It would not be fair to describe the ninth-generation Honda Civic as a failure, but quite why it struggled behind some other small hatchbacks and sedans in its class is hard to understand.
Honda says about seven out of 10 people who drove the Civic bought one and that it was not the competitiveness of the package that was to blame, but difficulty in getting potential customers off the high street and into showrooms.
For the tenth generation, the car-maker is doing things differently, starting with an advertising campaign that will generate as much publicity as the HR-V strategy, but Honda says the way the new Civic sedan looks will also get the model back on shopping lists.
We found the little sedan’s styling a little confronting at first but over the course of a day with the Civic, the aesthetics had really grown on us.
Its elegant roofline is not unlike the Civic Coupe concept that debuted at the New York motor show last year and creates an effect more like a fastback than a conventional three-box four-door.
Its proportions and design work all the better given the car’s size, which is deceptively small on the outside, but park the Civic sedan next to an Accord and it instantly becomes delightfully compact and aesthetically pleasing.
We like the bold grille, especially when decorated gloss black in the case of the RS, while its muscular arches and heavily sculpted boot and bonnet line hint equally at the NSX and HR-V design philosophies.
But despite the model’s diminutive exterior, the cabin and boot spaces are surprisingly voluminous. In the front row, taller drivers are offered lots of headroom, a comfortable reclined seating position and an excellent view of the road thanks to notably skinny A-pillars.
The lack of seat base tilt adjustment prevented the perfect position for our reviewer but front row comfort is above average for the small sedan class.
We were always fond of the curious split-tier instrument cluster of the previous Civic, but the new more consolidated digital approach is an excellent evolution not often seen in this price bracket. The layout is relatively easy to navigate and we liked the customisation options and graphics that are unlike any other manufacturer’s approach.
But it is the second row that offers the greatest surprise for cabin luxury, with a seriously comfortable semi-reclined seating position, adequate headroom for a 186cm occupant and the extra 55mm knee room over the previous model is really appreciated. The only way we can see the Civic cabin improved is with the inclusion of the brilliant magic seat arrangement as found in the smaller Jazz, but Honda says the location of the fuel tank under the second row prevented the inclusion of its versatile seating innovation.
Go one spot further back and you’ll find a capacious 519-litre boot, which is large for a car in this segment.
In addition to the likeable digital instrument display, all Civics get a high-resolution 7-inch touchscreen display for accessing a range of applications including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The system is easy to use with pinch and swipe controls, backed up by more clever switchgear on the steering wheel such as a haptic volume slider and while most systems work well there are limitations when trying to access the full functions of some online applications.
Touches like tidy cable routing through the centre console buttresses, two USB ports, HDMI and 12-volt sockets are a clear indication that Honda is targeting a tech-savvy owner.
On the move, the Civic remains a pleasant place to be thanks to efforts to reduce wind and road noise through new construction and body sealing measures, which suggests the Japanese car-maker is paying more attention to a silky ride, rather than a corner-carving sports set-up. A good move in our books.
That said, the Civic is great fun to push through some twisty bits. We love the smooth but faster-ratio steering that has decent feel and feedback coupled with minimal body roll in higher-speed corners.
Entry-level VTi and VTi-S versions have stuck with the previous 1.8-litre iVTECH naturally aspirated engine for 104kW/147Nm and, while performance and noise levels are far form sporty, the more affordable variants would likely fit a majority of lifestyles.
For a little more excitement, customers can opt for the VTi-L, VTi-LX and sports-focused RS variants, which bring a new 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol with 127kW and 220Nm. The little four-cylinder is enhanced by a responsive continuously variable transmission, which is an automatic transmission type we do not ordinarily warm to and, while the version in the Civic does have the droning constant-rev trait, it is a good match for the engine.
In the absence of official figures, we estimate acceleration to 100km/h to be in the low 8-second region but the little Honda powers on to higher speeds confidently with easy overtaking and excellent responsiveness.
Choose the RS version and you get seven simulated gear steps programmed into the transmission for a more involving drive, especially if you use the paddle shifters.
Step up to the top-of-the-range Civic VTi-LX and customers will get the full suite of Honda Sensing safety and driver assistance systems that use a millimetre radar and forward-facing camera for semi-autonomous driving.
Forward collision warning and braking, lane-keep assistant and active cruise control with a low speed traffic follow function are not commonplace on small sedans in the region of the Civic’s price range, but work as well as larger and more expensive marques.
There are a number of compelling features that should make the new Civic sedan attractive to customers shopping in the small sedan segment, if only dealers can get people into showrooms for a test drive.
With more daring looks than its predecessor, generous standard equipment in all variants and Tardis-like space throughout, the new Civic is the biggest small sedan we have driven.