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At a time when even a basic compact car costs $30,000, it’s worth remembering when they were bad.

A little over a decade ago, I’d been assigned the job of test-driving what was, then, a popular compact sedan for a now-defunct website. Which car isn’t important because this one was subpar, but not uncommonly so; let’s call it Plastic Car.

It was uninspired to an impressive degree. Plastic Car could reliably get a passenger from A to B, but upon arriving, any passenger would be happy to exit the cabin, a patchwork of hard grey plastic in various shades. Whoever designed this thing must have lost all joie de vivre and was clearly just going through the motions.

Plastic Car had steering that felt springy and vague, as if connected to the front wheels by a Slinky. It wandered at highway speeds, weaving back and forth, and never felt planted on the road. In a moderately fast corner, lean heavily on its front outside wheel and plow through, pushing the poor front tires toward habitual understeer. It was as if this little machine could barely muster the strength to do anything except go straight. Its tires lacked grip and would squeal in protest at the slightest provocation. It was built for getting places, cheaply, and that was it.

Fast forward to the 2023 Honda Civic. It’s the latest version of one of Plastic Car’s key rivals, and it is, without a doubt, incredibly good. It’s not just good for a basic compact car; it’s a good car.

The way it turns into corners so eagerly, with instant bite, a tenacious front grip and little body-roll, feels – and this is only a slight exaggeration – more like a Porsche than the sad, sloppy compact cars of old.

The new Civic’s interior is a lovely piece of industrial design too, with a smart, uncluttered dashboard. The climate control knobs have a pleasing, knurled edge. The seats are just right and the cabin is a genuinely nice place to be. I felt no simmering desire to get out.

Crucially, the new Civic also looks good, desirable even, and certainly not like some crummy econobox designed by somebody who didn’t care.

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It’s not perfect, of course. The continuously variable transmission (CVT) automatic gearbox is fine but it feels imprecise and ultimately lets down what could be a peppy 1.5-litre, 180-horsepower turbocharged engine in the top-of-the-line Civic Touring. More physical buttons and a dial to control the infotainment system would help reduce driver distraction. And, is it really so hard to put some colour other than grey or black in the cabin?

Still, the new Civic is almost universally lauded as the class leader these days, and that’s saying something when it’s up against compact giants like the new tech-filled Hyundai Elantra, the sharp new Toyota Prius hybrid, and the almost-luxurious Mazda3.

The standards are much higher than they were 10 years ago – the days of dreadful econoboxes like Plastic Car are coming to an end – but the catch is that even small cars are becoming expensive.

Neither Toyota, Hyundai nor Honda sell a vehicle for less than $20,000 any more. (RIP little Honda Fit.)

The price of a new Civic in Canada has wandered up and down over the years. In 2007, it was the equivalent of $23,700. Ten years ago, the cheapest model was $15,690, or $19,800 in today’s dollars. Sadly, the cheapest new 2023 Civic will set you back $26,285. Including freight, fees and taxes, that’s more than $30,000. Yikes.

A spokesperson for Honda Canada explained the new model’s price hike, saying the car now has a “more premium look” as well as a long list of advanced new safety and technology features.

Nevertheless, the Toyota Corolla is $2,400 cheaper, while the excellent new Hyundai Elantra is $5,300 less. (Although depending on the options you choose, prices for both can climb to more than $30,000 too.)

Sticker shock might explain why, after nearly a quarter-century, Honda lost its crown as the best-selling car in Canada to the Corolla in 2022. Or it could just be because Honda couldn’t build enough Civics. As market research firm DesRosiers Automotive Consultants noted, Toyota pulled ahead in a year of semiconductor shortages and empty dealer lots. What Canada’s best-selling car ranking looks like after supply normalizes is anyone’s guess.

If the Civic manages to thrive despite its lofty price, you can bet rivals will raise their prices too. We’ve already seen that high prices haven’t been a deal-breaker for Canadian drivers.

Last year, even as interest rates climbed, the Civic and Corolla were outsold by Toyota’s $35,000 RAV4 compact SUV. The average asking price for a new car on AutoTrader’s online marketplace hit a record of $61,821 in the first quarter of this year, up from around $47,000 just two years ago. A $30,000 Honda Civic almost doesn’t seem so bad. Almost.

On the one hand, yes, that is a big pile of money for a basic compact car. On the other hand, it’s not really basic, nor is it particularly compact, and it’s great; a new Civic will likely last more than 300,000 kilometres and run for well over a decade. Buh-bye Plastic Car.

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