Throwback to the hatchback

BY Lesley Wimbush. Nov 04 04:00 am

MUSKOKA, Ont. — After an 11-year hiatus, the Honda Civic Hatchback has returned.

But instead of a rudimentary little runabout, the much-anticipated hatch is being positioned as a more premium vehicle, targeting the active buyer who, according to Honda sales and marketing manager Steve Hui, “earns a little more and is willing to pay for the versatility that supports their lifestyle.”

The base model LX starts at $21,390 with a manual transmission, while the top-spec Sport Touring is $30,690 with a continuously variable automatic.

The hatch is built on the same “unified” global platform underpinning the latest Civic sedan and coupe. And the lineup won’t end here — Honda has plans to introduce the Civic Si and Type-R variants in the near future.

The hatch, which is produced in England, will be the platform for such future performance models as the 300-horsepower Civic Type-R now sold in Europe.

It’s part of the strategy to maintain Civic’s 18-year run as Canada’s bestselling car, in an increasingly competitive segment.

Honda hopes to sell 10,000 per year, 15 per cent of overall Civic sales, with the LX as the volume seller.

Honda’s aiming to be the “No. 1 global hatch,” a lofty goal when you consider the success of Volkswagen’s Golf, the Ford Focus, Hyundai’s Elantra GT and the Mazda3.

From the B-pillars forward, the Civic hatchback is virtually the same as the sedan.

The hatch’s body is 135 millimetres shorter, but the wheelbase is exactly the same. In keeping with its sportier image, the hatch wears a more aggressive face with a black grille stretching side to side, accentuating its wide stance.

From some angles, it recalls the CR-Z with futuristic tail lights bracketing the sharp blocks of its rear sheet metal.

Like the coupe, the Civic hatch’s sheet metal features numerous sharp folds and creases, creating an arresting visual design that’s sure to alienate some buyers while endearing itself to others.

Inside, the cabin is pretty much a carry-over from the sedan, with what Honda boasts is “class-leading rear legroom.”

Reflecting its more premium price point, the hatch is well equipped, even at the entry level. Standard is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity, automatic climate control, Bluetooth, heated front seats, a rear-view camera, remote entry system, thin-film-transistor (TFT) display, rear spoiler and automatic headlights.

Honda Sensing, a package of advanced radar and camera-based safety technology, is available as an option on all trim levels. It includes adaptive cruise control with low-speed follow, collision-mitigation braking, road-departure mitigation and lane- keeping assist. It’s impressive to think that this sort of technology is now available in the compact segment, however it’s important to note that the new Toyota Corolla now includes these features as standard equipment — on its $16,290 base model.

The Civic claims class-leading trunk space with 728 litres, compared with the Focus’s 674, the Golf’s 646 and the Mazda3’s 572. According to Hui, that’s enough for two suitcases and a golf bag. To support opening up the back end of the Civic platform to create the 1,120-mm trunk, engineers added extra bracing to ensure there’s no chassis flex. And instead of a retractable cargo cover contained within a bulky bar, there’s a slick new piece that rolls back side to side like a window blind. No more fiddling around, trying to figure out how to put the damn thing back again.

The Civic hatch rides on a MacPherson strut suspension up front and an independent multilink setup at back. The dampers are tuned specifically for the hatch, and the bushings are hydraulic rather than rubber. Aside from its divisive appearance, the sheet metal’s been stroked to produce the least amount of drag while keeping the car planted on the road. Strakes and body covers underneath are designed to keep the air flowing freely instead of buffeting about and creating potential lift.

Our time was spent in an LX with six-speed manual but for $1,300 more, the LX can be had with Honda’s CVT. On the highways out of the city, there was little to differentiate the hatchback from the sedan. There’s a lot of sound deadening compared with the Civic hatches of yore, and the car stays supple over railroad tracks and rough pavement.

Electrically assisted steering has a decent on-centre feel at speed. While I found it to be a little light in town, many would appreciate the extra boost for easier parking-lot manoeuvres. There’s a handy electric brake hold button which lets you set the brake, then remove your foot when stopped in traffic. However, the touch-screen interface is fiddly and convoluted; it’s a multi-step process to connect your smartphone, and using the navigation system found in upper trim levels is an exercise in frustration.

The Civic hatch marks the debut of Honda’s 1.5-litre turbo-four with a six-speed manual. This powertrain combination will also appear shortly across the rest of the Civic lineup. The turbo engine puts out 174 horsepower with 167 pound-feet of torque in the LX model, while exhaust modifications in the Sport and Sport Touring trims tweak the total output to 180 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. It’s a nice little engine with a decent power band and less of the buzzing inherent in Honda four-cylinder engines of the past.

The test-drive route took us through Muskoka’s beautiful back roads, with the fall foliage providing a spectacular display of colour. On these winding roads, slick with wet leaves, the hatch really shone. Pushed hard into tight corners, the car stayed flat and neutral but was willing to turn in rather than safely understeer.

Over all, the Civic hatch is one of the best-handling cars in this hotly contested segment. Well equipped and comfortable, it should appeal to the buyer who needs a hatch’s versatility, while at the same time finds its premium sportiness appealing.

The Honda Civic hatchback is on sale in Canadian showrooms now.

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2017

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