Hunter S Thompson once drove a car he called the ‘Great Red Shark’ through the desert. And over the December holidays so did I. Except mine wasn’t a Chevrolet convertible but rather a shiny new Honda. A Civic 1.5T Executive if you really want to get specific. There were other differences too. Thompson’s trunk was filled with, amongst other things, two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid and a saltshaker half full of cocaine. There was apparently also a quart of tequila and a case of beer.
In my case I had no such cargo. Partly due to the fact that I’m clean living and partly because most of the car had been filled with my mountain bike. Indeed, the Civic looks capacious but in practice space is strangely lacking – even with the rear seats folded. Probably due to its steeply raked roofline that is responsible for this machine’s dapper profile. So as I crammed inelegantly my Thule suitcase between the passenger seat cushion and the cubbyhole, I wondered if I would not have been better off picking the new Honda BR-V as my holiday steed?
However as soon as I hit the N1 highway, merged with all the other tail lights burning a crimson-neon trail towards frantic oblivion, my doubts disappeared in a cloud of dust. For down this road tarred with vacation reveries the new Civic is a delight. This is because Honda has finally fitted it with a powertrain of the 21st Century. In the past the Civic made do with frugal but generally anemic naturally aspirated motors.
Every time it came to overtaking a 40-meter pantechnicon truck you’d have to drop three gears, squint into the heat haze and pray that your spatial judgment was on point. If not you would die. Well not anymore. Now you have a turbo and enough wallop to fling you past dawdlers without worry of becoming another grisly Arrive Alive statistic.
It’s a revelation all right. What isn’t a revelation is the gearbox to which it comes wedded. Yep, climbing into a car and discovering that it has a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) is like going on a Tinder date and discovering that the girl hasn’t been honest with her profile picture – you feel cheated. Okay, so down a long straight road at constant speeds a CVT is not necessarily a bad thing.
But when you stumble across a nice piece of bendy asphalt spaghetti, like the R318 that winds its way from the N1 to Montagu, the dynamic limitations of this droning, belt-driven swine become apparent. Especially in a car that’s nice to drive. And the new Civic really is. Honda says they polished the chassis to make this car feel more playful. Weight was burnt, reflexes sharpened. I’m always wary of this marketing bumf but in this instance you can feel a difference. It’s definitely at the top of its class when it comes to handling.
Yet the biggest congratulatory slow-clap is reserved for the interior – the instrument cluster in particular. For up until now every Honda Civic I’ve ever driven has been cursed by a stupid two-tier dashboard layout. You had your rev-counter, fuel and temperature gauge on the lower level and the digital speedometer on the top level. Sounds plausible, right?
Sure, if you’re a midget. However if you’re tall like me then your seating position will be such that the steering wheel obstructs the speedometer. “Sir, do you know how fast you were going back there? Why no, officer, I honestly have no idea. In fact I’ve never known since the first day I took delivery of this car.”
This time around everything is in one neat and logical place. So there’s no contorting required to keep tabs on your velocity. Still, this didn’t stop me from being flagged down by a rather urgent policeman on the outskirts of Bloemfontein: his mustache quivering as he silently filled out a piece of paper that I hope got lost in the post.
There was more to like inside the cabin. Two USB ports. Heated leather seats. Adaptive cruise control. A touchscreen infotainment system with both Bluetooth and Apple CarPlay connectivity. Hell there was even a blind spot camera. The more I drove this Honda Civic the more I liked it. And I drove it a lot. The dapper looks, the fine driving experience plus the plethora of standard equipment – the Civic has a lot going for it.
On top of all this it’s also bloody economical too. I averaged exactly 6.5l/100km over 3600 kilometres. Yet unfortunately there is a catch here and this catch has to do with the price. At R40k shy of the R500 000 mark the Civic 1.5T Executive is playing in entry-level BMW 3 Series and Audi A4 territory. Now these Germans won’t be as lavishly equipped but they will have the edge over things like interior quality and, of course, brand cachet. And in this rotten year of our lord, 2017, there’s nothing the average South African buyer wants more than brand cachet. Which is something that the Honda badge simply does not have.
So what we have here is an excellent car that I’m betting few people will consider. On the flipside this should see the new turbocharged Honda Civic become a fine secondhand buy. Seriously, wait a few months and you’ll probably find my Great Red Shark – or low-mileage demos like it – advertised for less than R400k. And at that price it then makes sense to pull the trigger. Trust me, you’ll be somewhere around Colesberg on the edge of the Karoo when that good deal smile takes hold… – Thomas Falkiner
Fast Facts: Honda Civic 1.5T Executive
Engine: 1498cc four-cylinder turbo
Power: 127kW at 5500rpm
Torque: 220Nm at 1700rpm
0-100km/h: 8.2-seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 200km/h (claimed)
Fuel: 6.5l/100km (achieved)
Price: From R460 000