Quote: “But if Honda’s new Hatchback isn’t far above room temperature in terms of what’s under the hood, it’s closer to parity with the rest of the hot hatch scat pack in terms of dynamics.”
The new Honda Civic Hatchback: Definitely cool. Definitely versatile. But hot? Or not. To address that question, we must consider the defining traits of the class.
It was a hatchback of course, a three-door edition of the car then known to Americans as the Rabbit. A little more power, more suspension, better brakes, more agility, more fun to drive, and a lot more cache.
This was the second generation GTI. The first, unveiled at the Frankfurt show in 1975, was limited to European markets. Also, the ’83 model was assembled in the U.S., at VW’s plant in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, a plant that ceased production in 1987.
But we need to define the category in terms of today—what qualifies a hatchback as hot? What is the threshold?
In addition to its chassis enhancements, the ’83 GTI had 90 horsepower from a massaged 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, compared to 74 hp for the 1.7-liter four of the standard Rabbit.
Today’s hot hatches are far more powerful, some of them, e.g., the Ford Focus RS, with as much as 350 horsepower on tap.
So this raises a question: what’s the 2017 threshold for membership in this exclusive fraternity of compact hot rods? And does the 2017 Honda Civic Hatchback qualify?
Honda Hatch History
Basics: the 2017 hatch, third member of the current Civic generation to be introduced, defies comparisons with previous four-door hatchbacks bearing the brand name simply because there weren’t any in the U.S. market. Many elsewhere, but none here.
Two-door hatchbacks, yes, the first of them Honda’s innovative CVCC Civic in 1973, most recently in model years 2003 – 2005. And the third generation Civic lineup included a rectilinear four-door with a rear liftgate, from 1988 to 1991. Technically you could call it a four-door hatch—but Honda called it a wagon.
That was then, this is now. Unveiled at last April’s New York auto show, the Civic Hatchback figures to be a strong player in its class in terms of that valuable hatchback commodity, interior volume.
There’s 25.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the Hatchback’s rear seats. That’s best among compact hatchbacks, almost 2 cubic feet more than the next-best Ford Focus. (It’s also 10.6 cubic feet more than the trunk of a Civic sedan.)
Flip the seatbacks forward, and cargo capacity expands to 46.2 cubic feet. That’s short of the VW Golf, which tops the class charts at 52.7 cubic feet. But on the other hand the Civic devotes more of its interior volume to passengers, including a back seat capable of accommodating two adults without executing a territorial agreement with those up front. (The center position, as with all vehicles in this class, is best relegated to child seats.)
Like just about any new car entry you care to name, the Civic is well appointed inside, with a respectable standard equipment list at the entry level (LX) that expands with each trim level—Sport, EX, EX-L Navi, and Sport Touring.
Also like others, the Civic offers an extensive menu of infotainment, connectivity, and driver assistance features—the Honda Sensing collection of safety features which includes forward collision mitigation with automatic braking; road departure mitigation with a particularly annoying lane keeping feature; standard rear view camera; and adaptive cruise control.
If mitigation morphs into actual collision, the Civic carries a five-star NCAP rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency’s max, and a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, ditto.
But the essence of the hot hatch is acceleration, agility, and a higher-than-ordinary sense of connection between driver and machine. How does the new Civic stack up on that scale? Let’s dissect.
Power: Unlike the Civic sedan and coupe, which sustains the old 178-horsepower naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder as the base engine, the Hatchback has a single powerplant—Honda’s turbocharged 1.5-liter four.
In the coupe and sedan the 1.5 turbo is rated for 174 hp, but slightly different tuning allows for a little more punch in the Hatchback, 180 hp in Sport and Sport Touring trims. Buyers have a choice of a six-speed manual or continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), and with the manual transmission the Sport’s 1.5 turbo also generates considerably more torque—177 pound-feet, versus 162.
The stick shift is the correct prescription for a positive fun-to-drive index—although oddly enough the Sport Touring model, tops in the lineup, is CVT only. But if fuel economy is the objective, the CVT is the better bet, with EPA highway ratings as high as 40 mpg.
Honda has made steady progress with the CVT, and in the Civics it’s programmed to provide simulated shift steps like a conventional automatic. This is generally effective, but the manual gearbox is typical of Honda stick shifters, with short throws and precise engagements.
So equipped, we expect a Hatchback Sport to be capable of sprinting to 60 mph in just over six seconds.
That’s respectable for this class, but puts the new Civic at the back of the Hot Hatch starting grid. A power peak of 180 hp is exactly twice what the ’83 GTI brought to the street, but that was then. With 220 hp, the current GTI is capable making the mile-a-minute sprint at least a half-second quicker. And super hatches like the Ford Focus RS and Golf Type R propel themselves with even greater haste.
It’s also worth noting that the Si version of the previous Civic generation, offered in coupe and sedan body styles, was rated for 205 hp. And the next generation, due in early 2017, is expected to provide more.
But if Honda’s new Hatchback isn’t far above room temperature in terms of what’s under the hood, it’s closer to parity with the rest of the hot hatch scat pack in terms of dynamics.
The Sport’s fat, low-profile tires (235/40), on 18-inch wheels, provide the kind of grip that inspires confidence in high-speed blind turns that suddenly become low speed switchbacks.
Body motions are nicely controlled—very little rock ‘n roll—and based on a half-day of driving mountain roads near Santa Cruz, California, braking performance will stack up with the true hotties, fade free with excellent pedal feel.
Compared to the other high marks on its dynamic scorecard, the Hatchback’s variable ratio electric power steering rates as only slightly above average—accurate enough, but short on tactile information (a trait we used to call road feel). And the Sport’s low-profile tires transmit a fair amount of road noise on some surfaces.
On the other hand, ride quality seems supple enough, a noteworthy achievement considering the sporty tires and firm suspension tuning. And high speed stability is beyond reproach.
The $ Factor
Civic Hatchback pricing runs about $500 higher than corresponding coupe and sedan models, from $20,535 for the basic LX to a little over $29,000 for the top-of-the-line Sport Touring. As you’d expect, each trim level includes more standard features, although Honda’s pricing policy can sometimes be perceived as a little draconian. For example, getting a nav system means stepping up to the EX-L Navi trim level ($26,135).
Similarly, the Sport model includes an extensive array of standard equipment, plus a manual transmission and the extra horsepower and torque that goes with it. But navigation is not on the menu. Conversely, navigation is part of the deal with the Sport Touring trim, but the manual transmission is not.
It’s hard to see the logic in this. But if the Sport models appeal, you’ll have time to ponder it at your leisure, since they won’t be on sale until January. The other trims are in showrooms now.
Back to the thesis issue: is this first-in-a-long-time four-door hatchback—first-ever, if you count the 199x-‘9x wagon as a wagon—hot enough to be called a hot hatch?
We invoke our right of editorial wriggle. In an earlier era, even as recently as 10 years ago, there would be no doubt. Today, it’s a different story. Particularly with Honda’s torrid Civic Type R hatchback lurking in the wings, awaiting a spring debut.
Still, the Sport version of the Honda Hatchback can’t be called tepid, and its fun-to-drive index stacks up well with other hasty hatchbacks. And Honda’s styling team has certainly worked hard to make the new Civic look snarky. Too hard? Maybe.
Anyway, looking at the Civic Hatchback lineup in its entirety, only one member—the Sport—looks to have enough of the right stuff to justify a spot on the hot honor roll. The temperature of the rest of the family doesn’t go much beyond simmer, but fun-to-drive is a common trait, right across the board. Hard to find fault with that.
For more information, options, and pricing, please visit our 2017 Honda Civic Hatchback page on AutoWeb’s search and configure site.
Photo Credit: © 2017 Honda