Tight handling and new electronics make the 2016 Honda Civic a star compact

Starting at $21,045

The Ford Mustang boasts 51 years of continuous production, and the Chevrolet Corvette 63 years. The Honda Civic may not boast similar performance to those iconic sports cars, but it is gaining an equal place in American automotive history with 43 years of production. And now, the 10th generation comes out as the 2016 Honda Civic.

And as Ford and Chevrolet marked recent milestones for its models with significant updates, Honda rebuilds the Civic from top to bottom for its 10th generation. From my experience driving the car at a Honda-sponsored press event in Southern California, the new Civic represents a vast improvement.

In fact, it would not be wrong to call the 2016 Honda Civic an entirely new car, a much-needed directional change from the previous humdrum Civic generation.

2016 Honda Civic
Honda reenginered and redesigned the Civic model for the 2016 model year. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Fastback styling

Honda introduced its new Civic in concept form, as a coupe, at the 2015 New York auto show. While a coupe, not to mention a five-door hatchback, is on the agenda, the 2016 Honda Civic launches as a sedan. The new design looks very good, embracing a fastback design so that the roofline forms a continuous flow to the trunk lip.

The front presents an array of intakes and a bright chrome badge holder bookended by headlights, which can be optioned as LEDs. The back end rises a little high due to the fastback design, but the taillight shape looks like a buttress supporting the rear. Faux air vents at the lower rear corners add a sporty look to even the Civic sedan.

Honda's early strength came from quality interiors in economy cars, and the new Civic picks up on that theme. The dashboard and high-touch surfaces all feel good to the touch. I thought the stereo volume rocker switch on the steering wheel felt too plasticky, but then realized it was a touch-sensitive slider, giving it a functional excuse for its materials.

2016 Honda Civic
Although it looks somewhat like a hatchback, the new Civic holds to the sedan format with a capacious trunk. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

This new Civic comes in 3 inches longer and 2 inches wider than its predecessor, and a good portion of the space gained seems to have gone to the back seat, which I found comfortable and roomy.

I particularly liked the touchscreen on the Civic's new in-dash infotainment system, a matte finish that looks like it should resist fingerprints. This system is similar to that found in the new Honda Accord , and supports both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Honda incorporate Garmin navigation software in this unit, which includes live traffic information and really nice-looking maps. The only thing I didn't see native in the head unit was online destination search, but support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto takes care of that feature.

One oddity, with an iPhone plugged into the Civic's USB port, choosing the Audio menu on the homescreen immediately launched me into Apple CarPlay. To see the Civic's own support for iOS music integration, I had to dig into the audio sources menu in the native system.

2016 Honda Civic
Honda's new head unit uses Garmin software for navigation. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The combination of the native infotainment and this deep Android and iOS smartphone integration gives the Civic excellent dashboard electronics. Among the Civic's trim levels, you will need the EX trim or above, one up from the bottom LX trim, to get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Turbo power

Those trim levels also dictate which of the two engine choices you get. Lower-trim Civics come with a 2-liter four-cylinder engine, good for 158 horsepower and 138 pound-feet of torque. The better option is a turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder with direct injection, making 174 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque. Impressively, Honda estimates an average of 35 mpg fuel economy for either when coupled with the continuously variable transmission (CVT). A six-speed manual is only available on the base LX model, which comes with the 2-liter engine.

The throttle made good use of the 1.5-liter engine's power, and I didn't notice any turbo lag. Acceleration was made smooth by the CVT as I throttled over Malibu canyon roads. With a couple of people in the car, the Civic never felt stunted for power on ascents. Most importantly, the typical drone from CVT drivetrains was well-muted by the Civic's sound-deadening materials.

2016 Honda Civic
While the Civic remains a front-wheel-drive car, its suspension proved its worth on twisty canyon roads. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

During a presentation during this launch event, Honda engineer Gary Evert mentioned that the former Civic drove like a bus. Although he was referring to the higher driving position of the 9th-generation Civic over this new one, I couldn't help but think of the handling. And this new Civic handles well, with a tight, well-engineered feel I got from the moment I took the wheel.

Evert said that Honda benchmarked compact European cars for the new Civic's ride quality, and the tuning shows. This Civic feels quick and nimble. Over the tight turns of the canyon roads, I played with the performance, pushing it until the tires were squealing, and was impressed in how the body showed minimal roll. And although firm, the suspension did an admirable job damping out bumps, delivering a comfortable ride for the day-to-day.

For active safety measures, the new Civic can be had with Honda's LaneWatch feature, which gives you a camera view down the right side of the car, eliminating the blind spot. I'm not a huge fan of this feature, as it shows the sidewalk when you signal for a right-hand turn.

Added to LaneWatch is a bundle of driver assist features under the name Honda Sensing. These include adaptive cruise control, lane departure prevention, forward collision warning and automated braking to mitigate collisions with pedestrians or other cars. Honda Sensing is impressive technology for a car in this segment.

2016 Honda Civic
The new Civic is a dramatically rebuilt car that marks a high point for the model history. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

My overall impression was that the 2016 Civic will make for an easy driver, something you can jump in and go for a quick trip to the store, the daily commute and even longer weekend trips. Even better, that suspension, with a multilink architecture at the rear wheels, felt like an extremely good foundation for the upcoming Si and Type-R versions.

Honda has not announced pricing or availability yet for this 10th generation Civic in other markets yet. For the US, Honda product planner Michael Willrich said that base price will come in at $18,640, while the top Touring trim model, with Honda Sensing and LED headlights standard, will be under $27,000.

Editors' note:CNET accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, travel costs were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgements and opinions of CNET's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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