They came to market with windup windows, two doors and a hatchback, the Honda Civic in 1973 and Volkswagen Rabbit in 1974. If they didn’t pioneer the hatchback, they popularized the format. Basic as they were, sales multiplied year by year as consumers determined they offered everything they needed in a car.
Needs change. Tastes too. The upmarket Golf TSI Execline and Civic Hatchback Sport Touring compared here match many premium models in features and technology.
The Civic is 968 millimetres longer than the original, while the Golf has grown 322 mm beyond the Rabbit. They’ve proliferated to include Golf Wagon, Golf GTI and R, Civic Sedan, Coupe and Type R. Still, their core identity remains clear: right-sized, reasonably priced, practical enough to win over a car-resistant spouse.
Even as SUVs rule these days, these two cars are outselling the popular crossovers in the respective automaker lineups. Civic’s long run as Canada’s favourite automobile continued in 2018 with 69,005 units sold, topping the crossover CR-V’s 54,879. At VW, the Golf and CR-V rival Tiguan finished neck and neck, 21,477 sales against the crossover’s 21,449.
Honda Civic Hatchback Sport Touring
- Base price/as tested: $23,876 for LX, $33,976 (includes freight/PDI/air-con tax)
- Engine: 1.5-litre turbocharged four cylinder with direct fuel injection
- Transmission/Drive: Continuously variable automatic/Front-wheel
- Fuel consumption (litres/100 km): 7.9 city/6.6 hwy
Volkswagen Golf TSI Execline
- Base price/as tested: $22,500 for Comfortline/$34,915 for Execline (including $1,750 driver assistance package, freight/PDI/fees)
- Engine: 1.4-litre turbocharged four cylinder with direct fuel injection
- Transmission/Drive: Eight-speed automatic/Front-wheel
- Fuel consumption (litres/100 km): 8.2 city/6.3 hwy
Civic: Polarizing as men’s fashions, the rococo Sport Touring model demands attention with details both artful and awful. Aero splitter beneath the front bumper artful, phony matte black rear air vents the latter.
Golf: The Rimowa suitcase of hatchbacks owes much to the original Rabbit/Golf that Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ItalDesign created for Volkswagen. Giugiaro turns 81 this August, but his stout C-pillars tapering forward to a simple horizontal grille appear forever young.
Civic: A longer wheelbase provides superior legroom. The lower roofline means reduced rear headroom despite Honda’s thinner seat cushions; it requires twisting through the rear door to avoid bumping one’s head. Ah, but heated seats back there reward the effort.
Golf: Boxiness has its advantages, beginning with ease of getting in and out. Golf’s extra 21 mm in front headroom (18 mm rear) encourages powering the 12-way driver’s seat upward for a superior viewpoint of the road ahead. Execline models include leather seats, as does Honda’s Sport Touring, but lack Civic’s rear-seat warming.
Civic: The smooth leather steering wheel immediately feels great and feels even better with the discovery the Civic corners flat and precise, tracks unperturbed in strong crosswinds, never tugs this way and that in a winter storm with the torque steer typical of front-drive cars.
The Sport Touring smacks into submission the myriad craters of winter-ravaged highways, but slams over Toronto’s Grade A potholes.
The turbocharged 1.5-litre engine combines with an excellent continuously variable transmission for strong acceleration – and a sorry drone at higher engine speeds.
In our mostly city driving, the Sport Touring averages 9.0 litres per 100 kilometres. The small tank (46.9 litres) requires more frequent stops for gas than most.
Golf: Comfort is the TSI Execline’s priority. It doesn’t corner with the same composure as the Civic, but copes with Grade A Toronto potholes more successfully.
The Golf feels more agile – an impression confirmed by its tighter turning circle of 10.9 metres, against the Civic’s 11.4.
The new powertrain is a marvel. Only 1.4 litres in displacement, the turbocharged engine is light in horsepower as well as weight, but with the automatic transmission increased to eight gears from the former six, peak pulling power is achieved in a split second.
It’s blissfully tranquil in steady state cruising, yet snarls to 6,000 rpm in foot-to-the-floor acceleration. Over 323 km of mostly highway driving our test drive yields fuel consumption of 7.2 litres per 100 km.
Civic: Signal a right-turn and the seven-inch screen reveals what’s normally in your blind spot. LaneWatch is standard in the Sport Touring along with adaptive cruise, lane-keeping assisted steering, emergency braking, mirror-integrated turn signals, navigation, wireless charging and 12-speaker, 522-watt audio.
Golf: Lane assist tugs the steering wheel more assertively than most such systems, including the Civic’s, evidence of Volkswagen’s focus on self-driving cars.
The stated intention is to prevent unintentionally driving off the road or into an adjacent lane, but the test car steers itself around turns on the 401 for six seconds before a “Bing” warning and a “Take over steering” message appears below the steering wheel.
Volkswagen packages lane assist in a must-have $1,750 option group along with blind spot detection, adaptive cruise and autonomous braking with pedestrian monitoring.
Standard in the Execline, reversing produces an unusually bright image on the eight-inch screen that is particularly impressive in low-light conditions. Excellent Fender premium audio and LED headlamps with cornering lights also are included.
Civic: The rear seat folds nearly flat, as does the Volkswagen’s, but yields less space overall, 1308 litres – despite more room in the luggage area behind the seat, 728 litres. Civic can conceal a fortune in contraband either side of the spare tire, but the Golf can’t. While both cars have cargo tie-downs, only the Civic offers a light and 12V socket.
Golf: Advantage Volkswagen with the rear seat folded forward, rated at 1521 litres. Seat up, 493 litres is clearly second-best – but the boxiness of the cavity still holds seven boxes of Shiraz-Cabernet, same as the Civic.
This Civic model best suits a 35-and-under driver; the substance of the Golf Execline seems just about right.
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