Whether you deny it or not, a Honda Civic has probably become your attainable dream car at some point in your life. After all, the Civic was the definitive college car back in the day, and it certainly helped that it had a lot of fun and performance to back up its street cred. Though SUVs and crossovers have mostly relegated the sedan to second-tier status nowadays, the Civic still had its fans. There is one car, however, that aims to challenge the Civic’s heritage, and it’s coming from an unlikely source–China. Say hello to the 2023 GAC Empow.
Em… what now? Yes, it’s called the GAC Empow–which sounds like angpao (the red envelope you fill with money that’s given as a gift as part of a Chinese tradition) to the untrained ear. This isn’t the first time I’ve reviewed a GAC. In fact, apart from Geely, GAC makes some of the finest cars out of China, not just in terms of design, but more importantly, in the driving experience.
But before talking about the driving experience (spoiler alert, it’s going to surprise you in a good way), let’s talk about how the Empow looks. What we have here are two variants, the mid-spec GB and the range-topping GE that Auto PH’s Julian Panlilio brought for the comparison. The base GS is not available for us to test, leaving us with these two variants.
Peel away any of the flourishes that each variant has, you get a compact sedan that looks properly low, squat, and sporty. The front end also looks fundamentally handsome with a hexagonal grille, slim LED headlights, and enough lines and curves to make this sedan stand out. There’s a thick C-pillar that would’ve looked awkward, but in a stroke of genius, GAC added a chrome or gloss black (depending on the variant) trim piece that flows from the front of the windows all the way to the back. The sloped roofline neatly tapers to the trunk lid, and on it is a pair of inverted L-shaped LED taillights.
Now, depending on the variant, the 2023 GAC Empow has varying degrees of aggression. The range-topping GE comes with 18-inch wheels, yellow exterior trimmings, the option for this matte green paint, a sportier front end with a vertical grille pattern, side air dams, and quad rear exhausts. On the other hand, the mid-spec GB has a mesh grille that’s surrounded by a satin silver frame, smaller 17-inch wheels, and a rear bumper with faux exhaust outlets.
It’s also worth talking about its smart entry system. There’s no outside button to speak of because whenever you approach the car with the proximity key fob it’ll automatically unlock. Likewise, if you walk away, this is also what happens if you’re at the trunk. Stand near it, and it’ll open automatically, which is both a convenience and an annoyance if you simply want to stand next to your Empow while having a conversation or when you’re in a dangerous neighborhood.
Likewise, the interior of the 2023 GAC Empow is very good. Once again, strip away all the design flourishes and you’re left with an interior that looks both sporty and modern. Of course, the higher you go up the trim ladder, the nicer the interior becomes. The mid-spec GB comes with a black synthetic leather interior with the option for two-tone red, rear aircon vents, and a sunroof. On the other hand, the range-topping GE gets yellow highlights in the seats and seatbelts, glossy faux carbon trims, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, ambient LED lighting, dual-zone climate control, and a rear center armrest.
All variants come with a 7-inch digital instrument cluster and a 10.25-inch main infotainment screen. Both of the screens look nice, though I prefer the graphical interface of the Honda Civic. The tech works intuitively since there are still physical controls and the software is responsive. Oftentimes, you’d spot a menu where there’s a bit of awkward English but that’s about it. There’s also Apple CarPlay but not Android Auto, however.
Space and Practicality
Space is also very good on all two rows, though we do not have any numbers for trunk space. Visually, however, it still looks spacious enough, though the Civic’s square shape looks more practical and usable. In addition, the Empow sort of looks like it has a sloped roofline, and while that’s true, it doesn’t affect headroom at all. The Civic is still better in terms of legroom, but the Empow is still spacious by any measure.
Powering the 2023 GAC Empow is a 1.5-liter four-cylinder turbocharged gasoline engine that is excellently tuned. With 168 horsepower and 270 Nm of torque on tap. On paper, the Empow doesn’t stray away from the typical small displacement formula of Chinese brands that are dictated by China’s taxation regulations. Take it out for a drive, though, this is where you’ll notice the difference with GAC and other Chinese automakers.
That’s because most Chinese automakers usually focus on the sheer amount of features they offer next to more expensive mainstream brands. Take away these features, though, and you’re often left with a horrible vehicle with a subpar driving experience. That’s not the case with the Empow–or any GAC based on my experience.
The moment you start driving this car, you’ll be greeted with steering that feels precise and responsive but light enough at low speeds. There’s not much in the way of road feel, but it’s still enough to form a connection with the driver. Its seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is also one of the best at any price point. While it still has some lag at crawling speeds when the robotic clutch has to activate or deactivate, the roughness is so infrequent that 95 percent of the time, it shifts smoothly, responsively, and offers almost no parasitic loss when pulling away compared to the Civic’s CVT. As a result, the Empow pulls much harder than the Civic under hard acceleration.
Speaking of acceleration, that engine might be small, but it isn’t dependent on boost at all. It offers copious amounts of torque right from the get-go. If you splurge for the range-topping GE, it even comes with paddle shifters and even an active sports exhaust. It seriously gives the Empow more character, and the noise from the exhaust isn’t even just noise. It actually has a tone and not just the fart can loudness you hear from cheap aftermarket exhausts. If you don’t like it, just switch to Comfort more or turn the feature off while in Sport.
Then there’s also the chassis and suspension tuning. The highly-rigid chassis means it doesn’t suffer from any shakes or vibrations and at the same time, it makes the Empow a tidy canyon carver. The suspension is also great in terms of how it manages to balance ride and handling. Where the Empow pulls away further from the Civic is in terms of refinement. Hondas as of late have more road noise than the general competition, and that’s likewise the case in the Empow.
Fuel economy is also impressive considering the performance. 11-12.5 km/l was easy to achieve, though as I always mentioned in my reviews, I usually drive around Pampanga or Laguna where it’s mostly highways and barely any traffic. Under similar circumstances, the Civic also performs similarly.
And this is why the 2023 GAC Empow has left me so impressed. GAC makes cars that are fundamentally great to drive. The only thing left was to put that know-how into something fun and emotional. Well, as it turns out, they’ve succeeded with the Empow. The range-topping GE, with its added character, doesn’t just feel like a Civic rival at this point. It feels like what the WRX used to be. You know what, we know this will be a controversial verdict, but objectively speaking, GAC has somehow made a better, more emotional Civic.
But as good as this car is, what the Empow needs to overcome are the intangibles such as branding and heritage. Sporty it may be, more questions instead of amazement will be raised when you pull up at a car meet with an Empow as opposed to a souped-up Civic. But apart from these intangible factors, the Empow is tangibly to my experience, one of the best compact sedans in the market, period. It’s so good, it might be a contender for our own Car Of the Year at Go Flat Out PH.
Pricing and Rating
Exterior Design: ★★★★★
Interior Design: ★★★★☆
Space and Practicality: ★★★★☆
Safety and Driver Assistance: ★★★★★
Fuel Efficiency: ★★★★★
Value For Money: ★★★★★
Prices: P1,225,000 (GS), P1,305,000 (GB), P1,348,000 (GE)
Overall: 4.7 out of 5