Honda Civic: Forget the Volkswagen Golf - the hybrid Civic is now the best family hatchback you can buy
Honda can be a hard company to get a handle on. Few other automotive corporations have their fingers in so many pies, writes William Scholes.
You can find Honda badges stuck to all sorts of things, some more unlikely than others. From the utterly prosaic - and it doesn't get more basic than a lawnmower - to the sci-fi of Asimo, "the world's most advanced humanoid robot", Honda builds it. And then there are the boat engines, water pumps and jet planes.
But it is the motorcycles and cars that Honda is best known for. And if you were to distil the essence of Honda into just one product, it would be a toss up between the Super Cub and the Civic (and since this page is called Drive and not Ride, we're going with the Civic...).
The Super Cub isn't just the most popular motorcycle ever; with well over 100 million produced since 1958 across its various iterations, it is also the world's most produced motor vehicle.
The Civic is almost as ubiquitous. It is one of the car world's most enduring nameplates, with more than 27 million sold since 1972. Along with the Corolla from rival Toyota, it helped democratise economical motoring, quality engineering, reliability and value for money at a time when these weren't virtues prized by complacent domestic car manufacturers in Europe and the United States.
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Although customer tastes have changed over the past 50 years and SUVs, like Honda's own CR-V and HR-V, are in the ascendancy, the Civic remains stubbornly popular. We are now on to the 11th generation of the Civic and key to its longevity has been Honda's willingness to reimagine what a compact family car looks like.
That's why you can now have your new Civic with any engine you like, as long as it's a petrol-electric hybrid (barring the high-performance Type R, of course, but that's a different story…).
There are two trim options - Sport and Advance - and both are generously equipped, as they would need to be for £36,495 and £39,795 respectively, I hear you say.
Yet the Civic feels worth every penny. This is a wonderfully accomplished family car which manages to make you feel special every time you drive it.
It isn't as wilfully wacky to look at as some earlier generations of Civic, but to my eyes this is a neat, handsome design. It appears lower and wider than rival family cars. That's confirmed when you open the door and get into the driver's seat. The driving position is low and sporty, almost snug - though there's plenty of room - and the layout encourages you to screw the seat as far down as possible.
The dashboard is a slender affair and the windscreen pillars - thin by today's standards - frame a fantastically clear view of the road ahead. The perfectly sized steering wheel can be adjusted just-so. There's a real attention to detail here, of the sort that Mazda consistently builds into its cars.
The rest of the interior feels like a step up in quality and execution over previous Civics. Sensibly, there are actual buttons for the heating system, rather than a touchscreen, and the infotainment system, which uses a 9.0-inch display, is crisper and easier to use than earlier Honda efforts (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard).
A smart honeycomb-effect air vent runs the width of the dashboard and the knobs for the air vents feel expensive. Honda has made a real effort here, and it has been worthwhile.
Back seat passengers get a surprising amount of stretching space, though that low roofline will mean your taller friends and teens might find it a little cosy. The boot is large for a car in this class, with a volume of 410 litres - putting it well ahead of rivals like the VW Golf (381 litres), Ford Focus (375 litres) and Toyota Corolla (313 litres). (Skoda's Octavia trumps the lot with 600 litres, if boot space really matters to you…)
So, even before you've started the car, the Civic makes a very strong case for itself; drive it, and it seals the deal.
The Honda's hybrid system combines a 2.0-litre petrol engine with an electric motor for a total output of 181bhp with 232lb ft of torque.
The system propels the car using the electric motor as much as possible, with the petrol engine acting as a generator. This keeps the drivetrain smooth and quiet, and because the Civic has a single speed gearbox - just like an electric car - most of the time it feels rather like an EV to drive.
However, when you want a bit more acceleration or, for example, are cruising at high speed on the motorway, the hybrid system uses the petrol engine to send power to the wheels directly.
In practice, the car juggles between these drive modes - battery, hybrid and 'engine drive' - smoothly and without fuss.
It's a wonderful system, made all the better because between 50mpg and 60mpg is attainable without any effort. The Civic is also quick - it certainly feels more rapid than its 0-62mph time of 7.8 seconds suggests.
The icing on the cake is a superbly well-judged chassis. The suspension pulls the trick of being supple and comfortable while also delivering flat cornering and loads of grip. The steering is accurate and all of the controls are well judged.
Put that all together with the responsive drivetrain, and the Civic is a genuinely entertaining car to drive (an honourable mention for its fabulous LED headlamps, too).
For me, the Civic is now at the top of the family car class. No rival has its mix of quality, dynamism and efficiency. Similarly priced rivals - from, for example, the VW Golf and Peugeot 308 families - don't have the same breadth of ability, nor do they feel as special. The Civic is the best new car I've driven in ages and comes very highly recommended.