Every car manufacturer has one vital model.
By vital, I mean a car that determines whether they sink or swim in an industry that has been growing with more sophisticated, much improved, more efficient and more powerful models than before.
Think of cars like the 3-Series for BMW or the Corolla for Toyota. These are models that defined their respective brand, making them household names if successful, but the converse is also true as a bad showing could turn people away if the engineers didn't do their homework, if the designers took a creative day off, or even if the dealers didn't show adequate after-sales support.
So, how does this new Civic really fare? Will it be a problem for Honda, or will it signal their rise from the troubles of 2011?
I hope you're ready, as we'll really put the Civic through a fine tooth comb.
In all honesty, I'm not particularly keen on art and design, but I can always tell if a car (a) looks great, (b) is ugly or (c) can grow on you. When we first saw the 2012 Civic (FB) in the metal a few months back, we were surprised... and not in a particularly good way. By my reaction, I'll say it can grow on you over time because there doesn't seem to be much in the way of new, exciting details about the look of the 2012 model.
It's not that the new Civic looks bad, but certainly the designers could have done more to elicit that “wow” factor when the car was revealed, instead of a “Dude, what happened?" I actually tried a little experiment at a mall parking lot. I parked the FB between a Corolla Altis and a Kia Forte (a rather rare sight), and I thought their designers all had coffee together and copied notes off each other... at least in terms of the front ends. At another mall, I ended up beside the current Elantra from Hyundai. The disparity was clear, but not in the direction that you would have thought 20, 10, or 5 years ago.
The front end does look quite sleek but it's a little understated, especially when compared to the previous Civic (FD); a car with a positively sporty design (especially after the mid-cycle facelift). They just took a lot of the fangs out of the car for the new model. And by my eye, the rear end really appears disconnected the front; they got one guy to design the front and a completely different guy to shape the back end... and then erected a wall between the two.
What's also strange is that the Civic got smaller overall, something that doesn't usually happen when manufacturers launch a next generation model of a car. The new Civic FB measures 4530mm long, 10mm shorter than the FD. The FB slightly taller at 1755mm, but it's also 20mm narrower than the FD, and now measures 1435mm. Another unusual trait is that Honda's engineers shortened the wheelbase from 2700mm in the old FD to 2670mm in the new FB. What this means is that there should be less room inside the cabin and the significantly shortened wheelbase means that the overhangs have been extended... something that (by the laws of physics) would have negative effects on handling. More on that later.
Open the doors, however, and you'll feel something different. If you had just hopped out of the previous Civic FD, you would think that you just stepped inside a car that belongs in the executive class.
The cabin isn't as sporty or as funky as the FD's, instead going for a more grown-up approach. I do miss the cool deep dish wheel of the Civic FD, but this new one does feel great to hold, along with the excellent steering wheel buttons for audio (via a screen next to the digital speedo), cruise control and the Bluetooth Handsfree System.
I like the way the dashboard looks, as they retained the staggered gauge displays; a tachometer below with a digital speedometer on top, flanked by the fuel level and fuel consumption displays. Honda also added an LCD screen (controlled by the buttons on the left spoke of the steering wheel) that can alter vital vehicle settings, display average fuel economy, the settings for the iPod/audio system or even display an analog clock. The could have used better materials for the dashboard instead of the very hard plastics on this FB, but that's just a minor detail.
Currently, Honda is only offering the 1.8 EXi variant of the Civic FB. It's powered by a “new” 1798cc SOHC i-VTEC engine. The engine in this Civic FB delivers 141 PS at 6500 rpm and 173 Nm at 4300 rpm, virtually identical to the old FD's 1.8L, though with lower internal friction and other small improvements. Like before, the 1.8 EXi gets a 5-speed automatic, but no manual “paddle” shifters.
Driving it around for the first time, two rather big improvements came to the surface. The first one is overall comfort, and it begins with the seats. I never liked the shape of the backrests on the Jazz, City and previous Civic, thanks to that awful bump/lump that kept pressing on the small of my back, making it just that more uncomfortable on long drives. The new seats are far better, and also have softer cushions too, further improving seating comfort. The ride has also improved over the old one, keeping many of our roads' imperfections at bay.
The second significant improvement is in terms of fuel economy. On the SLEX and STAR Tollway, at a steady 100km/h, this Civic did a very respectable 6.1 liters per 100 km (by the fuel meter), which translates to 16.4 km/l (light traffic). In city driving, it also performed well, delivering 10.1 km/l in light traffic and 8.9 in moderate traffic. The savings can be attributed to a new ECON driving mode (via a small green button) that -when activated- adjusts the drive-by-wire throttle control unit, alters the shift mapping and the air-conditioning system. Engineers also installed “eco lights” next to the digital speedometer; blue means you've got lead for feet, cyan means you're doing okay, and green means you tread (carbon) lightly.
Being efficient and comfortable do come at a price, and it's the driving experience that ultimately pays. It's still rev-happy, but from what I can feel, a lot of it was noise. Overtaking on the highway does present a little bit of a challenge, and on a winding mountain road, the Civic FB leaves plenty to be desired.
It's also a pricey car, thanks to the floods that waterlogged their plant in Thailand. As a result, the Civic 1.8 EXi is sourced from Japan, paying full duties and taxes, resulting in a car priced at PhP 1,074,000. Whether the prestige of having a “Made in Japan” compact car justifies the higher price is for the customer to decide, but it's not really the main problem.
The new Civic FB, to me, represents a dilemma inside Honda. Up until 2001, Civics were the prime choice for car enthusiasts -both young and old- as well as the casual owner/driver. Balanced to drive, looked good, easy to tune, modify, and arguably had the best naturally aspirated engines ever made available in the compact car class. Civics like the EF, EG and EK.
When they launched the 2001 Civic, the ES, it was the start of a confusing trend, as the ES was about as revolutionary as indoor plumbing. The FD was a decent attempt at a return to roots for the Civic, even though it had its own little niggles.
Yes, this new Civic FB has plenty of new technology and improvements in both comfort and features, and there's a good chance it will click amongst those who just want an efficient, no-frills everyday car. That's fine, but something tells me they went overboard with trying to out-Toyota, Toyota.
We know Honda has had plenty of challenges in the past year (and the years before that, too), but perhaps the bigger issue is that the automaker seems to have forgotten who they really are, what their brand of automobile represents and what sets their cars apart from the other brands.
Dare I say: the new Civic is a car in need of flavor. And character.