Honda gets serious and pumps ginormous amounts of cash into its biggest selling, most crucial model - the Civic, a car that has been with us for considerably more than 40 years. After a couple of generations of so-so examples that haven't dared to challenge the leading lights in the C-segment, the huge R&D programme that has resulted in this tenth-generation Civic appears to have paid off handsomely, as this is a truly excellent hatchback that shines with some genius strokes of engineering.
In the Metal:
Here we have the Honda Civic MkX; yes, that's right, ten. There have been good and, um, less good generations of this venerable hatchback over the decades, the lineage peppered later on by the exciting and inimitable Type R versions. However, when the seventh generation morphed into the eighth in 2005, Honda - a company famed for its singular engineering prowess - seemed to take some backwards steps, none bigger than removing the MkVII's multilink rear suspension for a simpler torsion beam on the MkVIII.
This was done for a number of supposed benefits, including ride comfort, improved packaging and cost-saving, but in reality it made the eighth-gen - for all its sci-fi styling - a bit of a duff steer. So the MkIX, in reality little more than a heavily facelifted MkVIII, was already playing high-stakes cards without a full deck. To that end, it spent its days languishing in the 'also-rans' category of the C-segment hatchback field, which is not a position Honda is used to occupying (don't say anything about its recent F1 performances).
Well, enough, says the Japanese giant. And so it has thrown a simply colossal amount of funding (a third of its entire R&D budget, purportedly, which is a mind-boggling amount) into developing the Civic Ten from the ground up; enough for it to proudly proclaim this the 'largest single model development programme' in the company's history. Thus, the Civic sits on the all-new global platform, it's longer, lower and wider than before, it comes with turbocharged VTEC petrol powerplants and it once again rides on advanced multilink suspension for the rear axle. It's also a bit lighter than it was in places (body-in-white, suspension, but heavier overall), a whole lot stiffer in torsion and it's better able to slip through the air due to a reduced coefficient of drag.
All of the above is designed to make it fiercely competitive in class, but the first few hurdles buyers are going to have to clear revolve around the aesthetics. Externally, it is very much a case of eye of the beholder. We are well aware there will be detractors to this rather big Honda; people who aren't keen on its riotous mix of angles, swage lines and striking details, nor its loosely fastback shape, something of an idiosyncrasy in the current marketplace. Us? We love it. The more powerful Civic gets a twin centre-exit exhaust that boosts its appeal further, but even this 1.0-litre car looks great; honestly, if you're unconvinced, wait until you see one up close in the metal. We think it's a really handsome thing and it's certainly much more appealing to a younger buyer than previous generations have been.
The interior is, in some ways, less of an issue and yet more of a stumbling block in our eyes. There is no question that it's a spacious car within, as two six-footers are easily able to sit line astern in the front and back chairs and there's a big boot sequestered out back, or that the layout is much more intuitive than its predecessor's twin-stacked array, or that the quality of the materials is largely very good, or that it is screwed together in that solid, unbreakable way the Japanese are fabled for (even if the Civic is built exclusively over the water in the UK). It's just that... well, it's a bit conservative, isn't it? When even Opel has pulled its finger out and managed to get the cabin of its C-segment contender, the Astra, looking really swish, it's a shame Honda didn't push the boat out and take more inspiration from the interiors of the HR-V and Jazz models elsewhere in its fleet for the Civic. The instrument cluster, with its digital central display flanked by two really odd and hard-to-read gauges for the fuel/water temperature, leaves us apathetic and the centre stack is just a bit uninspiring, especially as that infotainment screen isn't mounted flush to the dash; you can poke your fingers behind the top of it. At least the driving position, dropped by a good 34mm, is absolutely ideal, somewhat making up for the risk-free design of the cabin.
In what might look like a risky move for Ireland, there's no diesel model at launch - but fear not, the 1.6-litre i-DTEC is on the way. For now, there are two turbocharged VTEC petrol engines: a 1.5-litre four-cylinder motor with 182hp and 240Nm, or this 1.0-litre three-cylinder unit developing 129hp and 200Nm. Both of these come with a six-speed manual as standard or the option of a CVT unit as the automatic, and while this latter transmission is one of the better CVTs we've tried (it has gear-simulating 'steps' in it and good responses to throttle inputs, with decent performance as a result), it's still not a patch on the delightful manual gearbox.
As well as all the engineering efforts we mentioned above, Honda has additionally stuffed a load of sound-deadening into the engine bay/bulkhead area and the underfloor sections, while the three-cylinder engine is so meticulously built that it doesn't require the balance shaft that so many similar rival lumps do. And the outcome is a magnificent car for ride comfort and general refinement. The lag-less engine truly is vibration-free from idle to redline, the gearbox is a slick wonder, the suspension smooths out the worst of bumps, lumps and ripples in the tarmac and there's little to hear in terms of either wind or tyre noise. Not only that, but the car is so resolutely composed at high speeds on a motorway - courtesy of that advanced rear suspension and a wider track - that you can take your hands slightly off the wheel at 110km/h and more, and the Civic will remain heading arrow straight. Never mind a Golf-sized hatchback, this Honda feels as refined as something from the BMW 3 Series' echelon.
Which then makes its sparkling road-holding even more of a wonderful bonus. The 1.5-litre cars get two-stage switchable dampers as standard, although we would say there's not much of a difference between the Normal and Dynamic settings, but the 1.0-litre Civics have to make do with a fixed-rate set of springs and dampers... which are tuned to near-perfection. There's little in the way of body lean, top-rate wheel control at all corners and such a startling lack of understeer that, in the end, we had to resort to driving round and round a small roundabout in a lunatic fashion in second, just to see if the nose would eventually wash wide. It did, but the pace required to make it do so was remarkably high...
And with the little three-cylinder engine installed in its nose, turn-in is incredibly sharp and precise, allowing the Civic to scribe out beautifully composed high-speed direction changes with both poise and a lack of drama. What a pity, then, that the steering hits two out of three targets, missing the most vital one of all for keener drivers: feedback. It's superbly weighted and magnificently direct; drive along a straight and wiggle the wheel slightly from side to side and the nose of the Honda shimmies in rapid response - there's none of that infuriating slack about the dead-ahead you get on so many modern electrical power assisted systems. But you'll have a hard time actually discerning what the front tyres are up to at any given moment, because feedback is just not strong enough. Nevertheless, while regular versions of rival cars like the Opel Astra, SEAT Leon, Mazda3 and Peugeot 308 might just have a bit more handling sparkle, there's no doubt the Honda eclipses many, many other vehicles in the class - Ford Focus , Volkswagen Golf and anything else Asian included. There is so much to like here and it also generates a huge amount of promise for the inevitable next generation Type R hot hatch.
What you get for your Money:
Hondas can come with a lot of technology and the Civic is no exception, the big news here being the addition of the Honda Sensing suite of safety features (Collision Mitigation Braking System, Forward Collision Warning, Lane Keep Assist System, Lane Departure Warning, Road Departure Mitigation, Intelligent Speed Limiter, Intelligent Adaptive Cruise Control and Traffic Sign Recognition - the Japanese carmaker is pretty confident the Civic will easily bag a five-star EuroNCAP rating when it is eventually tested) as standard across all models. Basic 'Smart'-grade cars also get Bluetooth, parking sensors all round, a multifunction steering wheel, climate control, 16-inch alloy wheels, a USB port and an eight-speaker stereo with DAB and a five-inch monitor from the off.
And it's only a small step up to Smart Plus Pack where Garmin satnav with the Honda Connect infotainment, dual-zone climate control and a reversing camera, among much more, all get added. The thing is, at €23,750, base models are already a good few grand more than all of the entry-level versions of the rivals we list below... and even the Volkswagen Golf, usually the most costly of cars in the class, has a cheaper starting ticket of €20,385, albeit to get it in matching specification to the Civic requires considerable expenditure. What we're trying to say about the Honda is, you get a lot for your money, but it requires a lot of money to get it in the first place.
We so want to give the Honda Civic another half-star, because we think it's easily up there with the Golf, Leon, Astra and 308 as part of the current class elite. We've refrained, however, because we want more time behind the wheel on our own roads to cement our opinion, although the Civic MkX would have undoubtedly got that extra half-mark if its interior had been just a touch more refreshing or if it wasn't quite so robustly priced.