Subaru WRX VS Honda Civic
- Huge AWD fun
- Signature turbo engine
- Still decent safety
- CVT auto. Really?
- Feeling old inside
- Rough around town
- Roomy cabin
- Strong powertrain
- Comfy ride
- Fussy styling
- Fiddly multimedia system
- Some road noise intrusion
For many folks around my age, the Subaru WRX holds a special place in the heart.
This is because those of us born from the late ‘80s to early ‘90s are the so-called “PlayStation generation.” Growing up at a time where videogames bridged the gap from 2D to 3D leads to a lot of imprinted memories, a lot of digital firsts, which wowed and inspired, and a lot of rapid-fire nostalgia as hardware advancements left once-thriving game franchises in the dust.
It was also high time for the World Rally Championship's well-regarded Group A rally category, which forced manufacturers to make cars much closer to their production counterparts. It was frequently dominated by none other than the Subaru WRX.
Combine these two worlds and you end up with a lot of kids feeling like they could do anything in Subaru’s newfound performance hero from the comfort of their bedrooms, many of whom would go on to buy a second-hand one to slap P plates on as soon as they could.
Read more about the WRX
It was a perfect storm and made the WRX the right car at the right time to put a previously small-time brand well and truly on the performance map.
The question with this test is: Should those kids, now in their late 20s or 30s, still be considering Subaru’s halo car? Or, now that it’s the oldest product in Subaru’s catalogue, should they wait for the imminent reveal of the new one? Read on to find out.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
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|
Although it's now the oldest car in Subaru’s catalogue, there’s nothing really quite like the WRX on the market. This is a car which is true to its roots, a rugged performance stalwart that comes with dollops of fun and compromise in equal measure.
Thanks to Subaru’s updates over the years, it’s fared better than some when it comes to technology and safety, but I’d still implore you to pick the manual to truly experience this car as nature intended.
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.
I think Subaru was gunning for subtlety with the non-STi WRX. For a performance car, the design is a little sedate, with the WRX looking perhaps a little conservative to really stand apart from its Impreza sedan sibling, despite diverging from it some years ago.
There’s no mistaking the rally profile of the full-fat STi, with its huge wing and even bigger wheels, but here in the WRX premium it’s all a little toned down. Still, fans will love the absurd bonnet scoop, angry-looking alloys and quad exhaust. It’s stanced out a little by some flared bodywork, but the tiny lip spoiler at the back robs it of a bit of street cred. Perhaps it's to encourage you into the significantly more expensive STi…
Despite its relative age, though, the WRX still fits into Subaru’s lineup nicely. It has all the hallmarks; the small grille, the angled LED headlights, and the signature tall profile. The chunkiness is all there, too, both on the outside, with its flared bodywork and exaggerated scoop, and on the inside, with thick leather clad seat trim, and a chunky, satisfying steering wheel.
The abundance of red lighting in the dash cluster is reminiscent of the heyday of Japanese performance cars of years past, and while it’s not as plush on the inside as Subaru’s newer products, it’s not disappointing either, with nice use of soft trims.
The plethora of screens feels unnecessary, and the 7.0-inch multimedia unit is feeling very small now, compared to most more recent cars. At least the software has been updated since 2018 to have the more recent system used in the Impreza, Forester, and Outback. It’s simple and easy to use.
Compared to those Subarus, though, the WRX’s interior is feeling a little tired. It’s a bit small, and things like the CD drive and nastier plastic trims smattered around remind of days past for Subaru. It's a good thing the new WRX is coming soon.
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.
Compared to the more forward-thinking designs in Subaru Global Platfrom vehicles, the WRX is feeling a little claustrophobic on the inside. Still, you could do much worse in a performance car.
Front passengers get nicely trimmed bucket-style seats with good side bolstering. Like a lot of Subarus, the seating position isn’t exactly sporty. You sit quite high, and for someone my 182cm height, it feels as though you’re peering down over the bonnet a little. Aside from that, height adjustability is pretty good from the electric seat, and there is a small bottle holder in the door, plus dual cupholders in the centre, a small centre-console box, and a small tray under the climate unit.
Overall, the dark trims in here conspire to make the WRX’s cabin feel a bit tight. This continues for rear passengers. The WRX really is a small sedan and room isn’t great for me behind my own driving position, with my knees touching the front seat. I have to duck a little to get under the sedan’s roofline to get in, and while the decent trim continues, the seat feels a little high and flat.
Rear passengers get pockets on the backs of the front seats, a drop-down armrest with two cupholders, and a decent bottle holder in the doors. There are no adjustable rear air vents or power outlets, however.
Being a sedan, the WRX has a rather deep boot, coming in at 450-litres (VDA). This rivals some mid-size SUVs, but it’s worth noting the space isn’t quite as usable, with a small loading aperture, and it’s a little tight when it comes to the available height. Still, it consumed our largest 124-litre CarsGuide suitcase with ample space to spare.
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.
Price and features
The WRX Premium auto tested for this review is a sort of mid-spec variant. Wearing an MSRP of $50,590, it sits above the standard WRX auto ($43,990), but below the more hard-core WRX STi ($52,940 – manual only).
When you look for rivals, it’s a harsh reminder of the distinct lack of small performance sedans in today’s market. You might consider Subaru’s hero against the front-drive Golf GTi (Auto -$47,190), Skoda Octavia RS (Sedan auto - $51,490), and Hyundai i30 N Performance (manual only - $42,910). There’s a more direct rival coming soon in the form of the i30 N Performance sedan, which will also be available with an eight-speed dual-clutch auto, so look out for that in the near future, too.
While it's now the oldest Subaru on sale by quite a margin, the WRX has been augmented in recent times to offer more up-to-date features.
Standard are mean-looking 18-inch alloys clad in skinny Dunlop Sport rubber, full LED lighting, Subaru’s typical assault of screens, including a smallish looking 7.0-inch multimedia touchscreen (mercifully with updated software since I last drove this car), a 3.5-inch multifunction display in the instrument cluster, and a 5.9-inch dash-top-mounted display screen, digital radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, a CD player (how quaint), leather-accented interior trim, eight-way adjustable power seat for the driver, heated seats for front passengers, dual-zone climate control, and privacy tint for the rear windows.
The continuously variable automatic makes up the majority of WRX sales, so I’m told, which is particularly disappointing to hear. Especially given it’s a $3200 jump over the manual, and tarnishes the drive experience. More on this in the Driving section.
The WRX also comes with a safety suite that is impressive for a car of its vintage, which we’ll look at in the Safety section. Getting on it may be, but the WRX is surprising in how well it holds its own on the value front.
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.
Engine & trans
The WRX’s engine is a tuned-up version of Subaru’s signature horizontally opposed “boxer” four-cylinder. In this case it’s a 2.0-litre turbo unit (FA20) producing 197kW/350Nm, ample for a little sedan like this.
Disappointingly for me, our particular WRX premium was an automatic, and it’s not a great one. While most performance cars will drop in a lightning fast dual-clutch, or at least have the decency to offer a classic torque converter with clearly defined ratios, Subaru falls back on its rubbery continuously variable automatic, as derided in the rest of its mainstream range by enthusiasts.
We’ll explore this more in the Driving section of this review. It’s not as bad as you think it’s going to be, but it still doesn’t belong in a car like this.
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.
Fuel consumption is likely to be at the bottom of your list of concerns when it comes to a small performance sedan, but on the official/combined testing cycle, this car will consume a claimed 8.6L/100km of mid-shelf 95RON unleaded.
Over our week of mostly urban testing, our car produced an unsurprising 11.2L/100km, which is actually under the official urban number of 11.8L/100km. Not bad for a performance car, really.
The WRX has a relatively large fuel tank for its size at 60-litres.
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.
It truly pains me that this car is an automatic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m okay with an automatic performance car. Dual-clutch iterations of cars like the Golf R are great, but the WRX automatic is a CVT.
This transmission isn’t great in the brand’s regular range, let alone in a performance application, where snappy response and a predictable, linear riding out of the rev-range are really necessary to extract maximum enjoyment.
I was surprised to find the CVT isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Perhaps through sheer torque, the WRX does hammer into its 2400rpm peak torque band rather quickly, for an immediately impressive 0-100km/h sprint of around six seconds, but it’s beyond this point where you’ll start to get dull, rubbery, and occasionally hesitant response from the accelerator. Not particularly appealing attributes when you’re carving up a few corners.
Handling-wise, the WRX is excellent with its robust all-wheel-drive system and firm-to-a-fault suspension. This makes it a true joy to fling around bends, with equally firm and rewarding steering giving you a truly organic and controlled handle on what’s going on at the wheels.
Subaru’s boxer engine gives the WRX a signature gruff sound under acceleration, with some turbo noise to boot, but with this particular transmission you won’t be getting the satisfying turbo blips you can extract with a swift kick of a clutch pedal in the manual.
Driving it around town every day is a little rough, with a brittle and busy ride, while the heavy steering will get on your nerves when you’re just trying to park the thing.
The firm ride, large wheels, and slim tyres makes the cabin noisy at all speeds, and occasionally sends shockwaves through the front of the car if you’re unfortunate enough to hit a pothole. It’s hardly the most pleasant companion to have on a freeway.
Honestly, if you’re after an automatic performance car, there are better options out there both in terms of response and everyday comfort, although none are quite like a WRX. I’d implore you to pick the manual if you can, it’s a better, more engaging experience in every way.
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.
In good news for the WRX, Subaru’s signature EyeSight suite is mostly present here, albeit a slightly older version than the one that appears in its newer products. Regardless, key active items include auto emergency braking (works to 85km/h with brake-light recognition), lane-departure warning with lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, and auto high beams.
It misses out on reverse auto braking from more modern Subarus but features active torque vectoring to add to the standard suite of electronic aids like traction, brake, and stability controls.
The WRX has a maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating, although it dates way back to 2014, well before active safety items were even considered.
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.
Annoyingly, the WRX requires six-monthly or 12,500km service intervals, a hold-over from Subarus past. It’s not cheap, either, with each six-monthly visit costing between $319.54 and $819.43 (ouch) for the first 10 visits covering five years of ownership. It averages out to $916.81 per year for the first five years. These are numbers which rival some premium European options.
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.