Honda Civic Has Gone Business Class

Tenth generation of benchmark compact sedan is a revelation.

It’s hot and it’s bright and my expectations are taking one hell of a beating. Up a fast California coastal canyon, a car that spent whole generations rankling me is getting under my skin for very different reasons. The new Civic? The spec sheet turned me off for its predictability as much as anything: a 1.5-liter engine with a turbocharger, a CVT. Bigger, fancier. The contemporary recipe for relevance, for perceived value that’s driven cars upward and outward and made them less charming and increasingly uniform. Boring. I scratched my head, lamented the near demise of cheap hoopties that come alive when you wring their necks, and then damned near wrote the Civic off. What a fool I was.

Adapt and evolve? That’s an easy thing to do maybe once. The Civic is on generation nine. But the thing that’s impressing me along the coastal range above Los Angeles is evolution number 10. It’s a big one. A complete redesign, a top-to-bottom new generation made with the knowledge of 42 years riding the tide of gas prices and consumer whim. An adaptation that acknowledges gas is cheap again. That the world is shrinking. That the Civic is doing battle in a global market, one softened by the advent of the cute-ute. A market soaked by competition. Civic generation number 10 had to be a hell of a thing. So Honda took off to hunt bigger game.

I flinch a little, like the roads are closing in. It’s a new sensation, taking up the whole lane in a compact car, mirrors slapping brush and the k-rail just a hair too close. The 2016 Civic was designed to give the impression of low and wide, and the seat’s lower than the outgoing car, so I’m checking in on my corners, looking out at the road. But still, it’s willing, amusing.

It doesn’t have to be. This isn’t an Si, or a Type R, even. This is just the first of many iterations to come, all built around the same chassis. All built for sale worldwide, and all benchmarked against worldly (read: German) competition. Waiting in the wings are a coupe, a five-door and that enticing Si. This sedan? It might be the most boring of the lot, and I’m not bored. Not even a little.

Bigger game, bigger car. The 10th-gen Civic represents a bold move upmarket, in a market where growing means playing with your very identity. By the numbers it’s just inches here and there; added together, the dimensions nudge against compact car credibility. But it’s a good tool, this thing. It has sightlines again: the outgoing cab-forward car was all dash, and now I can see the hood. Not much of it, granted, but it’s there. It hasn’t been in years, and I like seeing it.

The Touring model boasts all the good stuff. Twenty-seven grand here buys you heated front and rear seats, a 10-speaker sound system and the hot little 1.5-liter. The 2016 Civic’s interior design already punches above its weight, but wrapped in leather it’s startlingly good. The most expensive of the lot is still a strong value proposition.

The technologies you can’t see are better than the ones you can, though. Clever Honda selectively weakens its chassis, weakens the very metal itself during the stamping process, to get it doing exactly what you’d want in a crash. High-strength steels trim weight and add stiffness. Hydraulic bushings do wonders for ride quality. A clever electronic power steering setup improves feel through the wheel.

And there’s that engine. It might be backed up behind a CVT, and it might have a turbo, spinning its little heart out. But this is old-school Honda power. Wring its neck and you’ll be rewarded. That’s powertrain boss Yuji Matsumochi’s calling card. And you already know his work. NSX. S2000. Civic Type R. That means race-car shit in a little 1.5-liter. Sodium-filled exhaust valves. Tiny keyholes crammed between cylinders, moving water at obscene velocity to cool strained metal and eliminate knock. There’s more water cooling for the exhaust manifold and intercooler as well. Once again, the engine is the beating heart and the howling soul of the Honda Civic.

Sure, that tech only makes an appearance because the engine’s sweating itself silly trying to make 174 solid horsepower from 1.5 liters. And yeah, it’s tasked with notching the car an excellent 35-mpg combined rating, too. The most appealing part of Honda’s new engine is that none of it is at odds. Making power or saving fuel, in a race car or a compact car, efficiency is efficiency.

I push hard on Matsumochi’s engine for a long uphill stretch. It sounds strained, and that’s the CVT keeping us in the powerband. It’s a perfectly decent gearbox in most conditions, contributing to strong fuel economy numbers, seamlessly putting power to the wheels. But I’m stretching its patience here, asking for engine-braking when I crest the hill and descend toward the coast through overhanging oaks. A six-speed manual will suit this little scoundrel 1.5-liter. I promise the engine aloud that it’ll make a fine sportscar engine one day. In typical Honda fashion, it just keeps doing its job.

At the bottom of the range, a stripped-to-the-bone LX can be had with a terrible vinyl steering wheel, a decent little 6-speed transmission and a perfectly serviceable, normally aspirated 2-liter, for $18,640. If you’re that hard pressed for a manual, wait out the Si or the Type R.

While the LX might play in the Toyota Corolla’s sandbox, with pricing almost identical to the thinly optioned LE, the higher-end Touring models now have the guts to compete with premium small sedans, which is something I never imagined from a Civic. That invites a funny question: Is Honda backing away from the low ground? Does this indicate less interest in a market that Honda effectively invented? The Civic has always been a good inexpensive car. The 2016 Civic is a different and dangerous thing: an inexpensive good car.

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2016 Honda Civic Touring
PRICE (AS-TESTED): $27,335
POWERTRAIN: 1.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder; 174 hp, 162 lb-ft torque; FWD; continuously variable automatic transmission
WEIGHT: 2,923 lbs
0-60 MPH: N/A
TOP SPEED: N/A
MPG: 31 city / 42 highway
ON SALE: Mid-Nov.