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FIRST DRIVE: Honda Civic hatch

2006-07-05 11:23

New Civic hatchback to take aim at the VW Golf

John Oxley

There's no doubting Honda's ability to make cars which are quick, well built and reliable. Every customer survey tells us that.

But stylish? The Accord certainly set new levels for style and overall design, and the latest Jazz upped the ante.

We've already seen what Honda can do with mid-size cars, too, with the Civic four-door.

But what about the hatchback market, fast becoming the staple of the SA motor industry?

The previous hatch was a good solid car, but sadly lacking in the fashion stakes.

Enter then, a brand-new Civic 5-door, one guaranteed to set your pulse racing with its dramatic new looks.

It comes straight out of a science fiction movie, with sensational frontal looks which show a full width and aggressive lights setup, a deep chin air intake, and triangular foglights inset into the colour-coded bumper.

The side profile is no less impressive. It starts low, then rises like a futuristic bubble, the cab area thrust quite far forward, and then terminates in a short tail.

Secret handles

First glance says it's a two-door, but in Alfa 156 fashion the rear doors are accessed by handles set into the C pillar.

And then we get to the back.

This is not the first time Honda has chosen to split the rear window into upper and lower levels.

Previous Civic hatches did this by physically dividing the window into two panels, almost at right angles to each other.

This happens on the latest Civic, too, but this time the split becomes a step which forms a spoiler a third of the way up the steeply sloping rear window.

Honda says the advanced aerodynamics mean there's no need for a rear wiper as rain passes around the rear of the car, not over it.

But that's not all! No, in the way of all infomercials, Honda has added a lot more to the tail, giving it a true sting that will startle first-timers.

Like the front the rear has full width lights, set midway up the rear aspect, making the car look even lower and wider than it is.

It's when you get low down that you get the BIG surprise - giant-size triangular exhaust pipes, effectively hiding their mundane function and turning them into a fashion statement of note.

A refreshing change is that while the general trend within the motor industry is for each successive generation of car to be larger than its predecessor, the Honda designers have come up with a car which is shorter and lower than the outgoing model.

Overall length is 4 248 mm and height 1 460 mm, both down by over 30 mm.


However, by clever packaging the car is actually roomier inside.

Honda has increased overall width by 50 mm to 1 765 mm, and the front and rear tracks to 1 504 mm (up 36 mm) and 1 510 mm (up 41 mm), respectively, to create a more dynamic silhouette and a better handling car.

The interior of the car is no less dramatic than the outside.

The instrument panel is the same as that in the four-door Civic introduced earlier, but that's where the similarities end - that, and the fact they are both fitted with 103 kW 1.8-litre engines.

Thus there's a wide flowing dashboard in soft-touch material, with a centre console of a similar texture fitted with the front-loader CD/radio and the aircon/ventilation controls, as well as centre air vents.

The instrument binnacle is right in front of the driver, but it's effectively split into three segments.

At the top is a deeply hooded panel containing the large LED digital speed readout, as well as a digital clock.

Under that, in a totally separate binnacle, is a large circular analogue revcounter flanked by temperature and fuel gauges.

Then, in the centre of the revcounter, but on a plane which puts it slightly closer to the driver (only mm, but it counts, as I'll explain later) is an LCD panel which gives lots of information, including fuel range/litres/100 km/average speed (you choose) plus two trip odometers, an outside temperature gauge, and overall distance.

Keep in focus

The problem with this whole setup is that your eyes have to refocus all the time - from the digispeedo, to the revcounter, and then again to read the small print on the info panel.

Quite frankly I don't like digispeedos anyway ? it's easier and quicker to read a needle which is on a dial.

Maybe I'm being a bit hyper-critical - most owners won't have to continually monitor the tripmeter to follow a route schedule as we have to on car launches.

The whole thing is rounded out by a very nice leather-rimmed multi-function steering wheel with three alloy spoke inserts.

Switches on the wheel are for audio remote control and cruise control, as well as the multi-info display switches.

The steering wheel tilt adjustment, together with telescopic adjustment, now allows for a greater range of movement of the driver's seat, offering a more comfortable and sportier driving position to a wider variety of drivers

There's a centre drop-down console in aluminium-look plastic, and another innovation is the "roller-ball" gear lever which does away with the normal "gate" and whiskery dust excluder.

Mirror controls

There are also alloy-look inserts on the doors to control the electric windows, mirrors and so on.

There are other innovations, too, particularly in the way owners can load luggage and other objects.

The rear seats can be tipped up to form a second storage area in the rear passenger cabin.

They also have a one-motion, dive-down feature that creates a flat loading space, in 60/40 split.

When the front passenger seat is fully reclined objects of up to 2.6 metres can be accommodated.

The total volume of the luggage compartment, at 485 litres, is impressive, and to round it all off the cargo floor can also be dropped down to reveal an under-floor compartment.

There is an illuminated 14-litre glove-box with a refrigerator vent, a large capacity (1-litre) centre pocket, removable ashtray, a large capacity (6.9-litres) console box (which doubles up as the front armrest), a multi-use double cup holder with sliding lid, and all four doors are equipped with storage spaces for bottles (500ml) and maps (front doors).


The 1.8-litre engine produces 103 kW at 6 300 r/min and 174 Nm of torque at 4 200 r/min.

However, these figures alone don't tell the whole story, for the engine incorporates Honda's i-VTEC technology, performing remarkably well at mid and low revs, and with great responsiveness, while having a refined feel to the sound quality, and good fuel economy and low emissions.

The result, says Honda, is fuel economy on a par with a 1.5-litre engine, yet off-the-line acceleration equivalent to a 2-litre.

The proof of the pudding is acceleration from 0 to 100 km/h in 8.6 seconds and an overall fuel consumption as low as 6.4 litres/100 km. Claimed top speed is 205 km/h.

Ably assisting all this is a new 6-speed manual transmission which has a linkless rotation select system.

All this certainly equipped itself well on the road. Yes, I expected the car to be punchy - Hondas have always been like that - with lots of revability.

However, what I didn't expect was the low-down flexibility, especially in town and when exiting tight corners - as often encountered on the beautiful roads of the lowveld of Mpumalanga.

Gear change

The gear change deserves special mention, too. It's not every day you get a gearshift as slick and as precise as this one.

At the same time the intermediate ratios are excellent, putting you smack bang in the middle of the power band each time you change up, until you hit sixth and find yourself in a relaxed cruise mode.

With all that adjustment it was dead easy to get comfortable behind the wheel, and I found all-round vision excellent, although the "tea tray" in my rear mirror was sometimes off-putting.

Suspension sees MacPherson strut featuring a high castor setting and a quicker electric power steering ratio at the front, while at the back there's a torsion beam configuration.

Excellent damping performance is provided by high-response mono tube dampers, with coil springs that are totally independent.

There are antiroll bars back and front.

There are also 16 inch alloy wheels shod with 205/55 R16 tyres, with 17 inch options.

And what joy this gives!


I well remember the Ballade of a few years ago (the wide flat one) which gave roller skate-like handling.

This is back in the new Civic with a vengeance, and you can fling this car around with total impunity.

Enter a long hard corner fast, and keep the power on, and the car exhibits absolutely no traits at all - it's dead neutral.

Push on a bit, and you can get some tailout as you exit, helping to tighten the line.

Hit a mid corner bump (there are more and more of these lately as our roads repair programme falls behind) and the car keeps its line without the driver having to interfere at all.

Great stuff.

At the same time Honda hasn't had to resort to the ridiculously hard suspension settings that mar some German offerings, and has found the right combination of roadholding and ride quality.

I was also impressed by the seat comfort, by low wind noise, and by the sporty but refined engine note.


A couple of things enthusiasts might be drawn to are the drilled aluminium pedals, the push-button starter, the indicator repeaters in the electric mirrors, and most of all, the great under-bonnet view!

On the safety front there's ABS braking with electronic brakeforce distribution and emergency brake assist, as well as front and side airbags and curtain airbags front and rear.

There's also switchable VSA traction control, remote central locking with rolling code immobiliser, plus ISOFIX rear child seat attachments.

The car gets a 50-litre fuel tank.

Available initially only with the 1.8-litre engine and manual gearbox (although as I've told you before we can expect the rip-snorting Type R next year - probably in July) the Civic 5-door hatchback comes with a 5-year/100 00 0km service plan and a 1-year roadside assistance programme. Service intervals are every 15 000 km.


As mentioned Honda SA is sitting in a sweet place as far as its quality and customer satisfaction is concerned, but there have been question marks over its ability to deliver cars in quantity.

General manager Graham Eagle explains that this has been due to supply constraints, but capacity is being ramped up.

"In South Africa we have been the fastest-growing brand for the last two years with growth volume of 69% ands 47% respectively, and this year we are looking to increase that to more than 80%.

"It's a genuine case of demand increasing faster than we can supply," he said.

"I will be straight with you and tell you that for the first year or so are going to have restrictions on our availability and will only be supplying approximately 70 units a month."

After that, though, he expects things to improve.

Price: R204 000

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