Success can be a mixed blessing. With the Civic now in its 17th year as sales leader in Canada, the folks at Honda must surely lose sleep over whether tinkering with the recipe will somehow spoil the broth.
Yet, tinker they must. The compact car field is one of the most interesting and competitive in the industry. Corolla is a relentless challenger, but there are also saucy little upstarts like the Focus, Mazda3, Dart and Elantra aggressively nipping at Honda's heels. With the upstarts holding the edge on edginess, resting on laurels would quickly drive Honda from unpassable to passé.
Fear of fumbling can also bring on excessive caution. When you have everything to lose, it takes courage to make bold new design moves. That's the popular theory behind why Honda axed the Plain-Jane Civic remake of a couple years ago unnaturally early. (Sales rebounded by one-third after the urgent update.) The current lineup is a big improvement, but is it enough to keep the venerable Civic on top of a crowded field?
Enter the Civic Coupe. It's as familiar as the girl next door, but sporting a new 'do and lipstick that invites a second look.
Honda has taken a proven econobox, and bolted on some sporty visual cues and a healthy measure of driving agility. You'll never mistake it for the racy Scion FR-S (for that, you'll need the 205-horsepower Si model), but it does add a measure of spice to the morning commute.
The Coupe has Honda's familiar aerodynamic wedge profile, with a roofline so low it's easy for a pickup driver to not even notice it way down there. Honda's coupe styles are more attractive than its sedans, but drivers pay the price in headroom. Basketball players need not apply.
At the front, the Civic's "hug-me" grille grin has been replaced by a saucy, but not-too-naughty, curl to its lip. Optional fog lamps are surrounded by simulated air dams with a cross-hatch design that is mirrored in the rear exhaust cowling. The posterior is set off with a mini-spoiler on the trunk lid. Sporty Continental tires are mounted on smart 16-inch alloy wheels on the EX model I was driving.
Inside, the driver display is rich with detail, providing among other things a constant update on fuel consumption. Little white bars show you when fuel consumption surges, and dash backlights actually change colour in response to your style of driving. (Green is the virtuous colour, of course.) Perhaps Honda is on a campaign to turn us all into hyper-milers with this rolling guilt trip.
The big news inside, though, is the seven-inch touch screen located mid-dash. The Display Audio System invites you to swipe and tap to navigate through display and audio choices. This high-tech distraction generally works well but requires so much attention in the learning phase it could get you into trouble with the law. Imagine explaining to a cop that you weren't trying to text, just change the radio station.
And the touch screen is great, except for bitterly cold winter days when you have to remove your gloves to do basic functions like changing the volume.
The downsized steering wheel is just as busy, with push-button controls for audio, speed control, Bluetooth and Siri, all the electronic goodies we take for granted in a reasonably-equipped new car. With the continuous variable transmission (CVT) option, you also get "paddle-shifters" – little levers on either side of the steering wheel which let you "shift" up and down. Of course, CVTs don't actually change gears, so shifting is nothing more than a designed illusion. More on that in a minute.
The finish inside reflects Honda's attention to quality. The soft faux leather dash, firm, hip-hugging seat, the neat stitching and other integrated pieces that fit so well all convey the sense of quality you'd find in a more expensive set of wheels. As with most coupes, though, the claustrophobic back seat seems like little more than a suggestion. It's best suited to five-foot-tall, size-6 contortionists.
This version of Honda's rugged 1.8-litre i-VTEC engine held true to its well-earned reputation for smoothness and civil manners. It fired up instantly, even when the car had sat all night in Calgary's wicked - 33 windchill, and was ready to roll, even when the rest of the car was still a Popsicle. The cold did defeat the rear window defroster, however, which seemed useless below -20.
As a commuter car, the Coupe's independent front struts and multi-link rear suspension make it a sportier ride than the standard sedan. Steering is provided through motion-adaptive electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, which means it turns quickly when you want it to. The ride is firm to the edge of jarring, the body rigid and the Coupe stays dead level even on tight bends at speeds that made my spouse howl in protest.
One of the best features on the car is something Honda calls the LaneWatch side view system, which displays a video image of traffic in your blind spot when you hit the right turn signal. Basically, it's a camera mounted under the right-hand mirror and I quickly learned to love it so much I just left it on when driving in city traffic.
I was a lot less enthusiastic about the CVT. When it's cold, much of the claimed fuel economy from this gearless transmission is lost, because the engine seems to have to rev higher to get the car to move. It's a big part of why my real-world mileage came in at 8.2 litres/100 km, much higher than the 6.0 combined average estimate.
When it's warm, the transmission works well, especially when you need immediate acceleration. CVTs have none of the lag associated with traditional automatic transmissions, which invariably need a couple of seconds to find the right gear when you hit the gas hard. Another nice thing about CVTs – when you're at highway speeds without a headwind, the engine revs slow right down, maximizing all-important fuel economy and easing your carbon footprint guilt complex.
The CVT's paddle-shifters, however, seem like a pointless gimmick. They simulate a feature created for pricey Formula 1 race cars. In reality, the technology isn't even the same. If the intention is to inspire your inner Sebastian Vettel, don't let the shifters fool you; this is a commuter car in drag. You can get a racier experience for $1,200 less by choosing the five-speed manual.
Driving this smooth, refined and well-mannered little coupe reminded me of how far the Civic has come since the first generation appeared in Canada more than 40 years ago. I owned one of those crude little 1970s-era crates and loved it for all its imperfections.
This 2014 Coupe has none of the original car's flaws – which is both to its credit and its fault.
Honda's first-generation Civic was a cute and cuddly puppy that peed on your driveway. The 2014 Civic Coupe is all grown up now, and, like every adult, it's easier to live with – but not nearly as exciting.
2014 Honda Civic Coupe EX
Type: Compact coupe
Base price: $23,836
Engine: 1,8-litre four-cylinder, i-VTEC
Horsepower/torque: 129/143 lb-ft
Transmission: CVT automatic with paddle-shift option
Drive: Front-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.7 city/5.0 highway using regular fuel
Alternatives: Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Dodge Dart, Mazda 3, Volkswagen Jetta, Kia Forte, Hyundai Elantra, Chevrolet Cruze
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