New 2016 Honda Civic ready to retake segment lead

DOING IT IN STYLE: Honda’s new grille leads into narrow headlights. On the side, a lower character ridge melds with bulging fenders that complement the Civic’s wider stance.
DOING IT IN STYLE: Honda’s new grille leads into narrow headlights. On the side, a lower character ridge melds with bulging fenders that complement the Civic’s wider stance. –Bill Griffith

Getting to be No. 1 is one thing; staying there is quite another.

Honda found that out the hard way when it launched the ninth generation of the Civic back in 2012.

There was some wariness before that launch, given the news that Honda had discontinued the Civic in Japan. Would that translate to less attention (out of sight, out of mind) to the product here?

It did. That Civic got lackluster reviews at best, leading to an extensive freshening a year later.

It was a disappointment for Civic-minded consumers. And there are a lot of them. Civic has sold nearly 22 million units worldwide since it was introduced in 1973. And more than 10 million of those were in the United States.

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The tenth generation couldn’t arrive fast enough. Honda acknowledged that, saying the company was seeking a “dynamic rejuvenation’’ of the Civic to put it “in a league of its own.’’

Through the first 11 months of 2015, Toyota’s Corolla was the best-selling compact in the United States (330,887 units) with the Civic No. 2 at 301,588.

And it’s not only Toyota that’s gunning for this market. Hyundai’s Elantra is No. 3 in the segment with 227,464 sales—with a redesigned model about to hit showrooms. They’re followed by the Chevrolet Cruze (209,753), Ford Focus (191,473), and Nissan Sentra (183,749).

The message at Honda was simple: Regain the Civic’s mojo.

Story continues after gallery

Honda Civic and other redesigned cars for 2016

Have they succeeded? It says here that the new Civic truly is a “we didn’t see THIS coming’’ type of pleasant surprise.

As always, you, the consumer, will be the judge, but we’re as pleased with the new Civic as we were disappointed with its predecessor.

The Civic is an important vehicle for Honda, serving as the main gateway into the brand and accounting for 23 percent of sales. It joins with the midsize Accord and CR-V crossover to account for a million sales annually

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The 2016 Civic manages edgier styling on the outside and a more upscale look in the larger passenger cabin. A lower side character line combines with slightly bulging fenders to produce a sporty look and encloses a wider track for the wheels.

Indeed, a week with today’s test car—the 2016 Honda Civic 1.5T EX—put it among the leaders as we contemplate buying a new “Snowbird Sleigh’’ to drive south for part of future winters.

Our test vehicle had a bottom line of $24,035, a bit high for a compact, but this trim level was attractive to us for two reasons.

INSIDE STORY: The infotainment center is a touch screen, and other controls are intuitively laid out in the spacious cabin. —Bill Griffith

One is that it has Civic’s new 1.5-liter turbocharged engine, which produces 174 horsepower and 162 lb.-ft. of torque. The vehicle feels nimble and quick. It also regularly got better than 40 miles per gallon on highway trips and still was in the 36-37 mpg range in traffic.

The second is that it had the new Honda Sensing safety package with adaptive cruise control (ACC), a collision mitigation braking system (CMBS), forward collision warning (FCW), lane departure warning (LDW), lane keeping assist (LKAS), and road departure mitigation (RDM). We experienced all of those at work except the road departure.

That system uses a camera high on the windshield to identify both solid and painted lanes. It will use the electric power steering to help the Civic stay in lane and, if necessary, apply braking force. Besides audible and visual (on the driver display) warnings, the RDM also can be owner-programmed to add a steering wheel shake to the warning lineup.

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The Civic is coming to market too late to be included in the initial IIHS safety testing, but Honda officials are confident it will earn Top Safety Pick+ status.

Civic is available in the base LX, then steps up to EX, EX-T (turbo), EX-L (leather), and top-of-the-line Touring. A manual transmission is available only with the LX trim. A new 2.0-liter base engine (158 HP) powers the LX and EX trims.

The 1.5-liter turbo—the turbo is a first for Honda—comes in the top three trim levels along with a CVT (continuously variable transmission). The two engines, at least for now, have both the most power and best fuel economy of the compact segment’s sales leaders.

On the road, we liked the precise feel of the electric-assisted steering, the overall refinement (that elusive term), the quiet cabin, and the stability of the vehicle at highway speeds. The ride with the 17-inch wheels is in line with the Civic’s sporty ambitions, but the 16-inch tires on lower trims may offer a softer ride.

The fabric interior (with heated seats) in our test car matched the console and armrests but didn’t seem quite as nice as some we’ve encountered. The center console has a sliding top/armrest and deep storage with an adjustable tray.

Honda’s infotainment system is straightforward. Phones pair readily and the sound system was up to Honda standards. However, it is all swipe and touch screen, meaning that this driver had to remove his gloves to change stations.

The only real surprise going forward will be if Civic doesn’t reclaim the segment sales lead.

And, for those of us who like hatchbacks, Honda says one is coming later in the year.

2016 Honda Civic EX With Sensing

THE BASICS

Price, base/as tested (with destination): $24,035/$24,035. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 31 city/42 highway/35 combined. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 39.3. Drivetrain: 1.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, CVT, front-wheel-drive. Body: 5-passenger sedan.

THE SPECIFICS

Horsepower: 174. Torque: 162 lb.-ft. Overall length: 182.3 in. Wheelbase: 106.3 in. Height: 55.7 in. Width: 70.9 in. Curb weight: 2,795 lbs.

THE GOOD

Powertrain, cabin size, and quietness; refined ride.

THE BAD

Ride may be a bit firm for some, no knobs on audio system, fabric interior a bit below rest of vehicle quality.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Civic is the once and likely future segment champ.

ALSO CONSIDER

Chevrolet Cruze, Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Mazda3, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla, VW Jetta.

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