WITH THE NEW HONDA CIVIC, ONE OF THE MOST RECOGNISABLE SMALL CARS IN THE MARKET SUDDENLY LEAPS GENERATIONS AHEAD. It’s so good, it heads straight to a comparison with the European class leader – the Volkswagen Golf.
Honda was hit hard by the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), hit again by the tragic tsunami in Japan and yet again by the floods in Thailand. It stripped its research and development budget as a result and it showed with the mediocre outgoing Civic launched in 2011.
But all that has changed with this tenth-generation Civic. Honda has invested big with a new platform and fresh engines brimming with technology. The nameplate that once represented European-challenging innovation and quality is back.
The Civic hatchback isn’t out until next year, so, at the moment, it’s sedan versus Golf hatch. But with a new 1.5-litre turbocharged engine, versus the 1.4-litre turbo Volkswagen, and each with sub-$35,000 pricing, we must look beyond the bodystyle for this Japan versus Germany small car showdown.
Honda Civic RS ($31,790 plus on-road costs)
- 127kW/220Nm 1.5-litre turbo-petrol 4cyl | automatic CVT
- Fuel use claimed: 6.0 l/100km | tested: 7.3 l/100km
Volkswagen Golf 110TSI Highline ($32,990 plus on-road costs)
- 110kW/250Nm 1.4-litre turbo-petrol 4cyl | 7sp dual-clutch automatic
- Fuel use claimed: 5.4 l/100km | tested: 7.0 l/100km
The Civic RS, priced from $31,790 (plus orc), gets Honda’s new turbo engine, producing a lively 127kW of power and 220Nm of torque.
Over in ‘camp Volkswagen’, the closest match power-wise is the Golf 110TSI Highline we’re testing here, with 110kW and 250Nm and priced from $32,990 (plus orc).
Both the (inaptly named) RS and (aptly titled) Highline get 17-inch alloy wheels, foglights, front and rear parking sensors, reverse-view camera, full leather trim with front seat heating, keyless auto-entry, dual-zone climate control and touchscreens with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity.
Although the $1200-cheaper Honda lacks integrated satellite navigation standard in the Volkswagen, it trumps its rival with a blind-spot camera, electrically foldable door mirrors, digital radio, LED headlights, an electrically adjustable driver’s seat, sunroof and 452-watt premium audio system – and that isn’t all that’s ‘premium’ about this new Civic.
Not too long ago, the size differences between ‘small’, ‘medium’ and ‘large’ sedans were obvious. It is not so obvious now - ‘small’ cars are not very small anymore.
The Civic sedan, hardly small, is quite a bit larger than the Golf hatchback; it’s got a boot afterall. There is a 30-centimetre ruler’s length between them from tip-to-toe – 4.64 metres versus 4.35m – although body width is an identical 1.8m.
Interestingly the Honda isn’t as tall as the Volkswagen and that’s how it feels inside. The RS has a low, sporty, almost coupe-like driving position, with a high centre console and wrap-around dashboard giving it a snug feel up front.
The Japanese brand has nailed a ‘Ginza cool’ look with its latest cabin. Some elements are overdone – like the moulded plastic with fake stitching ahead of the passenger – but from the digital instrumentation to the nicely integrated touchscreen and slick climate controls, it feels tech-laden yet high in quality.
Ergonomically the touchscreen trails its rival. Despite not having standard nav, the Honda forces the driver to press ‘okay’ on a safety warning message at every start-up before accessing the infotainment controls. If the driver doesn’t accept the conditions, a screensaver automatically deploys (a needless, retrograde step).
The Volkswagen system is simple and intuitive. It lacks digital radio, but flicks more seamlessly between audio and nav functions than the Civic – it’s safer, yet doesn’t need to shout a safety message on start-up.
While the driver sits higher, looking over a comparatively upright and shallow dashboard, the leather trim-quality of the Highline is, well, to a higher standard than its rival. Little details such as carpet-lined door pockets and soft mood lighting along the door strips, all leave the Golf feeling more luxurious and restrained than the high-calibre Honda.
Space up-front is similar, but rearwards the Honda puts its body length advantage to greatest use. Back-seat legroom is among the best in the class, even eclipsing previous generations of ‘medium’ sedans such as Honda’s own Accord Euro, if not the ‘upper medium’ Accord V6.
The Golf is noticeably less spacious for rear occupants, however comfort is more than just a measure of millimetres. In terms of its lush, long seat base and thickly padded backrest, the Volkswagen trumps the flatter Honda bench. It also provides extra amenities such as rear air-vents and map pockets behind each front seat.
For many buyers, picking between these two could come down to cargo space. The Civic’s gargantuan 519-litre boot volume is closer to that of the Golf wagon (605-lites) than the hatchback (380-litres) tested here.
Frankly, the Honda is family friendly ready to go, whereas a couple with two kids (especially if a pram is required) will have to spend $34,490 (plus orc) on the identically specified Golf 110TSI Highline wagon – or $2700 more than Civic RS.
ON THE ROAD
While the difference in external dimensions may be marked, engine and chassis specifications couldn’t be closer between this Japanese contender (although Thailand-built) and its German rival.
The 1.5-litre turbo Honda makes 220Nm of torque between 1700rpm and 5500rpm, with the latter figure exactly where its peak 127kW of power is produced. The Civic weighs 1331kg.
The 1.4-litre turbo Volkswagen produces a higher 250Nm but over a narrower 1500rpm to 3500rpm band. Conversely it makes a lower 110kW but over a wider 5000rpm to 6000rpm plateau.
The Golf is also 66kg lighter at 1265kg, and its combined cycle fuel consumption claim of 5.4 litres per 100 kilometres is 0.6L/100km thriftier – but then the Highline needs costlier premium unleaded, versus the RS’ regular 91RON.
On paper it all looks even-Stevens – right down to the strut front/independent rear suspension layout and 17-inch tyres.
In terms of outright performance there is nothing between these two automatic-only models, either. Both feel genuinely brisk, almost bordering on ‘sporty’ the way they quickly come on boost and leap ahead. The devil is in the driveability detail.
The heavier Honda requires greater throttle to move off the line around town, and its automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) quickly slurs the tachometer needle to about 3000rpm – helpful for performance, but not refinement.
It creates a buzzy atmosphere and particularly highlights that this engine isn’t as smooth and quiet as it could be.
The Golf throws that into sharp relief. Its seven-speed dual-clutch (DSG) automatic slips and slurs a bit like a CVT on a light throttle, but it complements an engine that is so much more silken and refined. Whether around town or on the open road, the Highline drivetrain performs to a much higher standard.
The Honda most gives away points to the Volkswagen for its CVT, it always feels like there’s slack in the driveline. Pinning the throttle to overtake then quickly releasing it is a bit like letting go of a stretched elastic band – the Civic flings forward disconcertingly.
For a brand like Honda that has perfected the manual transmission, it’s a shame the Civic isn’t offered with one, particularly for a model wearing RS badging.
However, the tables turn when it comes to steering precision and urban ride comfort.
The Civic boasts tight and accurate steering that is quick enough for the driver to leave hands in the nine-and-three position and make 90-degree turns without crossing arms. Its suspension compliance is utterly fantastic too, with a wonderfully plush yet controlled disposition in any urban-jungle situation.
Prior to the Civic’s arrival, the Golf had the best urban ride comfort in the segment, and remains a tough act to beat. The Volkswagen is similarly cosseting, although it can jiggle and shake over minor imperfections to a greater degree.
Its steering is also a bit slower and more remote, yet the weighting and feel is good.
Away from the city, the Highline comes into its own. Its ride is settled and pliant, and more in the realms of a luxury car than a small hatchback. The RS can get noisy, with noticeably more road noise, but its handling if anything offers greater verve to match its sharper steering.
The Civic also has a superbly calibrated electronic stability control (ESC) system that permits enthusiastic driving without severe intervention because it trusts the adept chassis.
There is no doubt the latest Honda Civic marks a significant return to form for the Japanese brand. Its combination of space, features, ride comfort and dynamic spirit bring together often opposing qualities – it’s pragmatic and roomy, yet fun.
And, keep in mind that the Civic VTi-L from $28k offers all the features of the Golf tested here except for leather trim with front seat heating (it’s the value pick of the range over this specced-up Civic RS).
In this contest, however, the Volkswagen Golf continues to reign supreme. If you can deal with a smaller boot, it offers the more refined engine, lower wind and road noise, in addition to a classier cabin with a superior infotainment system.
Where its rival feels hugely accomplished, and is an incredibly spacious and appealing not-so-small sedan – and being second best-in-class is no shame – the Golf 110TSI Highline in many ways still transcends its genre.
The German contender is a luxury car for mainstream pricing, and is ultimately worth the nominal extra outlay in this contest.
- Honda Civic RS – 4.0 stars
- Volkswagen Golf 110TSI Highline – 4.5 stars