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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

First Drive: The 2017 Civic Hatchback Has That Honda Magic

Have we finally learned after this year to never say never?

The 2017 Honda Civic Hatchback is unexpected in many ways. That its maker has actually decided to bring it to the U.S. is one thing. That the current Civic went from an insipid car resting on its laurels to being a shockingly good car in one generation is another. Believe anything is possible.

It isn’t perfect, but it's mighty good. And the Civic Hatch mostly lacks any indications of being watered down for Americans for the sake of mass appeal. It’s old-fashioned Honda thinking to make a stellar and well-rounded product for those who appreciate it.

Like the other Civic derivatives, the new hatch feels extremely complete, but little tweaks make it the pick of the bunch.

Good news.

Change with more of the same

OK, so the Civic Hatch’s exterior might be its most controversial aspect. That’s something it shares with all tenth-generation Civics. But the hatchback is certainly provoking.

Parked next to a sedan and the dramatic shapes thrust onto the hatch become even clearer. The faux vents on the front and back of the car are significantly more pronounced, to the point where lighter colors seem to make them more obvious than they should be. In hindsight, maybe not the smartest move for the mainstream models. At least it’s stayed faithful to the parade of concepts that have been rolled out over the last couple of years. And it looks… different.

The interior is the same story as the sedan and coupe from the driver’s seat. That’s good, because it’s fairly high quality and mostly sensible if you don’t get the more expensive cars. Importantly, a good driving position can be had by pretty much all.

Honda officials boast about the best-in-class space inside, evident by a generous rear seat and enormous cargo hold when the rear seats are folded. A slanted hatch means tall items won’t fit as well as in a Volkswagen Golf, but that car’s shortness means you have to fold the seats down less. Most will find the Civic more practical.

That bigness of the interior, however, is partly because the Civic Hatch is rather large for its class. But that doesn’t ruin things as much as you’d think.

Brexit Express

It’s immediately noticeable from the first turn that the hatch has different breeding than the sedan and coupe.

While the latter two are very much products of Ohio, the Civic Hatch comes from Britain via Japan, where it was engineered. And it’s certainly the most European-feeling Honda sold in America in a long while. This is good because the changes in the hatch fix pretty much everything that was not-quite-stellar on the coupe and sedan.

Steering is slightly sharper on-center, but eliminates a lot of the dartiness the American-developed cars have, especially at highway speeds when it takes too many little corrections to maintain a straight line. And yet it’s still super easy to use at low speeds. The suspension is also more controlled, but without too much stiffness. There’s a healthy dose of German firmness in the controls, something that may catch recent Honda buyers off. But longtime loyalists should feel at home.

The big news for 2017 and for the hatch is the pairing of the newish 1.5-liter turbo four with a six-speed manual, rather than the CVT that came on all 2016 turbo Civics. The shifter is classic Honda, so easy to use and practically stall-proof. You have to get the manual to get the full enjoyment out of the Civic and the engine, which again means you’re limited to either an LX or Sport model, the lowest of the five offered. Shift paddles are finally offered on Sport and Sport Touring models with the CVT, and they do add a little bit of fun.

But the whole takeaway is that the Civic is effortless to drive at any speed. Twisty roads on tree-lined California highways cast the manual in its element. Staying in third gear keeps the turbocharged engine on boil far longer than it ever would with the CVT. That said, the engine doesn’t always sound like a classic VTEC. And it certainly doesn’t rev as freely as one.

The Civic Hatch altogether has a surprising amount of youth and vigor in its feel that it only means good things for the upcoming Si and Type-R – likely thanks to its Japanese engineering. And yet, I think the best Civic Hatch variant could already be on sale.

Made for you and me

A Civic Hatch stickers for somewhere around $500 more than a comparable sedan. Models without the Honda Sensing suite of driver assistance technologies – including the top Sport Touring – will reach dealerships in January or February, but the rest of the hatches went on sale last month. And the sweet spot is the Sport with the manual for right around $23,000.

Like the Civic LX sedan I drove last year, there’s an elegant purity to the more simple Civics. You don’t get the annoyances that come with the ill-engineered touchscreen radio or overly aggressive forward collision warnings that are mandatory in the most expensive cars. A hatch with a manual and sunroof and leather might be nice, but it wouldn’t add to the basic appeal of the car.

It’s the first Civic I have ever considered spending my own money on – my European car loving money on. The Civic is right up there with a similarly priced VW Golf now, has a better engine than the Ford Focus and its European flair and is larger than the Chevy Cruze hatch.

That just leaves the Mazda 3, which is a shockingly good driver’s car. Yet the Honda is the more complete package – more grown-up, but with fewer compromises. Like the best Civics, it doesn’t knock it out of the park in any area, but is extremely good in every single category.

Welcome back, Honda. We’ve missed you.

Photos: Zac Estrada/Carscoops

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