Road test: can a few tweaks make the Honda Civic RS a hatchback contender?
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2020 Honda Civic RS Sport Sensing Hatch
• Massively practical
• Gutsy engine
• Looks are aging well
• Odd pricing
• Average CVT
'Change is as good as a holiday' might be a relatively common saying, but it seems to have bypassed the folks at Honda.
The firm's recent announcement of a rather mild update to its Civic hatchback will have likely disappointed those waiting for some kind of explosive response to the all-new Mazda3, Ford Focus, and Toyota Corolla. But, it won't have been a surprise to those that follow the Japanese marque closely.
Honda has been staggering incremental updates like those found on the new $41,990 Civic RS Sport Sensing Hatch for generations now, and in this most recent case the forthcoming tweaks are very sensible indeed.
Squint, and you'll spot a few distinctions off the bat. It gains a revised body-kit with some body-coloured 'crossbars' through the enormous corner vents, helping break up what's easily the Civic's most controversial design feature.
The cabin has been spruced up with some red stitching and the current-gen touchscreen. And an extra grand has been added onto the price — in part due to the mountain of new safety tech via Honda's 'Sensing' suite.
This suite includes all the digital swag from the RS Sensing Sedan we tested last August; including one of the best Lane Keep Assist systems in class, radar cruise, and a Collision Mitigation Braking System capable of detecting vehicles up to 100m ahead.
That brings us to what remains the same with the Civic RS, starting with the engine.
This isn’t a bad thing at all — far from it. Honda offers the Civic hatch with either a naturally aspirated 104kW/174Nm i-VTEC 1.8-litre four-cylinder or a turbocharged 127kW/220Nm VTEC 1.5-litre. The former is offered in the entry-level $32,990 SX, and the latter sits in our RS Sport.
The SX may represent solid value, but that engine means it's an instantly skippable car. The surprisingly handy turbo four, however, is a very different story.
Ignore the relatively humble numbers; in the real world the 1.5-litre is plenty quick enough off the mark and for passing-lane thrusting. Given its Honda origins it’s perhaps a little curious that the low-inertia unit doesn’t particularly enjoy revving out to its 6500rpm redline.
Its distaste for revs is in part down to the 7-stage CVT it's bolted to. It doesn't feel as sophisticated as an equivalent Toyota or Kia/Hyundai CVT, and its lack of interest when the right foot sits pinned is compounded by the 1.5-litre's ho-hum noise.
But in the absence of screaming VTEC thrills you get something much more useful; surging low-down grunt. Peak torque hits at 1700rpm, making it an excellent carefree cruiser while eliminating any real need to explore redline territory.
I only wish a mid-spec variant could be offered with this engine. A $35,000-or-thereabouts Civic hatch equipped with this engine would make it an even more competitive package relative to the hatchback competition. Instead, you need to be spending north of 40 grand to get 'the good one'.
The turbo's acceleration capabilities mesh nicely with the RS's cornering chops. It gains firmer suspension and wider rubber via a set of supremely sticky 235/40 Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres, which combine to make it one of the best steers in class.
These tyres still seem like overkill when paired with a car like the RS, but given that they don't really compromise ride quality and road noise who's counting?
Cornering is as flat as a pancake, and there's even a little bit of feedback eked back to the driver through the steering wheel. Throw a manual gearbox at the RS, and it could almost call itself a bonafide 'warm hatch'. Regardless, there's much more fun to be had here than in any equivalent SUV.
Speaking of SUVs, the Civic — predictably — packs a disproportionately wanton space inside its five doors. Its boot is a fraction less ample than its sedan counterpart, being 414L versus the sedan's 517L, but there's an argument there to claim that the hatch is just as a practical given its much wider rear opening.
The Mazda3, Ford Focus, and Toyota Corolla mentioned at the top of the show might be a bit more shiny and new than the Civic. But, at 375L, 295L, and a dismal 208L respectively, none of them can hold a candle to the Honda for practicality. The Focus is also the only one that rivals the Civic's ample rear leg-room.
And this is before we get into the hallowed, all conquering 'magic seats' in the back of the RS. The clever, easy to manipulate second row can be tilted onto its back to allow for tall loads like bikes and plants.
So yes, for all the mouth flapping about lack of change, there's a lot to be said about how well the Civic hatch nails the basics.
The new Sensing safety equipment helps bring the Civic onto the same high-tech level as the competition, but to focus on the new is to miss the point of Honda's most iconic nameplate.
Above all else, it's still a commodious, economical, and worthy 'if it ain't broke' staple in a segment that continues to march on.