Civic RS: Pushing hard to be picked

The previous Civic was trustworthy transport, but nothing more. The new one is far bolder in every respect – but is it just a bit too much?


For: Spacious interior, perky powerplant, refinement levels.

Against: Vexatious instrumentation, CVT stymies engine’s full appeal.

Score: 3.8/5

The difference between an over-achiever and a try-hard is that one impresses for performing above their indicated potential and the other simply gets on your wick.

So what side of the line does the Civic RS stand?

It’s a question that arose during a week driving of a car that, in its 10th generation, carries more than the average weight of expectation that you’d expect in association with a famous nameplate.

It’s also here to provide a comeback sales drive for a brand that has lost a LOT of ground over the last 10 years. This car, the Jazz, the HR-V … they’re charged with bringing customers back and reminding that Honda is backing out of beige as it heads back into the black.

Civic perhaps has the most to prove. Once this car had the world at its feet, as the first Japanese small car everyone adored; born in 1972 when oil prices suddenly soared and made big cars unpalatable, the first gen spurred a sales charge that reaped 23 million buy-ins.

It all seems so long ago now, though … Toyota has the keys to the kingdom now and, in the past 10 years Civic lost its audience and, many would say, its mojo.

But now there’s change. Honda is seeking to regain its game play. Dare to dream? It really hopes you will.

Still, there are challenges. First, the category: It’s not as big as it once was yet, at the same time, there are more contenders and every one fights hard. Second, within this sector the sedan shape is not necessarily the best one to front with.

Consumer attention fixates much more attention on hatchback styles – not only the normal kind but those redesigned to give impression they’re up to all-terrain play. Yet because four-door three-box fare is still hugely popular in the key South-East Asian countries where Honda is still a big gun, it has put the boot in first, albeit disguising this by making the profile as hatch-like as they could get away with.

What they get there is what we have to start with here, though assuredly the hatchback that is built in England and is already being sold there, in Europe and has now just reached North America will be coming to our showrooms too, in 2017.

The Civic has aces to play. Lots of technology and a touch of performance pizzazz. The RS badge here doesn’t mean outright performance, yet the $39,990 Civic RS is still the sportiest offer out of the four specifications that come here, and even though it is actually an understudy on the pricing ladder to another derivative, the NT, it also has the look and feel of a flagship car.

But back to that initial statement. What’s it really: A car that achieves a better than expected outcome or one that simply works so hard at seeking to be liked it ultimately only annoys?

Styling, specification

Back in the day Honda promoted itself as the brand that was about mechanical purity; it allowed engineers to call the shots because it aspired to become Japan’s BMW equivalent.

And that was cool: It’s how we ended up sitting behind engines that were remarkable for their smoothness and, with VTEC, stupendous stonk (yet without a wallet-walloping thirst). It’s how we ultimately got to enjoy the NSX. It’s how they dominated Formula One.

Honda today still likes to do great engines and clever build. But it is also now a lot more focussed on design, having accepted that this is also a key to driving desire.

Moreover, it’s dynamic design. Styling conservatism, the blight of so many past Hondas, simply doesn’t evidence here. An origami element is an aspect of trad Honda styling continued here, but there is some impressively complex surfacing work here and the detailing (and finish) is impressive.

Those five spoke alloys are an especially racy expression of determination to go for grandkids rather than grandparents, so too those slim-line LED headlamps. The test car’s pearlescent White Orchid Pearl paintjob also appealed and contrasted well with the black front grille and those seriously-sized, C-shaped rear lights.

There’s just one potential drawback with the shape. With 4.64 metres’ length, this is another small car that has suddenly become awfully big. Width-wise, it’s gained just 4mm over the old model (though the pronounced wheel arches suggest more) but, length-wise, it’s a stretched car. Line up against a Holden Commodore and the Aussie has just a hands-span more longitudinal gain.

While the size isn’t wasted - the cabin is spacious and the boot, too, with 517 litres’ capacity – it’s a world away from the wee gems of the past and cannot be called compact. In respect to the boot, while the rear seats split 60/40 and drop flat for longer items, the previous generation’s lift-up-or-fold-flat Magic Seats are gone because of a requirement to relocate the fuel tank away from under the front seats and to a more rearward orthodox position.

Boldness continues on the inside and Honda’s materials and finishes are classy, but unfortunately there’s a transcendence to awkward weirdness in respect to its electronic displays.

It starts with … well, the starter … and should have stopped there. As the engine fires, the dash displays an animation, drawing the rev counter like a rainbow, then the lines fly up from the bottom. I cringed at the cheesiness.

Still, I’d live with that. What doesn’t work for me is that some other displays are so operationally complex as to ruin the good intent.

The user interface of the main centre console screen is too messy. Facility to “swipe, tape and pinch” the controls, just like a tablet or smartphone, seems to be a positive logic when you’re parked, but diverts too much attention while you’re driving. 

That’s also the drawback of providing capacitive controls for the stereo and ventilation.

Honda itself perhaps had misgivings about the first, because they’ve backed up with a more orthodox steering wheel mounted roller control. Just as well. It’s the one you’ll always prefer to use. With 452-watts, 10 speakers plus a subwoofer, this isn’t a sound system that you necessarily want to inadvertently pump up to full volume at the wrong moment.

When sorting the ventilation, though, there’s no avoiding touching the centre console glass because, while the only knobs are for the dual-zone temperatures and buttons for demisting. If you want to alter the a/c fan speed or set up what vents the air comes out of, then it’s another – hit and miss – touchscreen pitch that, again, it’s so tricky to master on the move it’s probably better left to the front seat passenger than the driver.

Like most competitors, Honda has stepped up to offering Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and in improved format over that in the HR-V, insofar that you can now use a regular single firewire rather than the complex, special cost cable that comes with the crossover.

So you just plug and it all works? Yes, but plug in where exactly … the requisite USB input that suits best is extremely and idiotically well-hidden, so deep behind and below the double level central console you’ll likely only find it as I did: By happenstance.

There’s a second USB connection hidden in the armrest console. It’s also invisible if you imagine, as I did, that the lid only seems set up to slide back halfway. Only by exerting more force is the mystery is resolved. It would seem a more logical place to plug in an audio device because you could keep everything tucked away in the cubby but that purpose is limited because it only operates as a recharger, not a sound port.

Whether greater sense of ergonomic responsibility generally comes into play in respect to the control aspects of Honda’s Sensing Suite of driver assist technologies is not a question that can be answered here.

 These accident-avoidance gadgets are restricted to the $3000-dearer NT model. Knowing how increasingly important the Lane Keeping Assist (which sensing if you’re wandering from the lane) and Adaptive Cruise Control with Low-Speed Follow (which slows down if the car in front of you happens to) are becoming, Honda does seem to be missing a beat by not spreading these features further.

As well as the reversing camera, which has three angles of view, you do get the Lane Watch feature. A camera implanted into the passenger side wing mirror auto-projects any potential blind spots onto the screen the moment you begin indicating left. It can be turned on by pressing the end of one of the indicator stalk if needed. It might seem an unnecessary precaution, given that the wing mirrors are already pretty big, but I found it useful when driving in the city in circumstances when there was call to cross a cycle lane to effect a turn. Still, it’s hard to say if it is any more effective than, say, a blind spot assist that would alert to someone sneaking up the inside by simply flashing a warning icon.

The NT Turbo is also the only model with onboard Garmin navigation but so what? The other can operate this by their phone app. And the RS is not poorly specified.Every Civic has electronic brakeforce distribution, emergency brake assist, motion adaptive electric steering, stability and traction control, agile handling assist, front, side and curtain airbags, straight driving assist, reversing camera with parking sensors, climate control, cruise control, and a seven-inch touchscreen entertainment system.

The RS, being one of three models with the turbo 1.5-litre engine, adds – in addition to features not already mentioned - rear privacy glass, rain sensing wipers, auto headlights, power folding mirrors, a driver’s seat that adjusts electrically, three-stage heats for both front seats, a proximity key with walk-away door locking, push-button start, sports leather trim and piano black trims.

Powertrain, performance

Small engines in big cars are par for the course. Small engines with big-hearted appeal are a Honda speciality.

Honda New Zealand doesn’t think people will confuse this RS with those like-badged Porsche, Ford and Audi models also selling here. It also points out that RS has been a Honda designation for quite some time now and that, in their language, it translates as ‘slightly sporty’ rather than ‘hard out race-ready.’

For all that, this engine is quite nicely feisty and certainly has enough zap to make this model zip along quite nicely. No surprise how: The trick tweak is turbocharging.

The cited optimums of 127kW and 220Nm from what is being called the first complete ‘Earth Dreams’ engine are outputs that would usually come out of a 2.0-litre engine. The power figure is especially potent in this class, 13kW more than its predecessor, and the torque output also looks smart. Better is that fact that it uses 1.5L/100km less fuel, at an official 6.0L/100km.

The CVT has stepped ‘gears’, accessed by steering-wheel mounted paddle-shifters.  The engineering logic for a continuously variable transmission is solid enough; it enables this mill to return some pretty decent economy that is, of course, in tune with the “Earth Dreams” environmentally-positive philosophy. Honda cites a low 6.0L/100km overall average. I saw 6.9L/100km, which though short of what it says on the box is still not too bad.


First of all, this is a very impressive engine. It certainly doesn’t feel like one of those small powerplants that, right from start up, are operating at the edge of their energy level. Quite the contrary; the urge is quite smooth and the sounds it emits is very relaxed and utterly refined.

Second … there’s every sense this unit would feel even more potent if it was attached to something other than a CVT. There’s no point bleating too much about it because Japan’s car makers are now so unremittingly committed to cogless transmissions that, in all likelihood, there’s just no turning back. Still, for the record, if they ever do change their minds, I for one wouldn’t be all that upset. Not when it comes to petrols; diesels seem to be far more harmonious bedpals.

Anyway, there’s a real sense that, even when the transmission is operated in its Sport mode – when it’s supposed to (but doesn’t) feel as much like an orthodox auto as possible - and hand-motivated, this engine is being kept just a bit too tightly in check. That’s not to say it feels dull; there’s perky performance, for sure. But it doesn’t feel outright brisk. Put your foot down and you get the usual CVT characteristics; constant high revs and a disappointing drone from the engine … and not a lot in the way of immediate shove, even though the power-weight ratio is favourable.

The dynamic story is similar. Moving to a new all-round independent suspension system and delivering a stiffer chassis are important changes. While it’s still not a Euro in terms of ride-handling balance, the ride demonstrates satisfactory absorbency and, with 2.3 turns from lock to lock, it has sharp steering. And while the electric-assisted set up is light, yet redeems for lack of feel by being very immediate from centre.

The 215/55-series tyres provide consistent grip, too, and the usual NZ driving condition bugbear of roar on coarse chip is quite well-addressed; it’s not a Rolls-Royce, but there is more refinement in the area than some rivals can manage.

Like the latest Mazda3, it uses brake torque vectoring to brake the inside wheel and pull the car around corners.

While there’s a tonne of competence, it has less to offer in the way of charisma. It lacks the ‘go kart’ feel of Civics of old.

A good range of steering column adjustment is welcomed, though the adjuster lever is difficult to find (maybe its placement was left to the person responsible for the USB plugs). Driver engagement lacks also because of a poor seat; the too-flat base is the primary issue but the backrest also lacks for lateral support, despite the side bolsters looking decent in appearance.

The rear seats aren’t much more comfortable than the fronts but, again, legroom is very impressive and headroom, despite the rakish roof angle, ain’t bad either. So it definitely has potential as a proper four seater for adults.


So back to the main question: Extra clever or too smart for its own good?

Obviously there’s a lot of style and sophistication arriving with this car. Nothwithstanding the general market sentiment toward sedans these days, it looks good and has a high level of practical functionality. The driving side of things is largely good; it’s not going to change any pre-conceived views, good or otherwise, about CVT and neither is it that playful. But the chassis is competent, the ride and refinement impress and the engine is a cracker.

So yeah, the engineers have done another great job. Those charged with the car’s ergonomics should be packed off back to the video games industry where they perhaps came from. The instrument graphics in look and operation require a complete rethink. I couldn’t live with how they are now. There’s no logic.

The other drawback with the RS is that it doesn’t deliver the full gambit of active safety features available with the $3000-dearer flagship. Yes, I understand the need for points of difference, but realistically this differences would have been better qualified by trim changes, not by denial of useful driver assists.