Fresh iteration of the hatchback gets a new hybrid powertrain and a smarter interior

The Honda Civic isn’t as ubiquitous as it once was, having largely fallen prey to the same SUV contenders as other once big-name hatchbacks. And for British buyers, it perhaps isn’t as appealing as when it had the cachet of being built in Swindon.

Nonetheless, the Civic remains important to the brand, sitting in the top three for UK sales after the Honda Jazz supermini and the Honda HR-V small SUV.

What’s more, Europe (and the UK) couldn’t be closer to the Civic’s development. Rather than receive a global car to then tweak for its market, Honda Europe has led the research and development this time round, knowing that its customer expectations are greater than those of the Americans and the Japanese.

There’s plenty of change in this 11th-generation hatchback. It has a hybrid powertrain for the first time – and indeed only a hybrid powertrain, completing Honda’s European lineup of electrified mainstream models, as it set out to do three years ago.

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While the application of the e:HEV system is exactly the same as in the Jazz and HR-V, the Civic uses a new 2.0-litre direct-injection turbo petrol engine (which we might hope to find in the imminent new Civic Type R) in conjunction with two electric motors, one acting as a generator and one giving propulsion, delivering 181bhp and 232lb ft of torque combined.

Honda persists with its CVT, which has rarely been received with welcome arms in the past. Good news, then: its engineers have worked their magic and the step change is remarkable. Whereas previous Civics (and Honda’s other current models) don’t readily give the torque needed for you to accelerate smoothly, that issue is more or less eradicated here.

How? Two reasons: the new engine makes more torque to cover a higher range and speed of acceleration; and there’s a larger amount of electric boost, Honda having discovered it can use a bigger range of the battery capacity to garner said power.

The sprint to 62mph takes a more than respectable 7.9sec, matching the Toyota Corolla 2.0 VVT-i Hybrid.

Plus, now that the CVT is so much silkier, putting your foot down to reach motorway speeds is pleasingly effortless, whereas before it may have been a noisy, slightly delayed event.

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There’s plenty more to admire about the Civic, which Honda benchmarked against the Corolla as the only other mainstream hybrid hatchback but also cars ranging from the Kia Ceed to the BMW 1 Series.

It’s slightly longer and lower than the previous iteration (without any loss of head room, claims Honda) and has various lightweighting measures in play to counter the extra weight of the hybrid system, such as a resin tailgate that’s 20% lighter than its predecessor.

The longer wheelbase and wider track, plus a 19% increase in rigidity, contributes to the Civic feeling incredibly well planted on the road, hugging corners with finesse.

Even more gratifying is the nicely weighted, accurate steering, which gives excellent feedback turning in and then softens that feedback when returning to the centre.

The Civic rides firmly but is most definitely comfortable. Such findings often don’t translate to the UK, but Honda engineers assure us testing has been done on our rutted roads.

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Refinement is also impressive, with only a marginal difference between electric-only mode and when the petrol engine is deployed. When pushing it hard at the top of the range, it is audible but so well isolated, as if heard from a distance.

Inside, the quality of materials and neat design shine through. The plastics aren’t on a par with the ones you'd find in a BMW, say, but there’s little between this and the Volkswagen Golf.

The touchscreen infotainment system is good but still doesn’t feel as integrated or premium as its German rivals. It’s more than competitive against any system Toyota has to offer, though.

The headline economy figures, presumably of considerable interest to hybrid buyers, are officially 56.4mpg and CO2 emissions of 113g/km. It’s nothing remarkable, then, but it does beat the equivalent Toyota Corolla, which achieves 54.3mpg and 118g/km.

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Honda has pulled off this car with aplomb. It has no major weaknesses and all the elements work together to offer the dynamics, practicality and comfort that buyers of hatchbacks typically want – and more besides.

If this is what’s possible on the regular Civic, we have high hopes indeed for the Type R.