When I arrive at Justin March’s sprawling garage in Richmond, it’s like showing up to the Lil’ Rascals clubhouse. A handful of enthusiasts – some young, some greying – are hanging out wrenching and chatting, and there are at least a dozen first-generation Honda Civics scattered around. Inside the garage, there’s a partially completed ground-up restoration. Tucked outside under an awning is one of the ultra-rare, Canada-only 1979 Civic Special X. And parked out front, are two turbocharged Honda Civics.
In the immortal words of Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth: Good news, everyone!
Make that three.
This is what passion looks like. The first-generation Civic spawned a huge following, and while only a few people have the mechanical know-how to keep them on the road, and the patience to source parts, you get the sense that they’ll always be around. I drove a stock 1977 Hondamatic version a couple of years ago, and the wave of nostalgia you got from everyone you passed was palpable. Nearly everybody has a Civic story from back in the day: borrowed from an aunt, first new car, a college girlfriend’s ride.
It was the start of a spark that would fan the flames of a Canadian success story. At time of writing, the Civic is well on its way to become the bestselling car in Canada for the 20th year in a row. We buy more F-150s, what with fleet sales and whatnot, but our favourite car is the Civic.
However, over the past few years, the Civic had lost a little heat. From the scrappy little first-generation car, to the nimble double-wishbone setup on the sixth-generation cars, we loved the Civic’s revvy-but-thrifty engines and its zippy feel. And then the ninth generation car came along and things got, for want of a better word, a bit Corolla-y.
Honda fixed most of the issues with updates to the ninth-generation car, but the apparent misstep raised a major question. A modern car has to be large and heavy enough to pass crash-testing, and it must also have low-emissions, a mass-market-friendly ride, and plenty of space. If cars from Porsche and BMW are getting significantly less fun to drive over the past few generations, how is Honda going to cope?
In the immortal words of Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth: Good news, everyone! Even when lined up against a couple of enthusiast-built turbo-Civic specials, the new Civic hatchback holds its own.
Although not visually, obviously. The original Civic has aged extremely well, with simple, classic lines. Throw on a set of Watanabe-look rims and you’ve basically got perfection.
The new car looks like a Stormtrooper helmet after a couple of Ewoks have bashed it with rocks. Particularly egregious are the large fake grilles, paired front and rear, which are for looks only. And do we really need two spoilers? Civics used to be subtle, and this one is not.
However, climbing behind the wheel improves the situation more than a bit. The front seats manage to be very comfortable, but retain reasonable bolstering. The rear seats aren’t as big as in the sedan, nor the Corolla for that matter, but I had no problem fitting a rear-facing child seat behind my 5'11" seating position.
Further, the cabin layout has a few clever tricks that remind me of old Honda. The between-seats storage is enormous, and the centre console has a split-level storage that’s got pass-throughs for cables to charge your devices.
Less wonderful is the touchscreen control that handles infotainment functionality, but at least it’s faster than in previous offerings. Honda has cleaned up many of the initial complaints here, and the system is much more intuitive than previous. Note, however, that while they’ve given the CR-V a volume knob, the Civic remains knobless.
It’s no big deal for the driver, who gets a decent thumb control that’s easy to find eyes-free, but if your passenger is in charge of the tunes, they won’t be so pleased.
The hatchback starts out pricier than the sedan by some $4,000, but it’s also very well equipped. This basic LX model came with 16" alloy wheels, heated seats, remote entry, and that touchscreen. It also gives you that hatchback, which is worth 728 L with the rear seats up, and 1,308 with them folded. Also – a bit of genius here – the rear cargo cover retracts sideways, so you don’t need to remove it and promptly lose it in your garage.
The other really wonderful thing the hatchback gets as standard is Honda’s 1.5L turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Making 174 hp in LX trims and 180 hp in the Sport models, it puts out about a little less power than you got in the old Si models. However, where it really shines is torque, with 162 lb-ft from 1,700–5,500 rpm.
A Honda with torque? Yes, I know – it’s practically sacrilege. Let me double-down on the heresy: a turbo-CVT package can be just as much fun as a stick-shift. Obviously the purists will want to go for the three-pedal waltz (and bless Honda for offering them the chance all the way to the top-trim Sport Touring), but this mass-market LX is a hoot.
Power comes on quickly, with enough gumption from a right-hand turn to make the tires scrabble for grip. On a sweeping onramp, the LX easily surged up to speed, quicker than would qualify as merely peppy. It’s not nearly a GTI or a WRX, but neither is it a standard-four that needs to be flogged.
What’s even better is how good the steering and chassis are. Yes, there’s not quite as much feel as you would hope for. However, the Civic’s thick steering wheel and flat cornering behaviour conspire to make you not notice that this car is as big as a Honda Accord used to be. It feels nimble and eager and quick. No more Corolla-y, back to Honda-y.
By way of tribute, March and his friend Bob Brandow fire up their turbocharged first-gen cars and we head out for a bit of empty industrial park gymkhana. March’s turbo-wagon really rips. It’s got a swapped B16 (1.6L four-cylinder), which has been boosted to the limit. Limited by traction, it’ll run the quarter-mile in the twelve-second range. Brandow’s is nearly as quick.
If those two are somewhat terrifying, with nothing but thin sheet steel between you and untimely death, then the new Civic hatch deserves credit for being both able to keep up, and far better behaved on the drive back through traffic. Where the lowered first-gens crash over a railway crossing, the new car wafts, yet it can hang in the corners as well, and has decent mid-range power to keep up.
It’s unlikely, decades from now, that people are going to be gathering together to restore the 2017 Honda Civic. The coming Type-R will probably be collected by a few Honda-heads, but the mainline cars just aren’t going to generate the same level of enthusiasm as the true classics do.
However, never mind the nostalgia. Right now, the Civic has a job to do for the people who will buy one new, and that’s to provide practical and relatively inexpensive transportation that isn’t stultifyingly boring. It also has to be efficient, and the new turbo engine delivered real-world results that weren’t far off the official mixed-mileage figures.
This new hatchback is anything but boring. The styling is controversial, true, and the infotainment interface could use some further polishing. But as to the way it drives, it feels like a proper Honda. It doesn’t matter what the future holds for this car, right now, it’s deserving to be a bestseller. Canada loves the Civic. With this one, it feels like the Civic loves us back.
|Peak Horsepower||174 hp @ 6,000 rpm|
|Peak Torque||162 lb-ft @ 1,700–5,500 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||7.7/6.0/6.9 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||728 L/1,308 L seats down|
|Model Tested||2017 Honda Civic Hatchback LX|
|Price as Tested||$24,610|
$1,300 – CVT $1,300