THE MUSKOKAS, Ontario—Since the 1970s, when the Civic was first introduced in Canada, the humble Honda hatchback has been the MVP of more road trips, cottage weekends, first driving lessons, IKEA runs, and moving-away-to-college moments that anyone can count.
The reason? Not because the Civic was big, or powerful, or luxurious, or loaded with the latest tech. And not because the Civic was especially fun-to-drive, although it was okay.
No, the Civic was, and always has been, an affordable workhorse. It can be all things to all drivers. No wonder it’s been the best-selling car in Canada for nearly two decades.
But times have changed; tastes have changed. The biggest threat to the Civic hatchback comes not from any other brand, but from Honda itself. The HR-V is a new mini-SUV, and it’s $1,000 cheaper. At a time when drivers can’t seem to get enough SUVs, is there still a place for the beloved Civic hatch?
To point out the obvious: the hatchback looks, well, not good. It’ll never end up in the Museum of Modern Art. It’s an awkward-looking machine.
From the front you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a regular Civic sedan. Only around back do you notice the hunch. Honda has tried to distinguish the hatch by giving it standard alloy wheels and a blacked-out grille.
There’s even a slightly insane twin-pipe centre-exit exhaust available on the top-spec model. (If you want completely insane, you’ll have to wait for the forthcoming Civic Type-R. It has a wing you could surf on.)
The Civic is a little more spacious than the HR-V in some areas, and a little less so in others. In fact, the HR-V has more overall passenger volume, although from the driver’s seat the Civic will feel like the more spacious of the two.
The rest of the Civic’s cabin is about as good as it gets if you’re in the market for a compact car. It doesn’t feel cheap. The seats are comfortable, the controls feel solid, and nothing is too plastic-y.
The compromise in the hatchback is slightly less room for rear seat passengers, compared to the Civic sedan. Honda wanted to maximize cargo space. Indeed, with the rear seats up, the Civic has a 39-litre cargo capacity advantage over the HR-V. Fold the rear seats down, however, and the HR-V wins by a whopping 357 litres. Fully loaded with passengers and cargo, the SUV only has a pathetic 11 milimetres more ground clearance than the hatchback.
I’m not a curmudgeon. I jump on the bandwagon for every new questionably-useful gadget out there. But the volume knob was a perfect thing: easy, intuitive. Why Honda decided to get rid of it and replace it with touch-buttons that barely work, I cannot comprehend.
Thankfully there’s a backup volume knob on the steering wheel. One good one would have been enough, but que sera sera. The rest of the infotainment/touchscreen is sluggish, and it takes too long to find what you’re looking for. Navigation is an optional extra.
Safety, at least, is top-notch. The hatch gets the highest grades from the NHTSA and IIHS. Honda Sensing is a suite of gadgets whose usefulness is beyond question. It includes semi-autonomous driving features like lane-departure mitigation, adaptive cruise control, and front-collision mitigation. Best of all? These safety systems are available on the base LX model.
The Civic hatch gets an engine upgrade, to the 1.5-litre turbo unit that’s optional on the sedan. It makes 174 horsepower and 167 lb-ft of torque, which is very respectable. On higher trim levels, the motor makes a smidge more grunt – on the recommended premium fuel – but it’s not worth the extra outlay. Gearboxes are your choice of six-speed manual or CVT automatic, which, surprisingly, isn’t bad.
In terms of handling, the Civic is near the top of its segment, with a good balance of comfort and nimbleness. Honda re-tuned the sedan’s steering to weight up more at speed, while being lighter at low-speeds to make parking easier. If you want more thrills-per-kilometre, the Mazda3 is the way to go, but you’ll be compromising ride comfort slightly.
Handling is also where the Civic, or indeed any car, should outperform the HR-V, or any SUV. A car’s low centre of gravity will give it a natural advantage over a taller SUV. We didn’t have one on-hand to test back-to-back, but it would be an interesting comparison.
The 2017 Honda Civic hatchback is available now from $21,390 for the LX model. Add $1,300 for an automatic gearbox. Equipped with Honda Sensing safety tech, it’s $23,690.
The hatchback justified its extra cost over the sedan with the upgraded engine, and more standard features, including a rearview camera, heated seats, cargo cover and remote entry.
From there the prices climb up to about $30,000 for the loaded Sport Touring model. Most hatchback competitors have slightly lower starting prices, but spec-for-spec everything in this segment is closely matched.
Fuel economy is good, rated at 7.7 L/100 km in the city, and 6.0 highway, in the LX automatic.
Sales figures show Canadian drivers increasingly buy SUVs instead of just about anything else. Is there still room for the Civic hatchback in Honda’s increasingly SUV-based lineup? Will anyone still pick the car over the cute-ute?
There’s good reasons to: the hatch has a much better engine, and more trunk space with four passengers aboard. And then there are the more intangible ride and handling benefits.
So, next time you’re in a car dealership, go over to the dark, back corner, and consider the hatchback.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.