First drive: 2016 Honda Civic sedan [Review]

Honda\'s 10th generation Civic is the best yet.

The Civic has always been a strong seller for Honda but, if we're being brutally honest, those strong numbers, at least in recent years, have been more the result of the nameplate's solid reputation rather than of the vehicle itself.

In fact, Honda was forced to rush a refresh of its last-generation Civic after critics widely panned the compact for excessive road noise and cheap interior materials. Consumer Reports even dropped the ninth-generation Civic from its coveted "recommended” list.

But even with those flaws, the Civic still flew out of Honda showrooms. Given that kind of loyalty Honda could have easily mailed it in the with the 10th generation Civic, but we're happy to report that's not the case at all.

An Epic CivicHonda has always assigned grandiose names to its in-design Civics (such as "Wonder Civic” and "Miracle Civic”), with the latest car drawing the nickname "Epic.” That's a tough adjective to live up to, but the 2016 Civic (mostly) does.

Based on an all-new platform, the 2016 Civic is longer, wider and sleeker than the model it replaces. The Civic's wheelbase is up by 1.2-inches, netting an extra 2.2-inches of rear seat legroom. Meanwhile, the Civic's front overhang has been reduced by 1.2-inches while rear overhang has grown by 3.0-inches, allowing for a more flowing roofline and bigger trunk. The Civic's roofline has come down by 0.8-inches while the the hood and cowl are down by 1.6-inches, adding to the car's sporty look.

The 2016 Civic uses a mixture of high- and ultra high-strength steel for most of its chassis components, yielding a stronger frame that is about 68 pounds lighter than the unit it replaces. That strong base is important because to it Honda bolted a sportier suspension and better brakes.

The new model year ushers in a new DOHC i-VTEC 2.0L four-cylinder engine that now stands as the Civic's base motor. It produces 158 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 138 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm. It can be had with a six-speed manual or a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT).

Optional on mid-level cars and standard on the upper end of the Civic range is a new 1.5L turbocharged four-cylinder. Thanks to its turbo, Honda says the 1.5L makes the equivalent power of a 2.4L naturally aspired four-cylinder — 174 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque to be exact. It's currently only available with a CVT, but we're told that Honda has plans to eventually offer the turbo engine with an enthusiast-approved six-speed manual gearbox.

Fuel economy is very good for either engine option. The 2.0L is set to return 31/41/35 mpg city/highway/combined while the more powerful 1.5L will return 31/42/35 city/highway/combined.

Honda wrapped all that new hardware in fresh sheetmetal that is far more stylish and upscale-looking than the last Civic.

The front of the Civic is inspired by the 2016 Accord and includes a new chrome grille bar that extends above the car's wide and thin headlights. Though admittedly on the bling-y side, the chrome design element at least give the Civic a face to remember.

Top-spec cars like our Touring model include LED headlights that look similar to the headlight treatment given to modern Acura vehicles. Mid- and upper-level cars also receive fog lights integrated into an aggressive-looking lower bumper.

Move farther back and you'll find flared wheel arches and a distinctive crease along the lower portion of the doors, giving the Civic a decidedly muscular look. The black-and-silver five-spokes on our tester wouldn't be our first wheel choice, but they at least fit with the Civic's funky and youthful vibe.

The rear three-quarters is probably the Civic's best angle, giving you the opportunity to soak in its fastback-like roof line and boomerang-shaped rear lights. With the new Civic, we can see what Honda was going for — but missed — with the Crosstour.

Interior designThe interior of the new Civic is also much improved, both in terms of materials and design.

Whereas the last Civic still felt like cheap even in top-zoot guise, even the base 2016 Civic LX feels like somewhat of a premium car. That's because materials used in the new Civic are soft touch and used throughout the range. The only real interior differences between a base LX and a top-spec Touring are leather seats, a larger infotainment screen and an LCD center-gauge readout. Honda has even made its suite of Honda Sensing safety features — which include technologies like adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning — available as a standalone option on any Civic for 2016.

The overall interior design has been toned down from the last car, which we think is a good thing. Gone is the two-tier dash, replaced with a more conventional unit that places the speedometer and tachometer in the center pod. Two other readouts sit on either side — one for gas and the other for temperature. Like other contemporary Hondas, trip functions are handled by a stalk that sprouts from the dash like Jack's beanstalk.

The overall dash and center stack design reminds us of the latest Toyota Corolla, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. We dig the straight lines that give the car a vintage-but-fresh look. The brushed aluminum trim in the Civic is some of the best we've seen and far better than any faux wood alternative.

The Civic's optional seven-inch infotainment screen is essentially the same unit used in the all-new Pilot. Taking a page from Mercedes' book, the screen protrudes slights from the dash like a tablet.

The screen itself offers good resolution and is general response to touch inputs. The unit also supports the latest Apple CarPlay and Android Auto systems. However, we still can't get used to the volume slider button. To make matters worse, that slider has migrated to the steering wheel where it is just as difficult to make incremental volume changes. Luckily you can still click up or down, in addition to the slide feature, if you choose.

Immediately upon sliding behind the wheel of the Civic you get the sensation of sitting in a proper cockpit. That's because Honda has significant lowered the Civic's IP and seating position. In fact, the hip point in the 2016 Civic is now the same as the Audi TT. A higher center armrest adds to the wrap-around experience.

The new center console also includes a bi-level storage area at front that allows you to store your smartphone without exposing any ugly cords. The center section boasts a storage area that is large enough to swallow an iPad.

The Civic's front buckets are comfortable and supportive with a good amount of bolstering. Shorter drivers will probably find themselves using the Civic's seat height adjustment feature as the car's lower hip point does make it somewhat difficult to peer out over the hood.

Despite its sloping roof line, the Civic provides more than ample headroom in its second row. Legroom is also quite good, allowing those over six-feet tall to stretch out a bit. On the Touring model back-seat passengers also benefit from heated outboard seats.

After years of scrambling to meet modern crash standards, it appears as though automakers are starting to perfect the art of strategically using high- and ultra-high-strength steel. Honda used those light-but-strong materials in the Civic's greenhouse area, netting thinner A-pillars that are less prone to cause dangerous blind spots.

The story is a little different at the rear of the Civic where thick C-pillars can block the driver's view. However, the Civic does come with Honda's Lane Watch, which uses a camera mounted on the passenger's side mirror to project any potential hazards lurking in the side blind spot on the car's infotainment screen. The system automatically activates anytime the right-hand turn signal is turned on.

Driving impressionsThe vast majority of our driving time was spent behind the wheel of a Civic Limited equipped with Honda's 1.5L turbo and CVT. On the performance front, Honda is about spot on with their comparison of the 1.5L turbo to a naturally aspirated 2.4L. Although peak horsepower doesn't come on until 5,500 rpm, a flat and relatively broad torque curve (max twist is available between 1,800 and 5,500 rpm) delivers power in a smooth and linear fashion. Those hoping for a sudden whoosh from the turbo will disappointed, but those searching for a peppy compact will be perfectly happy with the 1.5.

Honda's CVT is a good fit for the turbo mill, which is partly due to the incorporation of a torque converter. The rubber-band effect is virtually non-existent at lower speeds and the CVT is willing to kick down to lower "gears” for higher-speed passing maneuvers.

Performance from the naturally-aspirated 2.0L four-cylinder compares favorably to the competition when equipped with the six-speed manual, but the CVT option saps most of its get-up-and-go. While the engine sounds like it is working hard under full throttle, the CVT prevents that noise from being turned into any kind of significant forward progress.

The Civic's overall width has grown by two inches for the 2016 model year, resulting in more stable handling and better road-holding abilities. A sportier suspension keeps body roll in check without being too stiff during everyday driving. Brakes are also much improved over the last-generation car.

Steering is handled by an electronically boosted rack that delivers quick and direct steering. We'd probably dial in a bit more weight, but the system works well overall and fits the Civic's new positioning as a driver's cars.

Base models don't handle as sharply as upper-end Civics, but that's down to inferior rubber rather than any mechanical differences. In addition to lacking the grip of the Civic's higher-end tires, the lower-spec tires also have a taller sidewall, creating some extra flex in the corners.

Leftlane's bottom lineNo longer a strong buy on name recognition alone, the 2016 Honda Civic is a genuinely good car that is now leading the compact sedan class. Stylish, agile and peppy (at least in 1.5L guise), with several new tech features to boot, the Civic is the total package. We can't wait to see what Honda has in store for the Civic's future Si and Type-R performance models.

2016 Honda Civic LX sedan base price, $18,640. 2016 Honda Civic Touring 1.5L Trubo as tested, $26,500. Prices exclude $835 destination charge.

Photos by Drew Johnson.

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