Australian sales of small cars have been falling rapidly of late. Long the most popular segment locally, the small-car class now sits in third place behind medium and small SUVs, and the large-SUV segment is nipping at its heels.
The current market trends mean manufacturers are under pressure more than ever to make their small passenger cars as good and well featured as possible while maintaining a sharp pricepoint – and some are doing better than others.
Korea's Kia Cerato is bucking trends, up by 14 per cent year-to-date at the time of writing, overtaking former king the Mazda 3. The related Hyundai i30 is holding steady against a falling market, while Japanese rivals aren't doing quite as well.
The Toyota Corolla is down by over 15 per cent YTD, not helped by wait times on its super-efficient hybrid models, while the Mazda 3's push into premium territory has seen it drop by a similar margin.
Meanwhile, the Honda Civic is a shadow of its former self, with sales down by nearly a quarter compared to the same time in 2018. The company recently rolled out a 2019 model-year update for the sedan range (though not the hatchback), which saw the Honda Sensing active safety suite more widely available across the line-up, but not much else changed.
Here on test we have the flagship 2019 Honda Civic VTi-LX sedan, which is priced from $33,690 plus on-road costs. The Modern Steel metallic paint you see here adds another $575, bringing the as-tested figure to $34,265 before on-roads.
High-end versions of mainstream cars have a tough task in the Australian marketplace. Given the ever-increasing competition, manufacturers are not only contending with natural rivals in regular segments, but also competing with SUVs, and even entry-level versions of premium equivalents.
For this reason, the VTi-LX has just about every gadget and gizmo Honda can throw at it, and given the price it's pretty well equipped.
Standard features include satellite navigation with live traffic updates for the 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system (on top of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility from lower grades), model-specific 17-inch alloy wheels, a powered sunroof, steering-mounted paddle shifters, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and heated front seats.
That's on top of equipment from elsewhere down the family tree, which includes full-LED headlights, a 10-speaker audio system, eight-way power adjustment for the driver's seat, leather-appointed upholstery, dual-zone climate control, auto-folding side mirrors, keyless entry with push-button start, rear privacy glass, parking sensors front and rear, Honda's LaneWatch blind-spot side camera system, and DAB+ digital radio.
Honda's suite of active safety features has always been standard on the flagship Civic. Think autonomous emergency braking with forward-collision warning, adaptive cruise control with 'low speed follow', lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist, road-departure mitigation, along with automatic high-beam.
All Civic models wear a 2017-stamped five-star ANCAP safety rating based on local tests against older criteria. In ANCAP testing, the Civic managed 34.68 points out of a possible 37.
Well into its third year on sale, the Civic sedan remains an attractive vehicle, even against brand-new rivals that have hit the scene within the last 6–12 months.
Honda's recent designs have been edgy, angular and aggressive, and the Civic is no different. While some cars age quickly with avant-garde aesthetics, the Civic has held up well, and in flagship VTi-LX trim looks upmarket with its full LED lighting, gloss-black exterior accents and chrome highlights.
I personally prefer the look of the sedan compared to the related hatchback, most notably for its more traditional proportions and less polarising rear end. The VTi-LX does, however, look a little boring compared to the lower-spec RS, which gets larger wheels and a more prominent rear spoiler.
Hop inside and its familiar fare again. The overall dashboard layout minimises physical switchgear and aims to maximise storage options – there are cubbies just about everywhere.
It's in here where the Civic is starting to show its age a little, even though you'd hardly call it 'old'. The 7.0-inch touchscreen is pretty average in size, and the overall look and feel of the operating system is quite old-hat.
Even with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto running, load times and response aren't as snappy as you might be used to from rival models.
The overall perception of quality in the cabin is decent but a mixed bag. Up top there are nice, soft-touch materials on the dash and doors, though there are plenty of hard, scratchy trims about.
In several areas, like the door armrests, for example, there can be a harsh juxtaposition between plastics and trims, making the Civic feel more like a tarted-up cheap car than an affordable premium car. Some of that can be felt as soon as you put your hands on the steering wheel – the smooth leather is nice, but the shiny, hard plastics on the hub and multifunction controls just feel very cheap indeed.
While it may not be the most plush sedan in the small segment, the Civic offers heaps of room for passengers and luggage.
There's above-average leg and head room for rear passengers, and the seats themselves are quite comfortable. Amenities include a fold-down centre armrest with two cupholders, a map pocket behind the front passenger's seat, and large door bins.
However, there are no rear air vents and no rear power outlets, which is disappointing given passenger accommodation is one of the Civic's key selling points.
Behind the 60:40 folding rear seats, there's a 517L (VDA) luggage area, which is more than enough for shopping, prams, airport luggage, you name it. While it's an impressive amount of space, the Civic can't match the Skoda Octavia liftback, which quotes 568L with the rear seats in play.
Power in the VTi-LX comes from a 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine developing a decent 127kW (at 5500rpm) and 220Nm (1700–5500rpm), and sent to the front wheels exclusively via a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
In terms of performance, the drivetrain is perfectly capable of shifting the 1.3-tonne (1316kg tare) Civic at city and highway speeds, though the experience is dulled somewhat by the CVT.
The transmission has that typical elastic-band feel that isn't super engaging, and the constant revving of the engine transmits a buzzy, un-sexy note into the cabin. Don't try flicking the transmission into 'S' mode, either, because that just holds the revs even more and makes it worse.
Once at speed, though, the CVT drops revs substantially to the point you may have to double-check if the engine is actually on. Whereas rivals with six-speed transmissions and similar-sized engines will sit at 2000rpm or just above at 100km/h on the freeway, the Civic is humming away well below that.
Not only does it reduce engine noise at speed, it's quite helpful for fuel consumption. During our time with the VTi-LX sedan, we saw the indicated readout drop into the mid-sixes per 100km with extended highway use, but in heavy traffic around town, the free-revving nature of the drivetrain and lack of idle stop/start technology will see that figure rise well into the mid-eights.
You can expect around 500km per fill of the Civic's 47L tank, and it will happily run on cheaper 91RON regular unleaded.
As for the ride and handling, the Civic again does a decent job without being class-leading. There's a nicely quick and direct steering rack that coupled with the low and wide stance makes the Civic feel quite dynamic and easily manoeuvrable in any environment, while the supple suspension tune does a good job at ironing out the various lumps and bumps of Melbourne's patchy inner-city roads.
That planted stance makes the Civic feel very sure-footed at high speeds, which inspires confidence on the freeway, and the comfortable ride means speed humps and potholes are easily dealt with.
Where the Civic falls down is in terms of refinement – a complaint we've had since the car launched.
Regardless of road surface, there is a noticeable level of tyre roar entering the cabin, unless you're gliding on the smoothest sections of tarmac. This probably isn't helped by the very quiet engines at cruising speeds, but the Civic can make quite a racket on rougher sections of highway, which isn't the best for longer stints behind the wheel. It's a shame because the ride and handling have all the makings of being a fine tourer.
We had mixed feelings about the various Honda Sensing features, too. The auto high beam had a habit of turning on the brighter light function in inappropriate situations, often with other vehicles oncoming in suburban streets. Weird.
Another issue was the adaptive cruise control, which at times would slam on the brakes for no apparent reason, as if it were detecting the vehicle in the next lane. I'd often just switch it off and take full control myself.
I'm also personally not a fan of the LaneWatch side-mounted blind-spot camera in place of a regular blind-spot monitoring system. The main annoyances are that it's only on the left side, while the perspective and distance markings can look a little obscured through the central display. It also requires you to take your eyes off the road and look at the lowish-mounted screen rather than do a head check or look at your mirror.
From an ownership perspective, the Civic is covered by Honda's five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, which is bolstered by up to 100,000km of 'Tailored Servicing'.
Scheduled maintenance is required every 10,000km or 12 months, whichever comes first, though the Honda Australia website lists the service intervals by distance or "when the Honda Engine Oil Monitor light illuminates".
The first five visits will cost you $297 a pop, though there are additional items depending on interval. Replacement of the cabin dust and pollen filter is required every 24 months or 30,000km ($45), while the brake and CVT fluids will cost you $58 and $172 respectively every 36 months (or 40,000km for transmission fluid).
With those additional service items included, the first three years of maintenance will cost you $1166. Over five years (two more $297 visits) you're looking at $1760.
In the saturated small-car market, the Honda Civic presents a solid if merely above-average proposition in top-spec form. Real-world performance, economy and comfort are above average for the segment, while it offers solid value in terms of price, equipment and space.
However, it's let down by average on-road refinement, budget-feeling cabin elements, and an uninspiring drivetrain.
With numerous rivals at this end of the small-car market offering more premium, more refined and better-featured packages, it's getting harder and harder for the Civic to stand out from the crowd.