Test drive: 2021 Honda Civic 1.5L TC-P (VTEC Turbo)
As far as percentages go, 70 is a big one. It’s the magic number that gives some semblance of normalcy to the prices of designer goods. It’s also the amount of possession in a football game that almost guarantees a win; unless you’re playing in the red jersey of a certain London club, that is.
Where car sales are concerned, it’s a majority that spells out dominance in an industry where the margins are thin and competition is stiff. And that’s precisely the level of clout the 2020 Honda Civic commands in the Malaysian C-segment (as of April 2020) despite the greater fight I expected the latest Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla to put up this time around. Evidently, old habits die hard in a market dependent on traditionalists who still appreciate a good old three-boxed silhouette.
Of the three Japanese contenders, the facelifted Civic looks the most unchanged on the surface, such is Honda’s typically reserved approach to mid-life updates. But the tenth-generation Civic, which now sports a blacked out grille and bigger wheels, was competently packaged from the off. And its unique Kammback styling, expectedly roomy cabin and force-inducted vigour probably continue to scratch the minds of buyers who failed to secure their units before pre-facelift stocks ran out; good luck finding a dealer peddling one at ‘clearance’ prices.
That said, the RM134,661 (after tax exemptions) Honda Malaysia is charging for the range-topping Civic 1.5 TC-P – which presumably stands for ‘Turbocharged Premium’ – tested here represents great value once you factor in competitor offers and the extra goodies thrown in for 2020, particularly Honda Sensing. This puts the Civic on par with pricier models like the Accord and CR-V in terms of safety, with things like adaptive cruise control, autonomous braking, lane keep assist and road departure mitigation now in the mix of potentially life-saving features.
Sprucing up a crowd favourite with flashy tech you aren’t guaranteed of in a European luxury car, all while staying well within the Civic’s original price point is certainly an impressive feat. But owners of older FC units and motoring hacks who may have spent a few hours too many in the driver’s seat of one – i.e. yours truly – will be keen to point out that some of the best improvements are the seemingly trivial revisions to the switchgear that are so subtle you’d be forgiven for not noticing they’re there, even if you sell Hondas for a living.
This hit home the moment I begrudgingly reached out to the seven-inch touchscreen to adjust the climate’s fan speed only to find a new pair of dedicated buttons for this purpose; thank you, Honda! While this renders the ‘climate’ button beside them pretty much useless, it’s a huge victory for functionality nonetheless. All car UI designers should experience day-to-day driving in a country as hot and humid as Malaysia before jumping to the conclusion that a touchscreen is the best place to host all AC controls – yes, I’m looking at you Volvo.
The CarPlay-compatible infotainment itself has gained a set of useful soft-touch buttons replacing the old microwave-like touch-sensitive panel. And the steering mounted volume slider – the cause of many unintended ear-prickling episodes on roundabouts and winding roads – has been simplified to a conventional up-and-down switch. It’s basically a mass reversal on the Civic’s supposedly futuristic interface which teaches us that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
That said, calculated and practical innovations are welcomed too. I, for one, found myself fiddling the right stalk more frequently than before, all in search for the button that triggers the new LaneWatch camera, such is the added ease of mind it provides when filtering into slower lanes. And while folding rear seats hardly constitute an innovation in the 21st century, it’s certainly good to know that the option of bridging the Civic’s spacious rear quarters with the 519-litre boot, albeit through a relatively small aperture, finally exists. Better late than never, I suppose.
Beyond the surprisingly effective tweaks in overall accessibility and mildly retouched cosmetics – richer crimson hue which Honda calls ‘Passion Red Pearl’ included – the 2020 model is largely the same turbocharged Civic that most of us are familiar with, not that I’m complaining. This has long been one of my favourite cars to drive in the C-segment after all. And it’s mostly because of how effortless it feels across the range, and how this vigour is easily scalable across varying driving conditions and expectations; it’s certainly one of the more engaging powertrains utilising a fuel-saving CVT on sale today.
While the VTEC Turbo’s quoted output of 173PS and 220Nm is evident on the move, I did find the facelift’s low-end response to be a touch more reserved than I remember. This could be easily mistaken for better insulation, though the high-spec’s new 18-inch gunmetal alloys seem to be the likelier culprits. Along with the Honda Sensing hardware, they add 13kg to the Civic’s curb weight. And it’s probably no coincidence that the 1.5 TC-P’s turning radius is 20cm wider than variants riding on 16- and 17-inch wheels. That said, steering response and ride comfort are still relatively positive; the Civic’s competency as a family car with sporty undertones is still very much intact.
On that note, the Civic's expert balance of driver-oriented performance and family-friendly practicality remains hard to beat as far as sedans occupying this price bracket are concerned. While I did not expect my stint in the 2020 model to yield any significant revelations, I still discovered new ways to appreciate the Civic despite its overbearing sense of familiarity on the surface. And it's mostly in the little details that matter in day-to-day driving, as monumental as the addition of Honda Sensing may be. None of this is surprising as the pre-facelift Civic FC was already a great all-rounder to begin with, albeit with a few interface quirks. If anything, these issues presented Honda with the perfect opportunity to build a better car.
And that's exactly what Honda did.
Honda Civic 1.5 TC-P
Engine: 1.5L 4cyl turbo, 173PS, 220Nm
Transmission: CVT, FWD
Performance: 0-100 in 8.2 secs, 200kph
Already one of the best all-round offerings in the Malaysian C-segment, the Honda Civic becomes a safer choice in more ways than one. Honda Sensing features are noteworthy additions at this price point, but subtle UI updates are the bits that truly impress.
A spirited and practical performer great for families and soloists alike.