UNITED STATES—I remember the “Hot Hatch” as the car your parents bought when you were no longer small enough to fit on the luggage/parcel shelf of their British roadster. It was hoped this steroid-injected version of the practical hatchback would ease the pain of having to give up those topless drives (the car was topless, not the occupants) through the wine country in a fun and zippy affordable car.
In the late 70s, hopes were realized thanks to the folks at Volkswagen. The “fun and zippy” did not have to be sacrificed anymore once they stuffed a frisky powerplant into their Rabbit/Golf hatchback and attached the moniker “GTI.” The GTI was a blast to drive. The hot hatch was born. Much like the performance cross-over segment of today, the hot hatch was the perfect solution for those who didn’t want to give up their spirited life-styles when bundles of joy began to arrive.
Although the hot hatch segment dwindled for a while at the mercy of the aforementioned cross-over segment, Honda is betting that it may be on the rise again. Certainly, Volkswagen’s GTI has been a consistent representative of the original compact 3 and 5 door vehicle segment, but its main competitors of the 80s had all thrown in their towels years ago. Slowly, but surely, carmakers have waded into the pool again. Hyundai’s Veloster Turbo, Kia’s Forte5 SX, and of course Ford’s Fiesta ST have been very popular in recent years. Now, Honda has revived its Civic Hatchback and included a Sport version from the get go.
The Sport version benefits from a center-exit dual exhaust system that provides a modest increase in horsepower (180 hp). While this is roughly 20 horsepower less than its American and Korean rivals offer, Honda’s hot hatch makes up for the deficiency with an mpg advantage of almost 10 on the highway. Otherwise, the little Honda offers the same cheap thrills and usability as its competitors.
It really comes down to styling preferences in the end. Exterior styling is nothing out of the ordinary. But, if you can spare a couple of bucks, I’d recommend upgrading to the LED headlights for looks alone. There’s something very upscale about them and maybe even evocative of the new Acura NSX, which does share its basic DNA with its little hot hatch brother. On the inside, you’ll appreciate the Civic more if you pine for the days of digital dash gages and angular styling. It’s very love-it-or-hate-it. I personally feel the Honda trails the pack in this category, but I’d be willing to give it the benefit of the doubt based on its brand prestige and heritage. With all the bells and whistles, the Civic Hatchback Sport will run you around $25K, but if you don’t need the fancy headlights and leather, this hot hatch will run you around $22K.
My brief drive through the hills around Monterey, CA revealed the little Honda’s willingness to rev freely and handle sweeping turns in a neutral manner. There is predictable understeer when pushed hard and the chassis is relatively unflappable when the road gets bumpy. I won’t go as far as saying it handles like a Mazda Miata, but the front-wheel-drive Honda would have to defy physics to do so. At the track, the Honda’s limits are a fun place to spend the day.
Understeer becomes oversteer with throttle lift-off and it becomes relatively easy and rewarding to rotate the little Civic at the apex of each turn with throttle adjustments alone. And, here’s where the restraint shown by Honda rewards you. While the Civic Sport’s competitors and their 20 extra horses and foot-pounds of torque are busy trying to reign in torque steer, the Honda can exit the turns under full throttle without yanking the steering wheel out of your hands or upsetting its trajectory. But, would you expect anything less from the company that has made its name building cars that are fun yet practical, and drama free? I don’t. Honda has mastered this class.