Wednesday October 4, 2017
By Richard Bosselman
SITTING in the shadow of a great can never be easy, least of all when there’s good chance of being mistaken for that hero.
So it goes for the Honda Civic RS Sport hatch. Nothing beyond a basic bodyshell is shared with the Type R and when both are together it’s easy to tell which has more mumbo.
Yet, when viewed in isolation, you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking the $40,900 RS was The One. Styling-wise, it definitely goes out of its way to emulate the true family hero. You could say it’s so ‘Type-cast’ that it can – and, during test, did – fool the uninitiated.
Obviously, when push comes, all becomes clear about which has the more shove.
You might think it a great pity that, with the RS, there’s simply not a lot of real heat behind those hot looks. This is very much a sheep in wolf’s cloth. You can get those tyres to chirp with a fast getaway, but a tarmac tearaway? Nah.
Are we happy with that? Opinion seemed divided among my acquaintances. Some were adamant that so long as it doesn’t have a hope in Hades of emulating the R’s Ring-burning antics it shouldn’t look as though it might. Others argued there was no harm in it dressing so provocatively, pointing out this hardly the first warm hatch to shout hotness through its styling and nothing more.
I would agree, too, that Honda has a rather unique challenge with the hatch shape. Being such a riotous mix of curves, edges and channels even when presented in fully naked base form, it’s an especially angry-looking car. Extra adornment – and there’s quite a bit of it here - simply makes it appear far more so.
Even so, they really should have tried harder. Giving it a powertrain that better suits the look and badge wouldn’t be a bad fix, because the Civic chassis is certainly up to accepting more performance bite to match that visual bark than the standard drivetrain can deliver. A lot more. Featuring MacPherson strut front and fully independent multi-link rear, this platform, after all, is touted as “the most sophisticated chassis design in Civic history.”
Just an example of marketing blah? Not at all. Appreciation of the dynamic deftness delivered by this platform arose first with driving the made-in-Thailand sedan in identical spec (but, interestingly, less overt dress) a few months ago, but it all the more enhanced by now taking time in the five-door, which in being sourced from the United Kingdom also seems to have been tailored with more Euro-ness to its spring and damper tune.
On top of this, the RS is fitted with Honda’s ‘Agile Handling Assist’ system; essentially torque vectoring by braking, to enhance initial turn-in response, and reduce understeer. With all this, and the delicate touch delivered by the suspension engineers, you get a car that has quite deft actions, one that feels confident and well buttoned down, with a tightness and togetherness that allows it to cut confidently through quick corners. It’s worth making mention of how the tyre choice - 215/50x17 Bridgestone Turanza rubber is impressive for a car that really sits outside of the warm-to-hot category – impacts on this aspect. The braking is also quite positive.
It’s not a ‘soft’ car. Our coarse chip surfaces create some tyre-induced noise and harmonic challenges and though the suspension tune is way less rigid than the R’s, the ride is still busy. But that’s okay.
It’s a bit of a shame that the variable ratio, electrically assisted steering doesn’t come to the party with huge amounts of road feel. Civics of old were delights in this regard.
But, as always, it’s only going to be as sharp as the powertrain allows it to be.
The RS Sport is powered by a 1.5-litre all-alloy, four-cylinder petrol engine featuring double overhead cams, direct-injection, ‘VTEC’ (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) and a single ‘low-inertia, high-response’ turbocharger.
The exhaust port is cast directly into the cylinder head, side-stepping the need for a traditional (heavier) manifold, and Honda says reducing internal friction via the use of exotic materials (including ion-plated piston rings and ‘silent’ chain drives) was a particular engineering focus.
It might seem a small capacity engine for what is a reasonably-sized car, all the noreso given than cheaper editions have a larger capacity (1.8-litre) unit. But, as is typical of new-age engines, this smaller is bigger in output; 127kW and 220Nm. That’s a reasonably good output for a car in this category.
You might wish, however, that it was more gainfully employed. There’s a sense that the implied sparkle is too overly suppressed by the transmission choice driving the front wheels.
Historically Honda engines love to rev – the mannerisms of this one, expressed on paper, suggest this one if of that ilk. While the peak torque avails at 1700rpm, it holds all the way to 5500rpm, at which point 127kW of peak power takes over.
Something so buzzy really demands a transmission that will allow it to rev out, right? In theory, that’s the idea behind the ‘G-Design Shift’ set-up. This uses specific logic to create stepped ratios as vehicle speed increases, exploitable through wheel-mounted paddles.
So, then, it should hold revs high to gather speed consistently, rather than shuffle through gears as pace increases.
Yet what it says on the box and does on the road isn’t always the same. In fact, often the tranny just doesn’t allow the engine to express all that well. Even in the sport and full manual modes, it is hard to get it in the mood.
The best attribute is that it allows the engine to deliver strong low to medium-range torque at light throttle applications in easy and constant open road driving.
On the other side of the coin, it doesn’t cope particularly well with deeper, more abrupt acceleration, plus it lacks refinement. Going for Sport is a turn-off because it doesn’t feel any more energetic, just noisier. A propensity to break into a loud, raucous chorus when pushed is annoying.
Overall, it’s not as enjoyable as it could be, nor as well-sorted as some other CVTs on the market, which is a real pity. Honda, after all, is – or has been – a true engineering-first brand; they’ve done so many wonderful things and can still get great results when they set their minds to it. The Civic Type R is testimony to that. Yes, the RS is a very different kind of car (surely all now agree on that?) but with this badge it’s surely supposed to be the peppy, involving and entertaining choice. And, by and large, it just isn’t.
Efficiency does come to the fore, and that’s important too. You’re saving on fuel burn with a cogless transmission, but all I’d say is that eking a truly frugal outcome might not be easy. Honda claims 6.1L/100km economy for the combined cycle, but clearly their testers’ right feet are lighter than mine. The trip computer readout from six days’ driving showed the test car averaging 7.3 litres per 100km from a mix of city and country driving.
The burn might depend on what petrol is in the tank. Despite the engine’s sophisticated injection and induction tech, it’ll run happily on 91 standard unleaded as an alternate to the higher octane brews. I didn’t fill the tank, so have no idea what was chosen. In respect to that, The Civic has one of the smaller tanks in this class, with 47 litres’ capacity.
The Civic interior is just as you find it in the sedan too, save for a darker rooflining. The hatch is roomy; front seat passengers are provided excellent proportions. The rear seating room is also spacious. quoted luggage space for the hatch is smaller than the sedan’s, with 414 litres versus 515, but the hatch’s opening is larger and of course you can drop the rear seats to realise 1200L of space, though in that position, the rear seat backs do not lay fully flat. The side-mounted blind for keeping goods out of sight externally is a nice touch.
The driver’s seat looks more comfortable that it really is; it’s broad but is lacking for lower back support and you slide around on it. Seat heaters are part of the package.
Civics ergonomics are all over the place; the main instruments are easy to read but the graphics and start up display is from a 1980s’ video game. The central infotainment screen requires more patience than I’m prepared to give it and to operate the Apple CarPlay function means tethering into a USB port so awkwardly located at the back of the lower of two centre console shelves you’re left wondering if they’d prefer it wasn’t used at all.
More whinges: the night-time resolution from the reversing camera is less than brilliant, which is adds to the challenge of reversing for shorter drivers who might have already determined how much the boot spoilers restrict the view through the rear vision mirror.
Sure, you do get extra visibility from LaneWatch. That’s the rear-facing camera mounted in the passenger side mirror. It’s primarily there to come on when you indicate a left turn, to highlight what might be in the blind spot between the car and roadside. But it also adds a side view to supplement the reversing picture when parking. Is this a helpful aide or a gimmick? Yeah, I’m wondering too …
Full credit for Honda for loading up with a lot of safety gear and assists. Among the latter, the one that takes some getting used to is ‘Straight Driving Steering Assist’ – when cruise control is activated, it senses the driver is applying steering force to maintain a straight course and provides self-alignment assistance. The idea is decent, but it’s a weird feeling when the wheel starts to make minute adjustments.
With its blend of wild looks and mild ability, the RS Sport is a bit too much of a tease for my liking; personally, I’d keep saving to buy into the real deal Type R. It definitely has the performance to match the racy appearance.
The attractions here are the car’s exterior styling, it’s spaciousness and the chassis. CVTs are all the rage with Japanese makers, but I feel they should reconsider with the Civic. The Mazda3 lends great example about how much better a quality engine becomes when its geared up with … well, gears. There’s overwhelming sense about this tranny holds back what is potentially a very good powertrain and underserves an excellent dynamic setup.