Honda Civic VTi

A brilliant newcomer

by Julian Edgar

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At a glance...

  • Unbelievably good value for money
  • Roomy interior
  • Superb engine
  • Brilliant fuel economy
  • Good handling
  • Excellent ride

So, how often do you read road test and say to yourself: I wonder what the reviewer really thinks? Well, let me tell you what I really think: the Honda Civic VTi is absolutely brilliant.

Why? Well, here’s a car with a honey of a high tech engine, a spacious and practical interior, noise vibration harshness (NVH) which would be perfectly in keeping with a AUD$35,000 model, an excellent ride, very good handling, a good equipment level and fuel consumption which is nothing short of fantastic.

And here’s the best bit: the VTi Civic costs just AUD$20,990!

That’s a value proposition which is simply unbeatable in our current new car market. The Civic’s not perfect – we didn’t like the overly light steering and the handbrake annoyingly rubs on the driver’s left knee – but if you’re shopping for a capacious car that’s quite capable of transporting four adults in comfort yet has small car fuel economy and élan, this one is a must-have.

If it had a European maker’s badge, there’d be a few more airbags, alloy wheels and a trip computer – and it would be stickered at $35,000+. And, incredibly, even at that money it would still be a good car.

The Civic can also be many things to many people. You could be someone completely disinterested in cars, never going over 3000 rpm and barely noticing the light clutch and precise gearbox. You’d enjoy the large door pockets and the sophisticated privacy covers that slide over the centre console compartments. You’d like the single CD MP3 sound system and the clarity of the instruments and controls. Your friends would also be impressed with the blue digital displays, the quality of the interior and the way the doors shut superbly. Your Mum would tell you how she once owned a Civic – what a good car it was, she’d say.

Or you could be someone who likes peeling through corners with the tacho – mounted centrally in the lower instrument binnacle – showing 7000 rpm, i-VTEC engine sweet-as while the Dunlop SP Sport 300 tyres hang on and on – the McPherson strut front and double wishbone rear doing its stuff on even bumpy corners. Then, when the fronts start letting go, you could go for the sudden throttle lift that’ll bring the tail out a little, lining you up for the next corner...

On the first day we had the Civic we were impressed; a week later the strengths of the car had hammered themselves home even more firmly. You cannot call the Civic anything but a sea change in new car value – it really is that good. So let’s take it detail by detail.

Under the bonnet you’ll find a brand new design – and one that really highlights Honda’s engine engineering excellence. At a glance the specs – 1.8 litre SOHC four-cylinder – are not startling; the highlights are in the details. Peak power is 103kW at 6300 rpm - a substantial 17 per cent increase over the previous model’s 1.7 litre engine – and peak torque is 174Nm at 4200 rpm. Again, that’s up over the previous model. But – and get this – despite also being a bigger car that weighs more, the new Civic is actually more economical on fuel than the 2005 model! And they’re not just paper figures either – Honda claim 6.9 litres/100 km and on test we achieved a startling 7.2 litres/100. And this is no small car – park it next to a 10 year old Falcon and you’ll be amazed how big the new Civic is.

So how is this apparent contradiction between weight, size, power and fuel economy achieved? Despite its unassuming appearance, the engine – which runs on plain ol’ unleaded - is a technological marvel. It uses a plastic dual-stage intake manifold to achieve better breathing across the full range of engine revs, a lightweight and stiff steel crankshaft, pistons coated with a low friction material, and ‘cracked’ light-weight steel connecting rods. This is technology straight out of exotic cars of only a few years ago.

The i-VTEC valve timing system can not only switch valve timing but it also varies it in a similar way to the Atkinson cycle used on the Prius hybrid. That is, at times it delays the closing of the intake valves, which in turn allows for larger throttle angles and reduced pumping losses. The electronic throttle control is integral to this system.

The VTi doesn’t use a separate exhaust manifold; instead the manifold is cast into the head.

The result is a smooth engine that has sufficient torque and tractability to be short-shifted for easy and relaxed driving, or alternatively, revved to the redline. In either case it’s an unfussed, refined and effective engine. However, it should be said that it’s still a relatively small engine for the size of the car so if you pile in the people and/or luggage, you’ll need to use the gearbox and the available rev range. On-road response is enhanced by the use of short gearing – at 100 km/h the engine is spinning at about 3000 rpm in fifth gear. About the only engine glitch is a jerk which occurs when throttle is re-applied in fifth gear – this especially noticeable when the cruise control is operating and there are hills and valleys to negotiate.

In a time of almost universal use of ‘semi-independent’ twist beam rear suspension designs in cars of this class, the Civic’s sophisticated double wishbone rear suspension is another surprise. It’s teamed with a traditional MacPherson strut front suspension - and the result is pretty damned good.

The ride is excellent – although it varies a little with how many occupants are in the car. With some loads, the Civic can develop an odd bobbing motion on concrete freeways, but in all other conditions – including bumpy secondary back roads and urban bitumen patches and filler strips – there are no problems. That’s partly helped by the relatively tall profile tyres. In fact, looking at the 195/65 tyres – worn on 15 inch steel rims on this base model – you could assume that the handling will be plough understeer. But that’s far from the truth. The front-end of the Civic grips and grips and then when it does let go, the understeer is mild and easily controlled with the right foot. A slight throttle lift will tuck the nose back in or of you’re really going for it, you can abruptly get off the power and gently slide the car into oversteer. Few people will want to do that: for the majority, the Civic’s handling can be characterised as being safe and grippy.

However, the steering is not the same good news story. Using traditional hydraulic power assistance, the steering is overly light and lacks feel. A driver new to the Civic will invariably swing on too much lock and then have to unwind it while they feel their way into the corner. It’s the only dynamic shortcoming and so is even more obvious for that.

Inside the cabin you’ll find a welcoming and roomy space. Unlike some much more expensive European cars we’ve recently sampled, the Civic shows thoughtful, well executed design. The door pockets – all four of them – are large; there are compartments everywhere in the dash and centre console; and the seats – newly designed for this model – are wide, comfortable and supportive. However, if you’re a driver of just the right (wrong) size, your left knee will annoyingly touch the handbrake lever rather than the smooth side of the console.

The steering wheel is height- and reach-adjustable and the driver’s seat is height adjustable.

The instruments are arranged in two binnacles, one above the other. The lower contains a centrally-mounted analog tacho and this space also houses the warning lights. Directly above, the second binnacle mounts a large digital speedo and electronic bargraphs for fuel and coolant temperature. These displays are easy to read (even through sunglasses) and the speedo is especially effective, being only a tiny eye movement away from the road. All the controls are clear and work with a quality feel. However, the MP3-compatible sound system controls are not duplicated on the steering wheel.

The equipment level is fine without being startling – only two airbags are fitted and there’s no fuel consumption readout. On the plus side you get cruise control, ABS and the sound system is very good in this class.

Step into the back through the wide-opening rear doors and there’s plenty of knee and foot-room, although for the very tall, headroom is limited. The boot is large – although the boot opening is only class average – and the rear seat folds. An easy-to-access knob in the boot allows the seat fold but you’ll need to pay more for the VTiL to get a split-folding rear seat. The boot does not have an external unlocking handle and there’s no boot unlocking button on the key remote.

But even with the excellent mechanicals and spacious, practical interior, it’s the refinement and quality which impact the most. Despite some road testers finding poor build quality in the Civic (all but the Hybrid are made in Thailand), we thought the build quality excellent. The doors shut superbly, the paint is very good and the quality of the interior materials fine. Without knowing the actual cost or where the VTi fits into the model line-up, one driver thought the Civic would be priced around $40,000, another thought that it was a $30,000 car. Both were simply gobsmacked to be told the $21,990 price.

The Civic VTi is parsimonious enough on fuel to be a competitor to cars one or two sizes smaller; it is capacious enough to be a competitor to cars one or two sizes larger, and it’s sufficiently refined to be competitive with cars of twice the price. That’s an amazing list – we don’t think there’s anything better if you’ve got $22,000 to spend on a new car.

The Civic Sports

So if we think the Civic VTi is the best thing since sliced bread, what do we think of the better equipped, larger engined Civic Sports? Well, in short, it’s still a very good car but it hasn’t got the killer price punch of the VTi.

Stickered at AUD$29,990 – that’s no less than 43 per cent more than the VTi – the Sports adds a 2 litre engine, six airbags, climate control, sunroof, alloy wheels wearing lower profile 205/55 tyres, a six stack MP3 CD and leather trim. The suspension settings remain the same – although the Sports handling is a little better on the higher quality rubber. The Sports uses electric-assist power steering rather than the traditional hydraulic of the VTi and the steering feel is noticeably improved.

The engine, while having an on-paper advantage of 11kW and 14Nm, doesn’t feel a whole lot faster than the base model and drinks about 1 litre/100km more. However, the 2-litre has an advantage in bottom-end torque – less revs are needed to get going and the tractability of the engine is simply fantastic. Like, try idling around in second gear without a hint of the stutters....

If you really like your luxury, the Sports is an excellent upgrade. But if you want to get the amazing bargain that’s very nearly as good, go for the VTi.

The Civic VTi and Civic Sports were supplied for this story by Honda Australia

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