Honda Civic VS Abarth 595
- Roomy cabin
- Strong powertrain
- Comfy ride
- Fussy styling
- Fiddly multimedia system
- Some road noise intrusion
- Good engine/chassis combo
- Surprising grip levels
- Terrible driving position
- Ride not great around town
- No reversing camera
The clue’s in the name.
A permanent fixture of the small-car scene for nearly 50 years, the Honda Civic has long been a strong urban runabout proposition, providing quality, efficient and progressive engineering at affordable prices.
Here we take a longer look at the Civic RS – one of the more popular and sportier grades in this 10th-generation series – to see how effective the updates are, as small cars struggle to stay relevant against the onslaught of compact SUVs.
|Engine Type||1.5L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Regular Unleaded Petrol|
Since 1949, Abarth has been giving the venerable Italian brand, Fiat, a patina of performance, based largely on giant-killing feats in small modified cars like the Fiat 600 of the 1960s.
More recently, the brand has been revived to boost the fortunes of the smallest Fiat on sale in Australia. Known formally as the Abarth 595, the tiny hatch packs a bit of a surprise under its distinctive snout.
|Engine Type||1.4L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Regular Unleaded Petrol|
The Civic RS may look like it was designed to keep up with racy Golf GTIs through twisting mountain passes – and it can certainly hold its own thanks to assured handling and roadholding – but it actually shines best as an urban family runabout proposition.
The key points to remember are that the turbo engine provides enough low-down punch for rapid round-town driving while returning reasonable economy, the suspension’s ability to soak up the rough stuff should help calm and soothe away the most trying commute, and the cabin’s focus on functionality and simplicity (fiddly multimedia screen aside) serves to enhance rather than distract from the job at hand.
With nearly half a century’s experience building Civics, it’s clear that Honda hasn’t forgotten how to build an excellent town car. Like we said in the beginning, it’s right there in the name.
It’s tough to be kind to the Abarth 595. Based on a platform that’s more than a decade old, the car has been left behind by its rivals in many ways, including basic ergonomics and its value equation.
The larger engine does work well in this smaller package, and its road-holding ability belies its size. However, only die-hard fans of the Abarth brand will be able to cope with the uncomfortable seating position and a complete lack of even the most perfunctory features that cars costing $10,000 less are able to offer.
Could you look past the Abarth 595's foibles? Let us know in the comments below.
Two things are immediately apparent about the Civic hatch’s brash aesthetics. Firstly, it’s big for a so-called small car, reflecting the model’s US-focus and with the upshot making for a pleasingly spacious cabin. And secondly, Honda’s designers seemed uncertain as to when to put pencils down. It’s a melting pot of fussy styling.
For some, the sleek fastback-style four-door sedan is a little more elegant, but both shapes stand out as truly individual. Sadly, with a move to cleaner and more geometric lines nowadays, gen-10 Civic is unlikely to age quite as gracefully as several earlier iterations.
That said, the RS’ large, turbine wheels fill the guards nicely, while that vast interior is right on the money, now that the fiddly touchscreen interface has partly given way to hard buttons for faster and more intuitive access to multimedia, ventilation and vehicle-control settings.
Sure, the Civic’s handsome dash architecture is swathed in a sea of monotone plastic, but it’s of hardy and consistent quality, is well-crafted (save for one persistent rattle in our test car) and is created to prioritise function over form, from the perfectly-placed screen and considered ventilation outlets, to the easy reach of most switchgear (barring the USB ports below and behind the buttressed centre-console layout.
Few cars at any price present a greater choice of, or more effective, storage solutions. Enormous cavities to lose things in seem to proliferate everywhere.
The RS’ stitched leather trim contrasts well to the matt metallic highlights decorating the dash and door cards, adding a dose of athletic intent. It’s fair to say, then, that – unlike the exterior styling – the Civic’s interior may weather the years better.
Despite being based on a design that’s a decade old, the Abarths still stand out. Based on the classic Fiat 500 shape of the 1950 and '60s, it’s more cute than cut-throat, with a narrow track and tall roof giving it a toy-like presence.
The Abarth attempts to beef things up with deep front and rear bumper splitters, go-fast stripes, new headlights and alternate-colour wing mirrors.
The 595 rides on 16-inch rims, while the Competizione runs 17s.
Inside, it’s definitely different to most mainstream cars, with colour-coded plastic panels on the dash and a very upright seating position, along with a dual-tone steering wheel.
It’s a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. There’s no middle ground here.
The overall feeling in the Civic is that it’s low, wide and roomy. A big small car, if you will.
Getting in and out is easy, broad yet enveloping seats provide ample support up front and reasonable comfort, even for three (at a squeeze), out back, and that’s backed up by ample space for legs, knees and shoulders. Taller scalps might scrape the rear ceiling, though.
Back up front, that big central touchscreen does demand familiarisation – and the fact you need to confirm an action every time you restart the car is annoying – yet the basics are spot-on, from the excellent driving position and super-clear dials, to the abundant ventilation, logical control layout and the aforementioned storage bonanza.
The USB and 12V ports are a stretch away behind the two-level lower-console layout, but there’s nothing difficult or intimidating here otherwise.
That said, while the forward view is commanding and confidence-inspiring, shallow side and rear glass makes reverse parking tricky and the rear camera essential.
Speaking of the back of the Honda, a long, flat cargo floor offers very competitive luggage space (at 330 litres). With only a lipped sill to lift bulky things over, loading is effortless, although not everybody will appreciate the gimmicky cargo cover blind that needs to be pulled across like a sunshade. A space-saver spare lives below the floor.
Note that if you’re coming from the two earlier-generation (2006 and 2011) Civic hatches sourced from Britain, you may be disappointed to find that Honda’s ‘Magic Seats’ aren’t fitted, since the older cars were based on the Jazz supermini and had their fuel tanks beneath the front seats to enable the base and seat-back ensemble to fold down into a cavity for extraordinary floor-to-ceiling space.
Still, reflecting its focus on the key US market demographic, few rivals this side of a Kia Cerato feel, or are as accommodating as, our Thai-assembled Honda.
This is another area where the Abarth falls down. First and foremost, the seating position for the driver in both cars is utterly compromised.
The seat itself is mounted far, far, too high, and has little adjustment in any direction, and there is no reach adjustment in the steering wheel column to allow a taller (or even an average height) driver to get comfortable.
The more expensive Competizione we tested was fitted with a set of optional sports bucket seats from racing company Sabelt, but even they are mounted literally 10cm too high. They are also ultra firm, and even though they look supportive, lack decent side bolster support.
The tiny multimedia screen is okay to use, but the buttons are miniscule, while there’s a complete lack of storage places in the front.
There are two cupholders under the centre console, with two more in between the front seats for rear seat passengers. There are no bottle holders in the doors and no storage for rear seaters.
Speaking of the rear seats, they are the very definition of cramped, with little headroom for moderately sized adults and precious little knee or toe room. There are two sets of ISOFIX baby seat mounting points, though, should you fancy wrestling your wriggling toddlers through the narrow aperture.
The seats flip forward to reveal more cargo space (185 litres with the seats up, and 550 litres when the seats are down), but the seat backs don’t fold flat into the floor. Under the boot floor is a can of sealant and a pump, but no space saver spare.
In truth, it was a long day testing this car… at 187cm, I simply could not get comfortable in it at all.
Price and features
Instead, like a Civic in Lululemon, the RS is the automotive equivalent to an athleisure outfit, striving for a sporty yet stylish and easy fit.
To that end, the $33,540, automatic-only RS continues with the 127kW/220Nm 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo engine (rather than the 104kW/174Nm 1.8-litre naturally aspirated unit powering the lesser VTi and VTi-S), but introduces larger alloy wheels (up from 17 to 18 inches) shod with top-shelf Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres (a massive thumb’s up), reshaped bumpers, a new rear diffuser, different grille and fresh colours.
Stepping inside, the RS adopts auto high-beam headlights (of superb spread but tardy response since sometimes they don’t switch off in time, so dazzle on-coming traffic), physical buttons (including a volume knob at last) for the 7.0-inch touchscreen and dual-zone climate-control systems, and updated seat and dash trim inserts. Still looking fresh.
Only turbo Civics offer Honda’s ‘Sensing’ safety package that brings autonomous emergency braking, forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control with stop/go functionality, lane departure warning, lane-keep assist and steering assist, thus almost matching direct rivals like the Corolla and Mazda3 that standardise most of these from base-model up.
There are a couple of driver-assist omissions, though. More on that in the Safety section below.
Other RS goodies include leather upholstery, heated front seats, a powered driver’s seat, LED headlights, a multi-angle reverse camera with inside-lane view to avoid cyclists (brilliant), privacy glass, DAB+ digital radio, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity, a (smashing) premium audio system and keyless entry/start with walkaway locking. Handy.
The RS undercuts the $35,590 Hyundai i30 N-Line Premium and $35,090 Mazda3 G25 GT (though lesser-equipped grades are available in both), matches the $33,490 Kia Cerato GT Turbo but trails the $32,240 Ford Focus ST-Line with Driver Assist Pack and $32,135 Corolla ZR – but the latter makes do with the standard 2.0-litre engine and the ZR Hybrid for an extra $1500 is substantially down on oomph against this lot.
The spare is a space-saver while all RS colour choices are either metallic or pearlescent, with no cheaper flat paint alternative.
The range has been stripped back to just two cars, and costs has come down slightly, with the 595 now starting at $26,990, plus on-road costs.
A new 5.0-inch touchscreen multimedia system (with digital radio), a leather wrapped steering wheel, TFT dash display, rear parking sensors, alloy pedals, 16-inch alloy rims, and (front-only) adaptive dampers are standard on the base 595.
A convertible, or more accurately, a rag-top (cabriolet) version of the 595 is also available for $29,990.
The 595 Competizione is now a whopping $8010 cheaper at $31,990 with a manual gearbox, leather seats (Sabelt-branded sports buckets are optional), 17-inch alloys, a louder Monza exhaust, as well as front and rear adaptive Koni shocks, and Eibach springs.
Unfortunately, what stands out more on the Abarths is what they don’t come with. Auto lights and wipers, cruise control of any sort, driver aids including AEB and adaptive cruise… even a rear view camera is missing.
What’s more puzzling is that the Abarth’s architecture, though a decade old, has provision to accept at least a rear view camera.
Abarth’s explanation that the car’s home market doesn’t see these inclusions as important doesn’t really hold water, either.
Engine & trans
Diesels aside, Honda famously eschewed turbos for decades, relying instead on multi cams, variable-valve timing and other high-tech advances to get the most out of its (mostly brilliant) petrol engines.
For Australian buyers, the tenth Civic broke the rule, and with it brought a terrifically flexible 127kW/220Nm 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo that maintains the urge of old Hondas at the top end, without the need to rev the daylights out of it at lower engine speeds.
Driving the front wheels via an ultra-smooth continuously variable transmission, off-the-line response is pleasingly immediate, and the power just keeps on coming on, making for a slick and rapid machine.
In fact, there’s enough torque on tap for the driver to avoid the engine droning typically associated with CVTs in most instances, except when mashing the pedal right down for, say, fast overtaking.
That droning comes about because the single-speed CVT is tuned to keep the engine revving at a pre-determined spot (usually close to the red line) to achieve access to maximum power.
That’s about the only time when the 1.5-litre turbo ensemble hits a sour note, as it's also accompanied by an uncharacteristically un-Honda gruffness. But, like we said, it’s avoidable for most urban scenarios, and soon just blends in with the rest of the RS' driving experience.
The Abarth 595 pair use the same 1.4-litre 'MultiJet' four-cylinder turbo engine in differing states of tune. The base car makes 107kW/206Nm, while the Competizione makes 132kW/250Nm, thanks to a freer-flowing exhaust, a larger Garrett-branded turbocharger and an ECU re-tune.
The base car can do 0-100km/h in 7.8 seconds, while the Competizione is 1.2 seconds quicker; the optional 'Dualogic' automatic is 0.2sec slower to the mark in both cars.
A five-speed manual gearbox is standard, and neither car is fitted with a limited slip diff.
Another key benefit to going turbo in the RS’ case is commendable fuel consumption. We managed a trip-computer-indicated 7.9L/100km around our mostly-urban driving loop, against the official combined average of 6.4L/100km. That’s just 1.5 litres shy of the claim.
Honda states that standard 91RON unleaded petrol is fine, and with the 47-litre tank, over 734km between refills is possible.
Over 150km of testing, the Competizione consumed a dash-indicated 8.7 litres per 100km, against a claimed combined fuel economy figure of 6.0L/100km. Our brief test of the 595 revealed a similar number, against the same claimed figure.
The Abarth will only accept 95 octane fuel or better, and its small 35-litre tank is good for a theoretical 583km between fills.
Honda has tuned the 1.5-litre turbo/CVT combination to great effect around town, since it offers seamless acceleration and (mostly) quiet operation in almost all urban environments, for un-intrusive point-to-point motoring. It’s a slick city-friendly machine.
Perhaps it’s the quality Michelin Pilot tyres talking, but the RS’ steering, handling and roadholding behaviour really seemed to have improved over the already-competent pre-facelift version released over three years ago.
From the first turn of the wheel, the Honda feels connected to the road and nicely measured in response, yet is also light and agile enough to be easy to manoeuvre through tight spots and between gaps in traffic. The turning circle is also small for effortless parking.
Out away from the confines of the Big Smoke, the car continues to feel secure and surefooted, taking fast curves with a flat and solid attitude that encourages keener drivers to step things up if feeling inclined to. Brakes feel natural, progressive and reassuringly strong.
The biggest stride the Civic’s taken, however, is in its ability to absorb all sorts of bumps back in the urban jungle, smoothing over bad roads with a high degree of isolation.
And this is despite the switch to larger (18-inch) alloys. You can probably attribute the sophisticated multi-link rear suspension system, elevating the Honda to the pointier end of the class in terms of dynamics.
About the only criticism is the level of road-noise intrusion at even moderate urban speeds, but even this is still within the class average. That said, Honda ought to ride in the latest Mazda3 or Volkswagen Golf if it really wants to see how quietness should be done.
Still, overall, the RS impresses with its maturity and refinement.
Ergonomics aside, the combination of torquey engine and lightweight car is always a good one, and the 1.4-litre turbocharged four is a good match with the front-drive Abarth.
There’s always enough mid-range urge to give the Abarth the hurry-up, and the longer-legged five-speed gearbox is a good match for the engine.
It also grips and turns surprisingly well, despite the Sport button adding too much artificial weight to the Abarth’s steering feel.
That same button also firms up the front dampers on the 595 and all four on the Competizione, which works well on smoother terrain, but stiffens it too much over more undulating surfaces.
Around town it can be hard to strike a good balance between ride and comfort. The difference between soft and firm is much more pronounced in the Competizione, but it will still get tiring if your commute is a bumpy one.
The turning circle, by the by, is ridiculously large for such a small car, making u-turns - already compromised by the lower front bumper - unnecessarily fraught.
The Monza exhaust on the Competizione gives it a bit more presence, but it could easily be louder (or at least more crackly) again; you’re not buying this car to be a wallflower, after all.
As stated earlier, only the turbo Civics in Australia score Honda Sensing, and that currently covers most of the driver-assist safety offered right now in the small-car class. Yet all Civics, regardless of turbo status, score a maximum five-star ANCAP rating, awarded in 2017.
Sensing includes camera and radar-based AEB, forward collision warning with pedestrian detection (but not for bicycles like some other rivals), adaptive cruise control with stop/go and slow-traffic follow functionality, lane departure warning, lane-keep assist, steering assist and auto high beams.
However, unlike the Mazda3, Corolla, and various others, the Civic misses out on Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA) and Front Cross Traffic Alert (FCTA), which automatically brakes the vehicle at up to a certain speed when nosing or reversing into traffic.
Other safety items are six airbags including curtain items covering second-row outboard occupants, stability and traction control systems, and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.
For younger travellers, there are two ISOFIX points and three top tethers fitted.
Despite a lack of electronic safety aids – and, somewhat amazingly in the current age, a rear-view camera – the Fiat 500 that forms the Abarth's basis still carries the maximum five-star rating from ANCAP it was awarded in 2008, by dint of its seven airbags and bodyshell strength.
It wouldn’t have the same luck if it were judged under new ANCAP regs coming into force in 2018, though.
It also calls for servicing once every 12 months or 10,000km whichever comes first, and features capped-price servicing known as 'Honda Tailored Servicing', that lasts for five years or 100,000km.
As of May 2020, each standard service costs $297 (except the 80,000km one, which is $328).
That’s more than Toyota’s regime, which for Corolla ZR is $180 for the first four years/60,000km.
A three-year/150,000km warranty is offered as standard on the Abarth 595 range, with a suggested service interval of 12 months or 15,000km.
Abarth importer Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Australia offers three fixed-priced services for the 595 range at 15,000, 30,000 and 45,000km, with the first costing $275.06, the second $721.03 and the third $275.06.