First drive: 2017 Honda Civic Hatchback

The hatch is back.

Despite their recent absence from the U.S. market, Honda's compact hatchbacks have been a fixture of enthusiast culture for nearly three decades. Whether they're being raced in a handful of amateur road racing series, campaigned regionally and nationally in SCCA autocross, or put under the knife by the mad scientists of the Honda tuning world who have managed to combine any number of body and powertrain combinations, the sawed-off Civic's ubiquity is unquestionable.

But it has been AWOL from the U.S. market for quite some time. Honda hasn't offered a three- or five-door Civic variant here since the demise of the EP3-chassis Civic Si in 2005. Those who lusted after Hondas with odd numbers of entry points were forced to pine for European- and Japanese-market offerings that were often teased here but never delivered.

That's all changing. Welcome to #civicpalooza.

A five-point planThe 2017 Honda Civic Hatchback is the third of five eventual variants of the new Civic to be introduced Stateside. The sedan was introduced a year ago. The coupe has been on sale since spring of this year. The hatchback, here at the midpoint, represents the final body style. Still outstanding are the Civic Si (which will be introduced in Los Angeles on the day of this review's publication) and the range-topping Civic Type R.

It's a good time to be a Honda enthusiast. Has anybody dared to suggest that since the demise of the aforementioned EP3 Civic Si and the S2000? We suspect not.

The same, only differentAt first glance, it's hard to tell the new Civic Hatchback from the sedan. That says more about the styling of the latter than the former. If you ask us, the sedan's lines suggest something other than a trunk should be lurking beneath the rear deck.

But if you put them side-by-side, the hatchback's rear cargo area is significantly more pronounced than the sedan's, giving Honda a surprising advantage in cargo area vs. the segment despite its sleek lines.

If you'll remember, the Chevy Cruze Hatch's rear 22.7 cubic feet of rear cargo space was commended for its advantage over most of the segment. Well, the Civic trumps it (and the meticulously-packaged Volkswagen Golf, for that matter), with 25.7 cubic feet available with the seats up on LX and EX models. Sport and Sport Touring models offer a little less thanks to their larger spare tire, but they're still right there with the Cruze.

Like the sedan and coupe, the hatchback offers such niceties as advanced touchscreen navigation, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support, and on CVT-equipped models, the advanced Honda Sensing safety suite (which includes adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, emergency braking and road departure mitigation).

Singing a different tuneThe same-but-different theme continues under the hood. The Civic Hatchback is offered only with the 1.5L, turbocharged four-cylinder engine that comes in the up-trim models of the sedan and coupe. Unlike those variants, however, it's offered with a six-speed manual as the standard transmission in both the LX and Sport models. Step above the Sport, however, and you're stuck with the CVT no matter what.

When paired with the manual transmission in the LX model, the 1.5L produces 174 horsepower and 167lb-ft of torque. Opting for the CVT limits the torque output to 162lb-ft. From here, things get a little more interesting.

We've mentioned the Sport model a few times, and on the surface it's pretty much what you expect. It gets larger wheels, a slightly reduced ride height (those two wash on paper) and--most importantly--more aggressive engine programming.

Make no mistake, the Sport is not intended to infringe on the territory of the upcoming Civic Si. There's only a six-horsepower and ten-pound-feet advantage over the base tune, for a total of 180 horsepower and 177lb-ft of torque. Still, it's a nice little bump and a welcome augmentation to the available six-speed manual.

Note however that while the Sport Touring model gets the same horsepower bump as the Sport, it is only available with the CVT.

The big pictureMechanically, the 2017 Honda Civic Hatchback is just a sedan with a bigger rear opening. Is the same true on the road?

In a word, yes. Honda engineers added some NVH-controlling materials in the rear to compensate for the bigger opening to the cargo area, keeping the road noise in check. We're also pleased to report that the manual transmission is far more polished than we found it in the prototype sedan we drove when we evaluated the coupe earlier this year.

Driving the Sport model with the 6MT was borderline sublime, in fact. It's as if the 1.5-liter turbo was engineered specifically with that combination in mind. It pulls reliably from low RPM and doesn't completely fall flat at higher revs. Dropping a couple of gears will summon plenty of passing power even in uphill climbs.

Our time with the CVT mirrored our previous experiences, as we expected. For the mainstream buyer, this is a thoroughly adequate setup for the daily grind, but after our time in the manual, it couldn't hold a candle.

The CVT may do plenty of things better for the average driver, but if the driving experience matters more to you than one or two MPGs, there's only one choice here. The "S" mode is no match for being able to hold the exact gear of your choosing for as long as you desire.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe 2017 Honda Civic Hatchback is the base Civic we've been waiting years to welcome back. The extra ponies of the 6MT Sport model are the icing on the cake. Watch out, Mazda.

2017 Honda Civic Hatchback MT base price, $21,300; As-tested, $22,135Destination, $835

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior photos courtesy of Honda.

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