I can't stop looking at the 2022 Honda Civic's dashboard

I had to Google what the outgoing Honda Civic's dashboard looks like, and then wished I hadn't bothered. Honda's compact may be a lot of things – affordable, economical, surprisingly spritely to drive, and a gateway for new owners to the automaker's brand – but being memorable for its cabin wasn't one of them. That all changes with the new 2022 Honda Civic Sedan.

Officially unveiled yesterday, the 11th Generation Civic is an important car in many respects. For Honda, it's a crucial point of entry to ownership among younger drivers, a first taste which often sees them go on to replace their Civic with an Accord, a CR-V, or something else from the automaker's line-up.

It's never been a bad place to start, either. Civic has built a reputation for pleasant motoring, and though outliers like the Civic Type R have added a legitimate enthusiast spin, the everyday Civic sedan and hatchback models are perennially well-rated for things like practicality and reliability. If there's been a problem, it's been with personality.

The Civic dashboard has come to epitomize that hurdle. First, it was bland; then, Honda set to redesigning it, and it just got weird. Eleven generations is a long time to tinker – and Honda has sold 12+ million Civic cars in the US alone since 1973 – not to mention the mid-cycle refreshes and tweaks, but it's taken almost five decades for the automaker to arrive on something legitimately, memorably good.

The 2022 Civic's dashboard... does not look like what you'd expect from a Honda dashboard. The switchgear and knobs seem more thoughtful and restrained; fully-digital driver instrumentation is available on the top-level Touring trim. That also gets the biggest infotainment touchscreen on any Honda so-far, at 9-inches, plus a new and much improved UI.

What stands out most, though, is the cabin-spanning honeycomb mesh. Honda, being Honda, can't help but espouse its practical benefits: it helps hide the air vents, which typically add visual clutter to a dashboard. At the same time, though, it's a legitimately joyful piece of styling, not least for how the automaker has carried through on the detailing.

Those hidden vents, for example, aren't adjusted with pedestrian plastic tabs. Instead, glorious little joystick controllers protrude through the swathe of mesh, just begging you to twiddle them like you would on an 8-bit games console.

Honda hasn't been incapable of good design. The Clarity Fuel Cell demonstrated that it could punch above its weight for premium materials and general cohesiveness, though even then the hydrogen-powered car's charm was more around the uptick of cabin quality than outright aesthetics. More recently, the Honda e all-electric hatchback – not sold in the US – proved to be an intriguing combination of high-tech with almost retro elements.

The 2022 Civic is as huge a leap forward as that EV, but without being quite so divisive. It's a reminder that mass market vehicles needn't sacrifice strong, cohesive design, and that mainstream cars can swing the needle more aggressively than luxury models and exotics. Bentley may be artisans with leather and wood veneer, McLaren the kings of exposed carbon fiber, and Pagani capable of turning a gear shifter into a work of art, but far, far more people will experience the new Civic cabin than the interiors of any of those automakers' wares.

Time will tell whether the all-important feel of the switchgear lives up to the looks in the new Civic. Honda's typical focus on practicality suggests we can probably expect sturdy materials, even if plastic will almost certainly feature strongly over more expensive alternatives. Pricing for the 2022 Civic hasn't be confirmed, but it's never carried a premium tag and that doesn't seem likely to change in this 11th generation.

What has changed is how compelling the Civic can be from more than a sensible standpoint. Like it or hate it, you at least remember the inside of this new Honda. Here's hoping that willingness to take some style risks continues as the automaker refreshes the rest of its range – and pushes hard into EVs.