New 1.6 diesel engine for Honda Civic
An all-new 1.6-litre diesel engine turns the Honda Civic into a genuine contender for class honours.
Good points: terrific engine, quality, chassis, space, practicality, economy.
Not so good: numb steering, some refinement issues, polarising styling.
Test car details:
Model tested: Honda Civic 1.6 i-DTEC ES
Pricing: €25,095 (Civic range starts at €21,895)
Engine: 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder diesel
Transmission: six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Body style: five-door hatchback
Rivals: Ford Focus, Toyota Auris, Volkswagen Golf
CO2 emissions: 94g/km (Band A2, €180 per annum)
Combined economy: 78.5mpg (3.6 litres/100km)
Top speed: 207km/h
0-100km/h: 10.5 seconds
Power: 120hp at 4,000rpm
Torque: 300Nm at 2,000rpm
There came a point, during my time with the new Civic 1.6 diesel, where I pulled up to a stop, at the end of yet another journey picking up/dropping off my kids (delete as appropriate) and I realised I simply did not want the journey to end. That is really not supposed to happen in a 1.6-litre Japanese hatchback.
Then again, the Honda Civic is no ordinary Japanese hatchback. There's the styling, for a start. It's not merely a case that some will love it and some will hate it, but that some will love it from some angles or at certain times of day, and will hate it at others. It's self-consciously oddball, but at least that makes it stand out against a crowd of fellow hatchbacks that all follow too religiously the me-too route when it comes to styling. Just because you're taking on the Golf, doesn't mean you have to look like the Golf, after all...
The cabin will have a similar polarising effect, as the profusion of displays, dials and scattered buttons will quite likely drive you to distraction. The controls for configuring the trip computer are quite honestly maddening and it took me half a day to figure out how to connect my mobile phone to the Bluetooth system. There's also simply no need to have two massive dials - one for the fuel gauge, one for the engine temp, and have so much unused dashboard real-estate elsewhere.
And yet, just as you feel your anger rising, you realise just how well put together everything is in there. Just how good even the lowliest plastics in the cabin feel, how smooth and silky the leather on the steering wheel is to the touch and how cocooned and safe you feel with the way the fascia sweeps around into the door panel. It's then that you remember just how justifiably famed Honda is for its build quality and reliability. It's a pleasantly reassuring sensation. Add to that sensation the comfort of the front seats and the sheer amount of space on offer, and suddenly you start to forgive the messy dial layout and incomprehensible trip computer.
Then there's the fact that the Civic is so spacious and useful. Quite apart from the fact that it offers better legroom in the back seats than pretty much anything else in the class bar the new Skoda Octavia, there's also the clever 'Magic Seats' in the back. Flip them down flat for a trip to IKEA. Flip them up vertically for a trip to the tall potted plant shop. Or just to make you feel like you're visiting the cinema, whichever. There's also a massive boot out the back, although it's worth pointing out that some of the 477 litre on offer is due to Honda having quietly left even a space-save spare wheel in the back of the factory. Just try to avoid potholes...
The thing is, even if you do hit a pothole, you may not notice it all that much. Honda came in for much criticism with the last-generation Civic when it abandoned its traditional devotion to all-round double-wishbone suspension in favour of a more affordable struts-up-front-torsion-bar-down-the-back setup. True, a torsion bar will never give you the kind of control or dynamism of a multi-link or wishbone suspension, but in fairness, with this Civic, Honda's engineers have made it about as good as it can be. The car always feels firm and planted on the road, but it manages never to jiggle or get uncomfortable over rough surfaces. It's a decent compromise, even if you know it could have been so much better.
Could have been so much better is certainly something you could say about the steering. Quite how Honda has arrived at such a lifeless, numb-feeling setup is simply beyond me. It's doubly annoying when you realise how grippy and agile the Civic is when you push through the mush. It's a genuinely well-handling car, but you have to go in search of the sensations that tell you that.
At least the engine is unimpeachable. Well, almost so. Honda's new 1.6-litre diesel is of course related to its more familiar 2.2-litre oil burner, but it's much more sophisticated and is in fact the lightest such engine in its class. Honda has squeezed an impressive 120hp out of it at a time when most of the competition is offering around 10-15hp less, and its 300Nm of torque is well ahead of anything else in the class. The result is a car that feels exceptionally brisk, verging on the sporty (helped by the lovely mechanical feel to the six-speed gearshift) and yet one that doesn't punish enthusiastic driving at the pumps. A week in the Civic yielded an average of 4.8 litres per 100km - better than 65mpg and we probably could have gotten closer to Honda's quoted average of 3.8 litres/100km if we'd turned off the air conditioning and used a slightly lighter right foot. The 94g/km of CO2 is a best-in-class figure too, at least until the new Golf BlueMotion arrives. The downside is some occasionally poor refinement. At a steady cruise, it's a quiet enough engine, but a light touch on the throttle yields an odd gurgling noise, while a heftier touch brings with it a full-on diesel rumble. It's not excessive, but others keep their noises better suppressed.
While Honda is often accused of pitching its cars at too expensive a level, the refreshing thing about the Civic diesel is that it's right on the class average for price, and slightly ahead of most of the competition on spec. So for the €25k of our ES spec test car, you get Bluetooth (once you figure out how to use it), a reversing camera, 16-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, six airbags, LED daytime running lights and more. It certainly compares well to what you'd get in a Ford, Volkswagen or Toyota.
Actually, I really think Honda has cracked it with this specific Civic model. The 1.6 diesel is an absolute gem and its performance in terms of CO2 and fuel economy has really snapped this generation of Civic into focus. Yes, the steering is awful and the styling will continue to divide, but honestly? If I were spending my own money, I'd be getting into one of these way ahead of a Golf, Focus or Auris.
Ford Focus: a better chassis than the Civic, but nowhere near as spacious and practical.
Toyota Auris: will doubtless be as reliable as the Civic, but it's vanilla compared to the Civic's bursting citrus flavours.
Volkswagen Golf: king of the hatchback hill, but the Civic can match it for quality and its engine is better.