It’s easy to overlook a base-model car as most brands promote the sexier, sportier, higher-grade models. You don’t always need to move up the range to get the best version, though. Case in point: the 2020 Honda Civic VTi hatch.
The mainstream range remains as before comprising five models, two with non-turbo engines starting things off, and more expensive models offering more power and tech. All are fitted as standard with a CVT automatic.
The entry-level VTi hatch seen here starts the range off from $22,790 plus on-road costs, but it's possible to wind the price up to $34,090 if you head for the VTi-LX hatch. A sixth model, the Type R hot hatch, also exists, though it’s more niche than mainstream and is almost $52,000.
Keen spotters will note the hatch is $200 more than the VTi sedan, despite both sharing the same key specs. There are some very minor differences, though, mostly related to spec as related to body style... You don't get a rear wiper on the sedan, but you do on the hatch – little differences like that.
Be that as it may, all hatch versions take their styling cues from the flagship version, so there’s a rather aggressive-looking styling package with big, bold (and mostly fake) vents in the front and rear bumpers, and a sleek and sporty fastback profile.
The styling changes are only minor compared to earlier versions of the Civic hatch range, but alongside the updated sedan and its more conservative appearance, the Civic VTi hatch offers a bit more youthful flair, though the styling might be a bit busy for some.
Under the bonnet is a far from sporting engine. Honda’s naturally aspirated 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol pumps out a rather pedestrian-looking 104kW of power and 174Nm of torque, which puts it near the bottom of the small-car class for power and dead last for torque amongst conventional petrol-powered competitors.
Still, simplicity is the name of the game here, and how much power do you really need underfoot to sit in crawling commuter traffic or pop to the shops for bread and milk? It doesn’t feel underdone traipsing around town; the standard automatic works well to keep things flowing, while also keeping engine revs down to the benefit of noise and fuel consumption.
You do have to push this engine to perform, and it tends to be a little one-dimensional in terms of character. Push for more and you’ll find the ugly side of engine noise, exaggerated by the way the CVT holds revs at a particular point.
The suspension is forgiving, doing its best to blot out chopped tarmac and mid-corner corrugations. The Civic uses a multi-link rear suspension that’s more sophisticated than what's found in some cars (Mazda 3, or even base-model Mercedes-Benz A-Class, for instance) and the result is balanced, comfy and controlled road manners.
In mixed use, Honda provides a 6.4 litres per 100km fuel figure. After a week behind the wheel, with plenty of busy city traffic and a few quick highway runs, the trip computer returned an 8.4L/100km average.
Standard features include single-zone climate control, remote locking with key-in start, cloth seat trim and manually adjusted front seats, a urethane steering wheel with tilt and reach adjust, cruise control with speed limiter, electrically adjustable mirrors, digital instrument display, electric park brake and 16-inch steel wheels with covers.
The 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment display plays host to AM/FM radio, Bluetooth and auxiliary inputs via two USB inputs and an HDMI beneath the centre console, driven though an eight-speaker stereo. There’s also Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for access to streaming services and navigation.
Compared to the previous system, the new display is augmented by a physical volume knob (in place of a touch slider) and additional shortcut buttons to switch between menus. Small changes, but helpful all the same.
Unfortunately, the 2020 Civic update didn’t bring any additional safety equipment to the VTi model. Six airbags, ABS brakes, traction and stability control, and a multi-mode reversing camera with dynamic are standard.
The more expensive VTi-L grade ($27,790) is the lowest in the range to feature forward-collision warning and collision-mitigation braking (Honda’s version of autonomous emergency braking, or AEB), lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, road-departure mitigation and adaptive cruise control.
The Civic does carry a five-star safety rating from ANCAP, but was assessed in 2017. The need for AEB inclusion under the latest assessment criteria would see the Civic’s rating drop if retested in 2020.
One ace the Civic does have up its sleeve is space. Though it may be classified as a small car, the Civic really stretches its dimensions to the benefit of passenger accommodation. In fact, the ‘small’ Civic sits on a longer wheelbase than the mid-size Skoda Octavia.
Front passengers sit low within the cabin, though the sporty seating stance doesn’t seem to detract from the ease of entry and egress. Even with swoopy styling there’s still plenty of head room, and rear passengers will enjoy a surfeit of leg, knee and foot space at their disposal.
There’s enough space to position three adults across the back, though the sculpting of the rear bench makes it ideal for two, and even as a base model there’s a pull-down centre armrest for added comfort on long hauls.
The boot, at 414L, is on the larger side for the class, too, seats drop 60:40 for extra space, plus there’s a bag hook and 12V power. In addition, the nifty retracting cargo cover that pulls to the side is simple to deploy with one hand, and can be easily retracted without the need to stow a bulky hard cover. Clever thinking.
There are also practical and spacious storage solutions up front with a large console, big door bins, plenty of storage nooks, and an extra space underneath the front of the console. Threading your phone’s USB cable into place under here isn’t much fun, if I’m honest, but once you’re set up, you won’t have to worry about it.
The infotainment system and instrument display are crisp, without being high-res razor sharp, but there’s a glut of information available. You may need to go on a hunt to find some of it, though – the layout can be a little complex for some functions of both displays.
Honda cars are covered by a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty for private use (commercial applications are capped at 140,000km), and capped-price servicing is available with 12-month/10,000km intervals priced at $299 each.
Additional charges apply for scheduled service items outside of basic service items, and depending on your annual distance travelled can push service costs up with cabin filter ($45 every two years or 30,000km), brake fluid ($58 every three years), transmission fluid ($165 every three years or 40,000km), air cleaner ($55, 60,000km), fuel filter ($213, six years or 90,000km) and spark plugs ($146, 100,000km) added on top of the basic service cost.
Honda does a decent job of promoting Civic models like the sport-styled RS and plush VTi-LX as the go-to members of the mainstream Civic range. They come with more tech and more features, but of course a higher price, yet in some ways the simpler Civic works best.
The Civic VTi is spacious and functional, easy to use, and quick to learn. The downside is a stark lack of advanced safety features – whereas most competitors pack AEB in as a minimum, or at least as an option.
In its most basic trim, the Honda Civic hatch is honest and earnest in much the same way early Civics were. It’s perhaps a little short on innovation, but ensures the budget-minded end of the small-car market doesn’t go without a much-needed practical choice.