Those who’ve lived long enough to remember the advent of the original Honda Civic in the early ’70s may still think of it as the quintessential hatchback. Strange then to contemplate that our market has been mostly devoid of Civic hatchbacks for 17 years until now.
Other than a blip on the screen that saw the British-built Civic Si arrive and leave between 2002 and 2005, this brand new 2017 Civic Hatchback is the first of its kind on North American shores since Honda abandoned the practical design way back at the turn of the millennia. Now, after a week behind the wheel, all past sins are forgiven. Or should I say, most. It’s clearly better than ever, although it’s styling is somewhat controversial.
Yes, the new Civic Hatchback is a love-it-or-hate-it design that at the very least will turn heads. Its frontal styling pulls plenty of cues from the four-door Civic Sedan and two-door Civic Coupe, which is arguably a good thing, whereas its rear design melds some of both models’ key elements into one totally unique shape. I’ll leave you to decide whether or not Honda has succeeded in improving the breed, because the jury is definitely split.
Honda chose a base LX model for the press fleet it keeps in my area so I booked it for a weeklong test, but as is most often the case they omitted its entry-level six-speed manual gearbox and instead provided the continuously variable transmission (CVT). The choice of transmission depends on trim, with the manual standard with the base LX plus the second-rung Sport, and the CVT standard on EX trim and above—of course the CVT is optional on the lower trims too. The majority of features in the brand’ s impressive Honda Sensing active safety suite are only available with the CVT.
Unlike the Civic Sedan, the Hatchback gets one single turbocharged and direct-injected 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine, albeit in various states of tune. It makes 174 horsepower and 167 lb-ft of torque in the LX, EX and EX-L Navi, although in CVT guise its torque drops to 162 lb-ft, while Sport and top-line Sport Touring trims get a 180 horsepower version of the engine that puts out 177 lb-ft of torque. Once again, CVT-equipped models utilizing this loftier engine are detuned to achieve just 162 lb-ft of torque, but the engine is lively either way so no one should complain. An easy way to tell the zestier engine from the Hatchback’s exterior is a dual center-mounted exhaust pipe at back, plus its owners filling up with pricier premium fuel to extract all of its potential.
Even base LX models should impress compact buyers thanks to a 7.0-inch color TFT multi-information display that doubles as the primary gauge cluster, this flanked by two bright and colorful digital meters for engine temp and fuel, plus over on the center stack a decent sized infotainment touchscreen. Upper trims get a larger unit that’s filled with higher grade graphics plus Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, plus a bigger multi-angle backup camera with dynamic guidelines, Wi-Fi tethering, Siri Eyes Free, Bluetooth wireless phone and audio streaming, SMS text and email functionality, two USB ports, 180-watt eight-speaker audio instead of 160 watts and six speakers, and the list goes on.
Instead, the list of Civic Hatchback LX features includes with auto on/off halogen projector headlights, LED daytime running lights, LED taillights, an electromechanical parking brake, intermittent wipers, an intermittent rear wiper/washer, tilt and telescopic steering, filtered single-zone automatic climate control, a rear armrest with cupholders, a retractable cargo cover, the HondaLink Assist auto emergency response system, hill start assist, all the usual active and passive safety features, plus more.
Those upgrading to previously noted Honda Sensing get auto high beams, adaptive cruise control with low-speed following capability, forward collision warning with emergency autonomous braking, road departure mitigation, and lane departure warning with lane-keeping assist.
Honda’s willingness to lend journalists this most basic Civic Hatchback shows just how confident they are in the car on the whole (believe me, we’re rarely provided base models of anything). First off, a quick glance immediately shows a nicer set of alloy wheels than most entry-level economy cars get, these being machine-finished 16-inch rims with black-painted pockets that match up well next to all the glossy black trim contrasting my tester’s White Orchid Pearl paint. The only chrome is on the badges front and back, although the headlights give off a jewel-like glitter.
It’s quite clear the Hatchback targets a sportier clientele despite being the most practical Civic in the lineup, this underscored by its rather lofty base price of $19,700 plus freight and fees. By comparison the Civic Sedan starts at just $18,740, albeit with a lot more chrome and a set of less alluring alloys.
All Civics boast impressive interiors no matter the trim, but I particularly like the Hatchback LX model’s etched metallic instrument panel and door inlays, plus the black and gray striped woven cloth seat upholstery. The center stripe is actually made up of thinner gray and black diagonal lines, while gray contrast stitching to each side, plus along each bolster and around the headrests, complement the look. The black fabric can also be found on each armrest, while the seats in back feature the same gray stitching as those up front yet eliminate the center stripe for a starker appearance. It’s difficult to complain at this price point, although take note Honda does similarly with its considerably more expensive Civic Si and R models.
Like the rest of the Civic lineup the Hatchback is a wonderfully comfortable place to be, the driver’s seat providing excellent lower back support and a decent level of lateral bracing, while there’s at least as much room in back as the sedan. Another benefit gained by moving from four-door to five-door Civic is immediately noticeable from the driver’s perspective, a larger rear window to aid rearward visibility when peering through the center mirror. This combines with good visibility all around, which can be further optimized by raising or lowering the seat via a large lever to the left of the lower cushion, before toggling the power-adjustable side mirrors for the clearest view.
As noted earlier, the Civic Hatchback’s standard instrument panel is a literal lightshow of dazzling color, its digital displays as plentiful as this class gets and the quality of resolution also at the top of the pack. Where Honda differs from most competitors is the inclusion of this same quality gauge cluster and touchscreen from near base to top-line Civic models, while this Civic Hatchback gets the same class-leading electronics almost all the way through the line. This is a clear example of how well Honda understands the market it’s now starting to dominate.
Another thing Honda understands is overall driving dynamics, this especially true of the Hatchback thanks to the standard turbocharged engines noted earlier. Before you get all excited at the word “turbo”, be advised that it doesn’t immediately translate into hot hatch performance. Rather, this LX trimmed model is more about smooth, linear operation combined with a nice compliant ride, its front strut and rear multi-link independent suspension featuring stabilizer bars at both ends yet tuned with comfort as a first priority.
Agile Handling Assist (AHA) comes standard, this being a torque vectoring technology that applies near imperceptible braking force to the inside wheels when the steering wheel gets turned before adding the same to the outside wheels when the steering is returned in order to improve overall responsiveness, although the way this Civic Hatchback LX goes about business makes it clear Honda’s engineers were leaning more toward fuel-efficient economy than enthusiast oriented zeal. Its standard Straight Driving Assist technology that reduces steering effort when moving on a sloped or crowned road surface further attests to this sentiment, but I’m guessing a move to the six-speed manual would cure this continuously variable transmission-equipped model of its relaxed demeanor quite quickly. This isn’t to say the car tested can’t cut up a canyon road, but it does so dutifully rather than enthusiastically, unlike the aforementioned Si and R models.
The positive is a five-cycle fuel economy rating of 31 mpg city, 40 highway and 34 combined with the CVT or 30 city, 39 highway and 33 combined with the manual, the latter set of numbers being a price that performance fans will be only too happy to pay, especially considering that sticking with the manual will save you $800 from onset. Achieving either of these sets of figures will require the press of an “ECON” mode button on the lower console, which slightly retards throttle response while limited air conditioning output, etcetera.
The addition of the CVT resulted in my as-tested 2017 Civic Hatchback LX starting at $20,700, with the only factory options available for this trim limited to the $1,000 Honda Sensing suite and exterior paints including Lunar Silver Metallic, Sonic Gray, Polished Metal Metallic (dark gray), Rallye Red, Crystal Black Pearl, Aegean Blue Metallic, and the pearly white exterior shade mentioned earlier.
This keeps things simple, from both a writer’s and a purchaser’s perspective, but once again the Civic Hatchback LX hardly feels rudimentary from behind the wheel. I’ve noted a few of my favorite things already, but I’d be remiss not to make mention of the exquisitely finished steering wheel controls. The execution of these is better than with most premium brands, as is the gorgeous detailing around the auto climate control interface over on the center stack. In fact, all of the car’s switchgear and finishings are top-grade, while soft touch composites can be found across most of the dash top and front door uppers.
If you want to add more luxury and excitement to your Civic Hatchback I’d recommend the upgrade to Sport, EX, EX-L or Sport Touring trim. Along with the additional power available with two of these trims, CVT models with the Sport and Sport Touring get paddle shifters behind an upgraded leather-wrapped steering wheel, while some of the equipment available as part of the various upgrades include an aero package for the front fascia, side extensions and rear apron, full LED headlights, LED front turn signals, fog lamps, LED indicators on the mirror caps, larger 18-inch alloys on 235/40 all-seasons, walk-away auto door locks, a remote engine starter (with the CVT), proximity keyless entry with pushbutton ignition, textured aluminum pedals, rain-sensing wipers, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, leather upholstery, an eight-way powered driver’s seat and four-way powered front passenger seat, heatable front and rear seats, a powered moonroof, navigation with detailed mapping, voice recognition, wireless device charging, a 542-watt audio system with 12 speakers including a sub, plus HD and satellite radio, Honda’s fabulous LaneWatch blindspot display that projects a right-side rearward camera view of the adjacent lane when prompted by the turn signal, and more.
Cargo access with the Civic Hatchback is considerably better than either the Sedan or Coupe for obvious reasons, this model actually providing a level of passenger and cargo versatility unmatched by any Honda car this side of the subcompact Fit. Its capacity dwarfs its two Civic siblings as well, the Sedan capable of 15.1 cubic feet in its larger than average sized trunk and an undetermined amount when its 60/40-split rear seatbacks are tumbled forward, and the Coupe’s trunk allowing 11.9 cubic feet plus who knows how much more when its divided seats are laid flat, whereas this Civic Hatchback can manage up to 25.7 cubic feet behind its rear seatbacks and 46.2 cubic feet when they’re fully lowered.
For those lamenting the loss of Honda’s ill-received Crosstour, take heart that the first number noted above is identical to that car’s luggage volume, whereas the second figure is only 5.1 cubic feet off the mark, which is not bad for a compact going up against a mid-size model. This said, with 52.7 cubic feet at its disposal the brilliant little Honda Fit provides more maximum cargo capacity than both when its rear seats are dropped down, but take note the Civic Hatchback (and therefore the Crosstour) wins out when its seatbacks are upright, even when combining the total available cargo volume ahead of the Fit’s upward-swinging Magic Seats together with the space behind, which collectively equals 21.5 cubic feet.
Suffice to say the new Civic Hatchback offers a lot for the money no matter the trim level chosen, but plenty of compact hatchback challengers were already in the mix when Honda decided to rejoin the fray, plus some new ones have arrived from unexpected rivals. Still, despite increased competition I don’t think the Civic has much to worry about.
Last year’s the newly minted Toyota Corolla “family” was almost 11,000 units ahead of its nearest rival with close to 367,000 Civics down the road, while after just six months of 2017 the positions reversed with the total number of Civic deliveries over 10,000 units ahead of the Corolla sedan and iM at 175,763 units. By August’s close that number grew to 248,928 sales compared to just 232,504 for the runner-up. Certainly, if Honda can continue this pace it’ll be a record year, all the more impressive considering some of its challengers are temporarily opting out of the small car business altogether.
The new Civic is proof positive that money and effort spent to engineer and produce a much better car than average can result in extremely strong sales. In fact, the Civic’s growing sales make it abundantly clear that plenty of consumers don’t want an SUV at all, despite all the talk about crossovers taking over the automotive industry, and thanks to this practical five-door Hatchback version increasing our Civic options we have yet another reason to choose a more efficient, cleaner car. Could it be time to reintroduce the Civic wagon?
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press