IT is said that when Toyota’s big-wigs first saw the new Honda Civic hatchback, they swiftly gave the designers of the next Corolla a collective kick up the backside and sent them back to the drawing board. Industry gossip is that the next Corolla would simply have been too conservative by comparison – a rather unappealing prospect for Toyota, a company desperately trying to project a sportier, more youthful image…
Whether this tale is true we don’t know, but one thing is for sure. Most things would look conservative when placed next to a new Honda Civic. Even Elton John would. But what about Seat’s dashing León, which we tested for the first time last month? Would Japanese futurism be a match for hot-blooded Latin good looks? Rather more importantly, has the Honda been compromised by its extreme design? Whatever the case may turn out to be, for nonconformist buyers in the market for spacious family hatchbacks, the Honda Civic and Seat León can’t be ignored.
COMPARATIVE TEST DESIGN
Honda Civic 17/20
Seat León 17/20
These are two cars with extremely polarising styling. In both cases, you’ll either love it, or hate it. We like both, but for different reasons. The Seat is the prettier of the two, with curves in all the right places, and a low and sporty stance. The tapering side crease is a masterstroke and adds to the overall coherence and individuality of the design. And although they are nothing new, the hidden rear door handles also work well on this design. Our test car was fitted with the optional Sport pack, which adds 17-inch alloy wheels. Without them we feel the car may look a little under-tyred.
The Honda is not pretty in the classical sense. But you have to applaud the brave design. A glass panel runs across the width of the front linking the two headlamps. It reminds us a bit of Judge Dredd’s helmet. Stand in front of the car and you’ll also notice that it doesn’t seem to have normal corners – an illusion created by the almost triangular design of the front bumper. In fact, triangles also feature in the design of the door handles, exhaust outlets and front foglamps. Move to the rear and there is a “double-decker” rear window, split by a bulge that also contains the third brake light. Overall, the Civic looks fantastically futuristic from some angles, but rather odd from others.
COMPARATIVE TEST POWERTRAIN
Honda Civic 16/20
Seat León 16/20
The León is powered by the Volkswagen Group’s impressive 2,0-litre FSI engine with stratified fuel injection. At low engine loads, such as cruising at constant speed, the engine injects a weaker mixture of air and petrol, which results in more economical running. This d-o-h-c, four valves per cylinder engine delivers 110 kW at 6 000 r/min and 200 N.m of torque at 3 500. A six-speed manual gearbox transmits power to the front wheels.
At start-up the motor is surprisingly rattly, but this characteristic disappears when driving, when you’ll be impressed with the torquey nature of the power delivery. The engine pulls cleanly from low revs, making it an immensely drivable unit. And the gearbox is a typical Volkswagen offering, with clearly defined gates and a chunky shift action.
The new Civic hatch is powered by the same 1,8-litre i-VTEC engine found in the Civic saloon. It delivers 103 kW at 6 300 r/min and 174 N.m of torque at 4 200. But it is not nearly as peaky as previous VTEC engines, providing reasonable torque in the mid-range and plenty of oomph, as you’d expect, at higher engine speeds. It’s only really on pull-away that the low torque may result in a bit of a stumble. And, as the test results show, as good as the Civic feels in isolation, it can’t match the overtaking grunt of the León.
Like the Seat, the new Civic uses a six-speed manual gearbox, and, as is usually the case, the Honda transmission is magnificently slick in its operation.
Subjectively, the León feels the sportier of the two, because of its rortier engine note and low-down grunt. The Civic’s engine comes across as slightly more refined than the León’s, especially at idle. But the relatively short gearing in sixth means that the Honda’s engine is always audible when cruising at around 120 km/h.
COMPARATIVE TEST COMFORT AND FEATURES
Honda Civic 16/20
Seat León 14/20
If you thought the Honda’s exterior looked strange… wait until you see what’s inside! It again features the two-tier instrument panel that we’ve already seen on the Civic saloon. And the basic look is much the same, but the detailing is rather astonishing. Fronting the driver is a boomerang- like panel, trimmed in shiny piano-key black plastic and with a central three-dimensional revcounter. Nearer the base of the windscreen is a smaller, separate display for the speedo, which can become obscured by the top of the steering wheel, depending on the driver’s settings. It also includes an F1-style “change-up” rev indicator, and a somewhat gimmicky economy indicator (a row of illuminated green dots shows whether you’re driving economically, or not).
The centre hangdown section is angled towards the front passenger and contains the controls for the radio/CD/MP3 player. The knobs for the ventilation/climate control are mounted on the black panel to the left of the steering wheel. Words cannot really describe how odd it all looks at first. But, thankfully, the extreme design has not really affected the ergonomics. It just takes a while to get used to. Oh, and by the way, the steering wheel isn’t even completely round!
Perceived quality is good, but some of the plastics feel less substantial than in previous Civics. Also, we noticed some creaking from the steering column/facia and a few spots of rough finish lower down on some of the plastic mouldings…
Using packaging lessons learned with the superb Jazz supermini – the Civic’s fuel tank, for example, is located under the front seats – the Honda’s cabin is very spacious, perhaps class-leading. We measured an impressive 220 mm rear legroom figure, compared with the León’s 160 mm.
Specification levels are also high, with the Civic featuring a leatherwrapped, height/reach adjustable steering wheel with remote audio controls, climate control, radio/CD/ MP3 player, height-adjustable driver’s seat, six airbags, suede upholstery and electrically adjustable and heated rear-view mirrors. One omission, which is a direct result of the styling, is the lack of a rear window wiper.
The León’s interior is a bit of a disappointment after the attractive exterior. The hangdown section is essentially just a vast expanse of flat, grey plastic, with a tacky-looking display screen for the radio/CD player and many small, poorly marked buttons. The instrument panel is much better – a small central rev counter flanked by the temperature/fuel tank and speedo gauges. Quality of trim and build is reasonable all-round, but not as good as, for example, a Golf’s.
The León is not badly specced – radio/CD player, air-conditioning, six airbags, automatic headlamps and wipers, tyre pressure monitor, height-adjustable driver’s seat and a height/reach adjustable steering wheel with remote audio controls are standard.
The León is a spacious car, but the Civic has moved the game on. The Honda not only has more rear legroom, but also the bigger boot (312 dm³ vs 272) and more utility space (1 120 dm³ vs 952).
The driving positions of both cars are easy to fine-tune, and the seats are just about equally good in both, too. The dark cabin of the León fits in with the sportier handling and engine sound, whereas the Civic’s dual-tone cream/black interior is more airy. Both cars are comfortable over longer distances, but the León is comparatively noisy, with higher levels of tyre, wind and engine noise. Add the Civic’s space advantage and it must win this category.
COMPARATIVE TEST PERFORMANCE AND BRAKING
Honda Civic 14/20
Seat León 16/20
The Seat has 7 kW and 26 N.m more at its disposal than the Civic, but it weighs a good 92 kg more, too. This results in identical power/ weight ratios of 79 W/kg. So they were bound to be closely matched on our test strip.
The León sprints to 100 km/h in 9,93 seconds and on to a top speed of 205 km/h. The Civic is slightly faster over the benchmark sprint test, taking only 9,72 seconds, but it has the lower top speed (198 km/h). So, really, there is nothing in it.
However, our overtaking acceleration runs showed the León to be significantly more flexible than the Honda. In the real world, the end-result of this is that overtaking a vehicle travelling at a reasonable speed may require a downshift or two in the Civic, whereas the extra torque of the Seat may obviate the need for a gearchange.
From engine power to stopping power… The Seat León has 288 mm ventilated discs in front and 255 mm solids at the rear. ABS with EBD is standard, but our car also had optional EBA (emergency brake assist), which is part of the R10 000 Sport pack that also includes ESP. In our emergency stopping test routine (10 stops from 100 km/h), the León registered an average time of 2,92 seconds.
The Civic has 282 mm ventilated discs at the front and 260 mm solids at the rear. Assistance is provided by ABS with EBD. Vehicle stability assist (VSA), Honda’s version of ESP, is standard.
So, impressive then on paper, but in reality we were a little disappointed with the Honda’s braking performance. It achieved a test average of 3,1 seconds, but towards the end of the admittedly extremely punishing routine the brakes started exhibiting some fade, and the pedal started “going soft”. Our first stop took 2,93 seconds, and the last two both took 3,24. In normal, even enthusiastic, driving, the brakes were never troublesome, but still… the results should have been better.
COMPARATIVE TEST FUEL ECONOMY
Honda Civic 17/20
Seat León 14/20
No question here, the Civic’s fuel index figure of 7,68 litres/100 km makes it easily the more economical car of the two. A full 50-litre tank should give a range of 651 km. The smaller capacity engine helps, of course, but we must say we’ve been impressed with Honda’s i-VTEC technology, which even on our 2,4-litre Accord (with automatic transmission) long-termer achieves impressive fuel economy. But driven enthusiastically, the figure will rise to around 9,5 litres/100km.
The León’s fuel index figure is 9,72 litres/100 km, which equates to a 55-litre tank range of 567 km.
COMPARATIVE TEST RIDE AND HANDLING
Honda Civic 15/20
Seat León 16/20
Sporty dynamics have been a high priority for the makers of both cars. The Seat rides on the Golf 5’s acclaimed multi-link rear suspension, but it has been further developed for use in the León – Seat calls it the “Agile Chassis concept”. Basically, it means that the Seat engineers have fine-tuned the steering, suspension and brakes to make it as “sporty” as possible. As we’ve mentioned before, our test León had the optional Sport pack, which includes a host of electronic driving aids including ESP, EBD, EDL (electronic differential lock), traction control and DSR (driver steering recommendation). Last mentioned is essentially an electronic system that makes small steering corrections when the car’s brain detects oversteer.
On the road the León exhibits a firm, but not uncomfortable ride. In fact, as far as sporty hatches go, it feels really good from the moment the wheels start rolling. Subjectively, the steering feels more direct than the Golf’s. Pick up speed and the composure is good, too – the León is dynamically one of the better vehicles in this segment. Body control is impressive, especially under braking, and the front end resists understeer well. It is a very entertaining drive.
The one really odd part of the Honda Civic’s mechanical make-up has been the decision to dump the previous (and highly rated) multilink rear suspension set-up in favour of a cheaper, more compact torsion beam arrangement. Honda says the torsion beam axle was selected because of packaging considerations, and because it is a more rigid system under cornering.
In the end, it all doesn’t matter much, because the Civic handles and rides very well indeed. The steering, especially, impresses. Usually, electronically assisted systems are too light in feel, too vague and not very precise. Well, somehow the Honda’s steering feels just about spot-on. With a ratio of 2,4 turns lock-to-lock, it allows for very quick turn-in, which makes the Civic feel quite pointy. Enthusiastic drivers will love this.
But overall the Seat is the more “mechanical-feeling” car. Its handling characteristics are more progressive, making it more fluid to drive really fast. The Honda, good steering apart, feels somehow “electronic” in all aspects. The driver is just that little bit detached from the action. But seeing as the Seat’s superb road manners seem to have come at the price of higher levels of NVH (noise, vibration and harshness), some buyers will undoubtedly prefer the more refined feel of the Honda.
COMPARATIVE TEST VALUE FOR MONEY
Honda Civic 17/20
Seat León 14/20
As a result of Seat South Africa’s decision to premium price its products, the R213 000 León is at an immediate disadvantage. It is not badly specced at all, but the R204 000 Civic matches the Seat’s trim-level almost item-for-item, and adds, amongst others, automatic climate control. There can be little doubt that the Honda offers superior value for money.
COMPARATIVE TEST VERDICT
Honda Civic 15/20
Seat León 12/20
These are not cars for conservative folk, that’s for sure!
Irrespective of its premium pricing, we like the Seat León. It is an attractive, well-engineered car that is also fun to drive. Unfortunately, the beauty is somewhat skin-deep. The interior design and execution are uninspired. And although the dynamics are superb, the car comes across as slightly unrefined. Now take its comparatively high price into consideration, and it faces an uphill battle against a rival as good as the new Civic hatch.
The Honda’s brave design doesn’t only result in attention grabbing styling, but also an incredibly spacious interior. And subjective opinions on appearance aside, nothing (except the lack of a rear wiper) about the Civic has been compromised by the design. It is a refined, entertaining and economical hatchback that is as successful in a family role as it is as a sporty driving companion.
So, we’ll be brave and take the wasabi sauce then…