NEW YORK, Feb 17 — Most people who remember the original Civic that Honda brought to America in 1973 remember it as a hatchback. The less popular “sedan” looked exactly the same — it just had a tiny rear door instead of the liftgate. That runt of a car went on to do big things for Honda. The car’s CVCC engine, which ran on both regular and unleaded gasoline (without a catalytic converter), showed Detroit and consumers that Honda had engineering chops to spare.
Yes, there once were two kinds of gasoline. And I grew up with only four television stations. But that’s a different story.
The once stubby Civic grew into sleek coupes and sedans. By 2005, automotive trends had changed so much that the very body style that set up Honda for success vanished from its US lineup.
But everything old is new again. The Civic hatch is back. With 4.4 inches taken off the rear overhang, the aggressive sheet metal creases don’t play out as smoothly as on the sedans. But even with less length, the hatchback remains more useful than the sedan or coupe because its yawning opening swallows 10-speed bikes whole (another thing popular back in the ‘70s).
I drove the Sport model that retails for US$22,175 (RM98,760), plus those pesky taxes and such. The Sport, most easily spotted by its centre-mounted exhaust, is a basic car. The only major option available is an US$800 continuously variable automatic transmission. You want a better sound system? That’s what the aftermarket is for.
Or, move up to the Sport Touring, which throws in creature comforts plus Honda Sensing, a bundling of safety technology that includes automatic braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning. Sadly, that means you give up the six-speed manual gearbox I drove and adds about US$7,000 to the price (which would have bought three 1973 Civics).
The Sport is not the sportiest Civic — Si and Type R models are on their way — but it’s tough to get more fun and practicality for your US$22,000. It’s the kind of car that, after a couple of miles, gets under your skin and pushes a smile onto your cheeks. Throw it into a corner and it happily obliges, then suggests you do it again.
It is also a refined runner, displaying the kind of polished dynamics found on small luxury offerings a decade ago. There are baby bottoms less smooth than the 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. It puts out 180 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque when fed premium fuel. That’s six more ponies than the standard Civic hatch models (which lack the Sport’s more sophisticated knock sensor). And in another blast from the past, the engine is started with a key. The kind you insert and turn.
Fuel economy will not disappoint. Uncle Sam rates the Sport with a manual gearbox at 30 mpg in the city, 39 on the highway. I saw high 20s in mostly urban (and spirited) driving. Going with the automatic drops the highway figure down to 36.
You’ll commute comfortably until Sport’s low-profile tires hit a sharp bump. Those go right on through the chassis to your backside with little filtering. Moderately bolstered seats can hold a wide range of drivers in place during spirited manoeuvres.
Without the Touring’s sunroof, the cabin is dark and monochromatic. At least it’s made with good-quality plastics. The leather-wrapped steering wheel feels as if it was destined for a car a full segment higher.
Many cars these days have some sort of touch-screen interface. The base Sport goes the nostalgia route with a rudimentary monochromatic LCD screen reminiscent of an ‘80s Texas Instruments calculator. But it is super simple to operate with an honest-to-goodness volume knob and radio station buttons. Honda’s old slogan, “We Make it Simple”, applies here. Don’t worry, there’s Bluetooth for pairing phones.
With belts for three, the back seat has generous room for two average adults. And that’s about it. There are no power ports, seat pockets or folding armrest in the back. Putting a cup of hot coffee in the door pocket is awkward and could result in spills or burned fingers. Ask me how I know. Again, it’s a US$22,000 car. Remind friends they didn’t pay for an Uber.
Unless the dual spoilers and faux front and rear venting are too severe for your retinas, the Civic Hatchback should be on the test drive list. That list includes the Chevy Cruze Hatchback, Ford Focus, Mazda3, Toyota Corolla iM and the Volkswagen Golf. Practical, affordable and offering a decent romp on a curvy road, the Civic has returned to its roots. Now, if only Led Zeppelin could reunite. — The New York Times