes; activate the left indicator and the monitor display gives you a wide view of blind spots from the B-pillar onwards

But it also bears the bane similar to most sedans: Understeering. The disadvantage of having a boot is that at corners, it tends to understeer with the rear end threatening to push out wide; but all thanks to ESP and the Civic’s superb chassis and suspension set-up, a simple tweak of the throttle and correcting the steering with ease and speed will easily keep things back under control.

In all, this new turbo’d Honda Civic VTEC does have a slight hint of the EK-generation Civic SiR – a family-friendly sedan that also has the performance capability to make driving less sombre and dull. Oh how much the Civic has grown over the years, and this version is – without a doubt – a positive step forward.

However to be realistic, the almost $130k price tag isn’t easy to swallow for the average buyer in this particular segment, which automatically meant despite all the goodness it offers, won’t register as much interest as the $18k cheaper 1.6-litre.